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Dusty Springfield, OBE (April 16, 1939 √ March 2, 1999) was a British popular singer whose career spanned more than forty years. She achieved her most notable success during the 1960's.
Early life and group career
She was born in West Hampstead, London as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, and was a fan of American jazz and a great lover of pop singer Peggy Lee's music from an early age.
Her first professional musical experience was with the group Lana Sisters, a British vocal group she joined in 1958 and recorded several singles with over the next two years. In 1960, she and her brother, Dion, and Tim Feild formed The Springfields, a folk trio. Mary took the name Dusty Springfield after forming the group, and her brother Dion took the name Tom Springfield. They chose Springfield as they thought it best suited a former tomboy, as Mary was known to have been. They soon became a popular act in Britain with singles such as "Breakaway", "Bambino" and their biggest hit "Island of Dreams". By 1962, the Springfields had some success in the United States with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles".
During a tour of the United States, The Springfields travelled to Nashville, Tennessee. Springfield became enamoured of the Motown sound she heard in the States, particularly girl groups like Martha & The Vandellas. She was keen to escape the controlling influence of her older brother and gain full command over her music, so in late 1963, she left The Springfields to establish herself as a soul singer. Her brother, meanwhile, moved into songwriting and production, scoring major hits in the UK, USA and Australia as producer and primary songwriter for the UK-based Australian folk-pop band The Seekers.
Her first single was "I Only Want to Be With You", which was a success in both Britain and the United States. This was followed by a series of classic and successful singles, including "Wishin' and Hopin'", "Anyone Who Had a Heart"', "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", "Stay Awhile" and "All Cried Out". Springfield recorded a number of Bacharach-David compositions, including "The Look of Love" (from the 1967 movie Casino Royale, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 1967.) By 1964, Springfield was one of the biggest solo artists of her day. She created a controversy when she refused to play in front of a segregated crowd in South Africa. She was often a featured artist on the British music show Ready Steady Go!, produced by Vicki Wickham, who would later become her manager.
Springfield's huge UK success led to her starring in her own musical variety series, Dusty (1967), which also featured many leading stars of the day as guests. One of the most memorable was Jimi Hendrix , who appeared in a duet with Springfield on the song "Mockingbird". (The master videotape of this memorable appearance was later erased, although a brief fragment of Hendrix's performance on the show, filmed directly off the TV screen by a fan, has survived.) Because of her interest in Motown music, Springfield was selected in 1965 to host The Sound of Motown, a special which introduced Motown and American soul music to British audiences. (In the 1997 video biography, Dusty — Full Circle, several of the musicians that participated, most notably Martha Reeves, credited the media exposure, and Springfield's advocacy of the music, with helping them to break into the British pop charts.)
She also released such classic singles as "Losing You", "Your Hurtin' Kinda Love" and "In the Middle of Nowhere", culminating in her biggest hit, and her first UK #1 single, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me". Springfield had heard the song at the Sanremo Music Festival and obtained an acetate of the song, but didn't move to record it until nearly a year later, when she was recording new material. Her manager, Vicki Wickham, and collaborator Simon Napier-Bell reportedly wrote English lyrics for the song in the back of a cab en route to the sessions. Like so many other solo singers who did not write their own material (such as Tom Jones), Springfield's recording career was dependent on the quality of the material she could obtain, and by the end of the decade top-notch material was becoming harder to find -- Carole King, who had written "Going Back" for her, was embarking on a solo career, and the chart-busting Bacharach-David partnership was foundering.
Her status in the music industry was further complicated by the gradual fracturing of the formerly homogeneous "pop" market into many distinct musical genres in the late 1960s. She found herself becoming "unhip" at a time when hipness was crucial for musical success, and in addition her performing career was becoming hopelessly bogged down on the mudane UK touring circuit, which at that time largely consisted of working men's clubs and the hotel and cabaret circuit. Neither of these options provided an appropriate outlet for the wide range of material she wished to perform.
Hoping to revive her career and credibility and wishing to return to her soul roots, she signed with Atlantic Records, home label of her idol Aretha Franklin, and she began recording an album in Memphis, Tennessee with producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd. The Memphis sessions were a challenger for Wexler, who was astounded by Springfield's infamous perfectionism, which she later attributed to her deep insecurity and her very real anxiety about being compared to the soul greats who had recorded there. In the end, the Memphis tracking sessions were completed without any major work being done on the vocals -- in fact almost all her vocals were cut some weeks later in New York with Tom Dowd -- who later revealed that he had to dodge "a flying ashtray" hurled at him by an angry Springfield.
