Dusty Springfield, older I get, is someone that I love more, although she causes some grand complications being a fan of hers. She’s *that* Blue-eyed soul singer that reigns over all others. She’s *that* early queer icon that at least publicly identified as Bisexual far ahead of anyone else. She’s that British Invasion artist wholly too aware of the concepts of Cultural Appropriation before such a word was batted around academia, nevermind pop culture. But there is in hindsight, as you go through all of the material she covered, all of the the soul singers she admired, that she still gets the lion’s share of attention as a Dead White Woman more than those Soul legends she appreciated that still walk this earth.
My fandom of her is complex. Life is complex, music and memory are complex, and like Aries Sun-Pisces Moon, Dusty Springfield is such a beginning and ending of all of those sentiments wrapped up in the most endearingly aggressive femme-drag representation of all of our desires, wishes and hopes. The wise sister, the vulnerable lover and all the little pockets in between, she was Britian’s one woman Soul Supreme.
It’s made all the more interesting, inspiring and yet mundane that she started life as a Red-headed, bespectacled Catholic School Girl named Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien April 16, 1939. To us outsiders that are too weird to ever be part of the in-crowd, her story sounds familiar. Brought up in a family of weirdos with that 20th century predilection towards the phonograph, music was her savior. Making oneself over in the images outside of your ordinary lot is another. Hair Bleached Blonde, Mascara that blurred the boundaries between panda-eye and parody, she found herself first doing knock-off McGuire Sisters work as part of The Lana Sisters. Her long lasting affinity for group harmonizing, and being one of the girls came to life in 1959, alongside refinement of her musicality, and amazing knack for improvisation. Soon enough, later enough, it really became obvious that she couldn’t suffer in the shadows of groups and music settings she couldn’t control, nor be a Pop Tartlet.
Nor was she to be shackled as a folk singer either. Few remember that she crossed the pond with her Brother and Mike Field in 1962 with their Peter, Paul and Mary meets Darlene Love take on “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” that bounced into the US Pop Top 20. Always ear to the street, hearing “Tell Him” by The Exciters while in New York prompted her next leap over tall established boundaries. The parade of Girl Group hits that dominated the airwaves in the States during 1963 made her gather kettle drums, strings and little details like playing bass guitar with your fingers like those in Studio A on West Grand Avenue in Detroit did. With a whomp and a wail shortly before her 25th Birthday, she became the First Lady of the British Invasion with “I Only Want To Be With You.”
Although Johnny Franz got production credit on just about all of her Phillips Records output, Dusty risked all sorts of stereotypes and suggestions by taking most of the song and soundcrafting responsibilities on her records. It explains a Martha & The Vandellas like muscle to her cover of Dionne Warwick’s prim and proper 1963 B-side “Wishin’ & Hopin.” It explains the expert cloudiness of an authentic Phil Spector Wall-Of-Sound production on songs like “Losing You.” It’s the intimate perfection of gems like “Some of Your Lovin.’” Bringing that personal touch that so few women were allowed to take control of as both producers and performers, especially on a consistent basis, might be the heart of the argument for looking at Dusty Springfield as a Soul Singer. Between the moxie and mutability was an amazing amount of intimacy that transcends her status as a White Woman from the Colonizing UK, sort of. We can’t discount the ever present queer outsiders lens either when giving her material a read half a century later.
But there is, in reality, that she was a song interpreter, and not necessarily an innovator. Take a gander at most of her LPs from 1964-70, including Dusty In Memphis, and you’ll find songs that were done first, or multiple times before by artists of color before her. Sometimes better, admittedly. The main difference, by the time roads lead to Memphis, is that at least the productions behind her weren’t note for note, violin and sax solo facsimiles of the originals. But there’s something to be said about the towering determination of Barbara Lewis’s almost hit version of “Don’t Forget About Me” and Dusty’s faking the funk version from her most critically acclaimed piece of work. Nobody 50 years later blinks an eye at Barbara Lewis, who still tours, but in my DJing experience, the power of both workings of the same material have equitable value.
I’m possibly digging up on what was one of Dusty’s insecurities in the first place; that inherently her fame was based on something fraudulent. There was the closeted aspect until 1970, and material that didn’t belong to her cultural paradigm. She did her damndest to right professional wrongs however. She refused to perform to segregated audiences in Apartheid South Africa. She made close, devoted (if not clouded with lust) lifelong friendships with people like Martha Reeves and Madeline Bell.
She wholeheartedly supported Motown establishing a foothold in the UK, first by hosting Kim Weston in her home, then hosting The Supremes, Vandellas, Temptations, Miracles and Stevie Wonder (and supporting a departed Mary Wells and shading Berry Gordy all at once by covering “You Lost The Sweetest Boy” live on TV for 2 years) on British Television. In the decades before allyship went beyond marching side by side in Selma, Springfield tried her best to represent fairly and give space to those she was inspired by. If only today’s artists were as great at doing so as she was.
We overlook what’s considered her dark days, spanning decades, but producing highly intimate works as she danced with her own demons. And then we just still love, a Saturn Return later, her full fledged return with The Pet Shop Boys at her side, soaring high above sordid Thatcher-Regan era murkiness of the late 80’s. We mourn that she’s been gone for 17 years, and dig deeper at every chance to discuss what she meant to us, and what we meant to her as consumers of song. For all the complexity she unleashed on this world for 40 years, there’ll be plenty to discuss for years to come.
Happy Birthday Dusty. That’s sure a pretty name.