Known for her soulful, unique voice; her flawless sense of graceful style and her taboo-challenging personal life, Dusty Springfield is considered one of the doyennes of British recording artists and vocalists, frequently named by music journalists, publications and pop culture commentators as one of the greatest vocalists of all time.
It came as a great disappointment to me to find out that ‘Dusty’ was not the name on Springfield’s birth certificate. Instead, she was raised Mary Isobel O’Brien in April 1939 in Hampstead, London. Her family were all music enthusiasts and Mary developed a love of singing from a young age. She joined her first band The Lana Sisters aged 19 in 1958 and then a more folk-inspired outfit with her brother Tom called The Springfields. She took the stage name ‘Dusty’ from her childhood nickname which she earned by playing about in the dust with the boys as a child.
After cutting her musical chops in these bands, she began her solo career in 1963 with her first single (and one that remained one of her greatest hits) I Only Want to be With You. Once the hit seal was broken, they kept coming- Wishin’ and Hopin’ (1964); I Just Don’t Know What to do With Myself (1964), You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (1966) and Son of a Preacher Man (1968). Her debut album A Girl Called Dusty was released in 1964. In 5 short years, Dusty Springfield has released several of the most popular and recognisable pop hits of the 1960s.
Dusty Springfield’s career spanned 40 years and over that time she won most accolades available and was one of the most successful singers in the world. She had 6 top 20 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 and 16 on the UK Singles Chart. Not many British, female artists (particularly from the 1960s) have ever matched that feat.
Springfield was distinctive in both voice and style. In terms of her look, she was rarely seen without a towering blonde bouffant and quintessentially 60s make up and evening gowns. Vocally, her mezzo-soprano had a unique tone that made all of her tracks instantly recognisable as a Dusty hit. Her trademark was striking a balance between powerful, strong vocal holds that simultaneously communicate vulnerability and yearning. Her voice was considered sexy too- a breathless quality that is both feminine and resolute.
Springfield was an avid fan of American music- mainly R&B, Motown girl bands and artists with the Phil Spector signature sound. Dusty and her cohorts were labelled ‘Blue Eyed Soul’- a term used to describe white artists that sang in the R&B tradition. Some R&B radio stations would refuse to play songs by white artists but as time went on, those rules were relaxed for artists that were considered to have the right attitude or ‘soul’. The term was applied to artists such as Sonny and Cher, Tom Jones and The Righteous Brothers.
Springfield wanted to be taken seriously as a soul artist and demonstrate her love for the genre. To that end, she went to Memphis, Tennessee and recorded Dusty in Memphis with a production team from Atlantic Records- the record label for US R&B and soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. The album was released in 1969 and was an incredible hit and to this day has been voted as one of the greatest albums of all time by the likes of Rolling Stone, VH1, NME and Channel 4.
Dusty tried to emulate the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ production principles in many of her recording sessions with the inclusion of horn sections, backing singers, double-tracked vocals- all facets that are common in girl band recordings of the time.
By the 1970s, Dusty Springfield was a bona fide superstar. She continued to record and perform and was still going strong in the 1980s. In the latter part of that decade, she struck up a friendship with The Pet Shop Boys which led to numerous collaborations. In 1987, she duetted with Neil Tennant on the song What Have I Done to Deserve This? Tennant, who was at the height of PSB fame, was thrilled to duet with Springfield, citing her Dusty in Memphis album as one of his all-time favourites. She recorded the song Nothing Has Been Proved for the 1989 film Scandal which was a to 20 hit. She rode this momentum by recording the album Reputation- this was her third top 20 studio album.
Springfield’s personal life and beliefs also kept her in the spotlight over the years. Speculation abounded that Dusty was gay and she did have several well-known relationships with women. She was also a much-loved figure in the gay community due to her dramatic style and emotional performances. Based on Dusty’s own comments on the subject, she was attracted to both men and women. She had documented relationships with singer Norma Tanega; US photojournalist Faye Harris; singer Carole Pope and actress Teda Bracci.
She was politically progressive and once had to cut a tour of South Africa short due to being deported for playing in front on an integrated audience which was forbidden under the apartheid regime. She was a supporter of animal rights charities, mainly due to her love of cats.
Unfortunately, substance misuse and mental health issues did impact Springfield throughout her life. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalised several times due to self-harm.
Dusty Springfield passed away in 1999 aged 59 after a battle with breast cancer. She leaves behind a consistently successful career and remains one of the most iconic vocalists of all time and the poster child of the Swinging 60s.