Despite the problems with its production, the album, Dusty in Memphis became her magnum opus and is still regarded as one of the best soul albums of all time; it has landed on several "best of all time" lists, including lists compiled by Rolling Stone magazine in the United States, and Q music magazine in Britain. The album is best known for "Son of a Preacher Man", which was a hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States, though the album itself was a commercial disappointment. The song enjoyed a significant revival in the 1990s thanks to its inclusion on the best-selling soundtrack for the film Pulp Fiction (1994).
"Son of a Preacher Man" also encapsulates some of the ironies of Springfield's career, and how she perceived herself in comparison to other artists. It had initially been offered to Aretha Franklin, but she turned it down. Franklin later recorded the song, and Springfield felt Franklin's version was superior, especially Franklin's phrasing in the chorus. She thereafter always performed the song with the phrasing Franklin had used.
The Seventies and Eighties: "The Lost Years"
In the same year, A Brand New Me (1970) was just as unsuccessful commercially as Dusty in Memphis, although also a critical darling. It was one of the first works produced by the Gamble and Huff production team, who would go on to great success in the R&B; genre. A third album for the Atlantic label, produced by Jeff Barry, was abandoned due to unsuccessful single releases. Similarly, her next album, See All Her Faces (1972), released in Britain, followed the same pattern. In 1973 Springfield signed to the ABC Dunhill Records label which resulted in the album Cameo in (1973).
The following year she began to record another album for the label titled Longing, to be produced by Brooks Arthur, who had produced several hit records by singer-songwriters like Janis Ian. During these sessions, Springfield cut a rendition of Ian's "In the Winter" that is among her most critically acclaimed recordings. (Ian is on record as saying that, in comparison to Springfield's version, she "could no longer do the song justice".) Longing was eventually abandoned due to Springfield's failing mental health. Much of the material from Longing was later released on the 2001 compilation Beautiful Soul.
Springfield put her career on hold during the mid-1970s, though she did sporadic work with fellow artists like her friend Anne Murray and (after a typical false start) she also performed backing vocals on the Elton John hit "The Bitch is Back". She continued to release critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful albums and singles throughout the late 1970s for the United Artists Records label, resulting in the albums It Begins Again (1978) and Living Without Your Love (1979). During this time Springfield rarely charted and soon drifted from popular view. She ended this period by releasing two final singles for her British label Mercury Records. She was virtually forced to do so due to the lack of success of her previous albums. The singles were "Baby Blue", a disco number that charted in the top 70, and "Your Love Still Brings Me to My Knees", the singer's swan song for a company she had been with in various forms for 20 years.
In the 1980s, Springfield wanted to forget the 1970s and start afresh. She signed a deal with 20th Century Records, which resulted in a flop of a single, a cover of "It Goes Like It Goes" from Norma Rae. She then began to record an album for Casablanca entitled White Heat (1982). The album was a departure from Springfield's sound, and featured music and lyrics that were similar in style and substance to the New Wave genre. The album was critically acclaimed; however, the LP was put on limited release in the USA and Canada only. (Not long after its release, the Casablanca label also folded.) Springfield tried again in 1985 by signing to Peter Stringfellow's Hippodrome Records label, which resulted in a single called "Sometimes Like Butterflies" and a disastrous appearance on Stringfellow's live TV show. The song was released against Springfield's wishes with a practice vocal recorded while she had laryngitis. The singer left the label in response.
A return to popularity
Springfield's fortunes finally changed in 1987, when she switched management to famed talent manager Vicki Wickham (also a long-time friend), and she collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys, who were fans of hers, and asked her to add a vocal to a song they were recording. The resulting track, a duet called "What Have I Done to Deserve This?", was a smash hit (in America, it reached #2 and was the highest-charting song of Springfield's entire career). The song charted all over the world and renewed interest in her music. Another smash from that album was the huge club hit "In Private." She capitalised on this success by releasing a new album, Reputation, which was a best seller. The album was partially written and produced by the Pet Shop Boys as well as other contributors like Dan Hartman. She was also asked, in conjunction with the Pet Shop Boys, to contribute a track to the soundtrack of the film Scandal, about the British political scandal known as the Profumo Affair. That track, "Nothing Has Been Proved", was also a modest hit.
Also in 1987, Springfield provided vocals on Richard Carpenter's single "Something In Your Eyes," which was a #12 Adult Contemporary hit in the U.S. In 1993 she also recorded duets with Cilla Black and Daryl Hall, which both charted in the UK chart. Many of the songs she recorded also featured on TV shows like The Middle of Nowhere in Smack the Pony and The Look of Love in Cold Feet.
Career challenges and personal struggles
Springfield had been raised as a strict Catholic and, despite her reported reluctance to participate in confession and Mass, she kept her faith to the end of her life. The conflict between her conservative religious faith and her life was one that affected her deeply. Springfield's biographers and several journalists have suggested she had two personas: shy, quiet Mary O'Brien, and the persona she created in Dusty Springfield.
In all aspects of her career, but especially in the studio, Springfield was a notorious perfectionist. Some labelled her as "difficult". Much of this can now be seen as a reaction from male colleagues who, in a very male-dominated industry, were wholly unused to women taking control in the studio. She often produced her songs, but could not take credit for doing so, as it was seen as bad form to do so. Springfield's musical ear was very finely tuned and she was totally intolerant of anything less than perfection, which some session musicians did not appreciate. To add to the challenges, she did not read and write music as the session musicians did, making it even harder for her to communicate what she wanted. She was notorious for her agonisingly painstaking vocal sessions, during which she would often record short phrases or even single words or syllables, over and over again, to get the precise feeling and musical quality that she wanted.
Springfield's biographers attribute much of her "difficult" behaviour to her dysfunctional family background and her deep insecurity, which began in childhood. Her mother was prone to explosive rages and would often throw things to express anger -- a trait which Springfield herself soon adopted. Her accountant father, conversely, was quiet and withdrawn, and it is evident that, at least in part, her mother's violent "acting out" was an attempt to gain her husband's attention. Mary/Dusty's growing insecurity was heightened by her parents' blatant favouring of her older brother Dion (Tom).
In her early career much of her odd behaviour was carried out more or less in fun -- like her famous food fights -- and it was at the time dismissed as merely "eccentric". One story related in her biography tells how, when Springfield first performed in America, she was too nervous to meet the other performers on the bill, so she found a box full of crockery and hurled it down a flight of stairs in order to bring the other performers out of their dressing rooms.
But as the Springfield persona became more and more famous, she was indulged, pampered and spoiled, and plummeted into chronic drug and alcohol abuse. For much of the Seventies, living in Hollywood, Springfield alternately battled mental health and substance abuse issues. When her career imploded, she began to internalise her violent behaviour. The seriousness of her increasingly frequent acts of self-harm resulted in her being hospitalized on numerous occasions and she reportedly attempted suicide several times.
At various times during her life and career, Springfield either identified herself or was identified by others as being bisexual or a lesbian. Springfield first broached this idea into the media mainstream in 1970 when she told a reporter for The Evening Standard that "A lot of people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learned to accept it....I know I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy." By 1970 standards, Springfield had made a very bold statement.
There is some debate among friends and fans regarding this issue; Springfield was intensely private about her personal life, and after the 1970 interview, she did not directly address the question or make a definitive statement regarding her sexuality in the press. Springfield occasionally made subtle references; during a 1978 concert at Drury Lane in London, attended by Princess Margaret, Springfield noted a number of gay men in the front rows and made a comment that she was "glad to see that the royalty wasn't confined to the box". At another concert, Springfield told her audience, "Give a butch roar or a girlish shriek, I don’t mind who does what, sort it out for yourselves!"
Several biographies about Springfield also have conflicting information. Lucy O'Brien's biography, Dusty (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989) mentions the rumors in passing, whereas Penny Valentine's 2000 book Dancing with Demons, which included significant contributions by Springfield's friend and manager Vicki Wickham, identifies Springfield as a lesbian. Singer-songwriter Carole Pope of the Canadian band Rough Trade disclosed in her 2001 book Anti-Diva that she and Springfield had a relationship and lived together in Toronto when Springfield worked with her. (Pope wrote the song "Soft Core" which appeared on "White Heat".)
Shortly after releasing A Very Fine Love in 1994, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. She received treatment and, for a time, the cancer was in remission. However, the cancer recurred in 1997, and Springfield lost her battle with the disease in March 1999 at the age of 59, just ten days before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Shortly before her death, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her contributions to music, although she was by then too ill to attend the award ceremony. Her funeral was held at St. Marys in Henley on Thames, where she resided for the last few years of her life. A marker dedicated to her memory can be found outside the church.
Springfield is widely regarded by many as one of the finest soul singers of all time, an accomplishment made even more notable by the fact that she was a "blue eyed soul" singer — a Caucasian singer who sang material in a way normally associated with African-American singers. It is also notable that she was held in high esteem by many black singers (such as Martha Reeves) whom she, in turn, also emulated and idolised.
Springfield's body of work has continued to draw attention after her death, and the critical acclaim for Dusty in Memphis has continued to keep her in the spotlight. As well as being a popular musician with a general audience, she has also become a "musician's musician", and has influenced many artists.
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