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Issue 1101

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Dusty Springfield: Since you went away

Dusty Springfield
Dusty Springfield Dusty Springfield Dusty Springfield Dusty Springfield Dusty In Memphis Dusty In Memphis Dusty's Dress Dusty's Dress from the 'Dusty... Definitely' album Dusty... Definitely

It seems incredible, I know, but it’s ten years since one of our best loved singers died. It’s also thirty years since her last London concerts at Drury Lane and the Royal Albert Hall, and a staggering forty years since the iconic 'Dusty In Memphis' album. And the lady would have been seventy years old on 16 April..

Dusty Springfield is a living legend – and this is proven yet again by all the dedicated activity this year. For starters, she made musical history by becoming the first artist to be honoured at the British Music Experience last week. The permanent hi-tech, interactive music exhibition dedicated to over sixty years of popular music in Britain opened at the 02 in March, and is the world’s only one. The Dusty Springfield Day brought her phenomena back to life via a magical experience. “Dusty is one of the greatest female pop artists of all time, her music is timeless and with 2009 being such a momentous year for her, we felt compelled to celebrate her glittering career and contribution to the British music industry.” said Paul Lilley, the BME curator. And he joins countless others within and out the industry all over the world who have nothing but love, praise and respect for this shy Catholic girl who once stood in front of a mirror with a hairbrush in her hand, singing the Blues without knowing what the word meant.

From hairbrushes to microphones; from the Lana Sisters to The Springfields where she chirped away at country and western material before embarking upon a solo career in 1964 to release music that haunted listeners. Alongside commercial slices, she released songs that hinted at unspoken truths of her life, especially in album tracks where a more intense and personal artist was revealed. Dusty broke the mold of the accepted female singer. She wasn’t a sex symbol, or a dolly bird. Yet she attracted a passionate attention that remained powerful through four decades. There was more to Dusty than her beehive, mascara and hits, like 'I Only Want To Be With You', 'I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself', 'You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me', 'Goin’ Back' and 'Losing You' , there was her very soul which she bared for public scrutiny with songs from the industry’s finest composers. She was, at one point, heralded as the Queen of White Soul and the White Negress, and her tireless devotion to American black music, and Motown in particular, is well documented. It was in the early sixties that Dusty first flew her Motown crusading flag – she promoted the music in interviews, performed their songs on television and stage (Martha and the Vandellas’ were her pet love) and recorded tracks on her albums. I once asked her why? Motown was better than a lot of things that were happening at the time, she replied. “They were really good songs done extremely rhythmically. It was the first time there had been that type of song structure. Some of them were sloppy but it was this sloppiness that made them attractive. I noted a lot of it was to do with the bass player, the drummer’s licks, Holland, Dozier and Holland, and musicians like James Jamerson, if you were lucky. That was the ‘motor’ of Motorcity. You could put anything on top of it and it would still sound like Motown. The artists were probably secondary, and certainly there were a lot of people who sang but who didn’t last. Whether it was because they got worn out by the situation, I don’t know. They were talented and certainly you could put all sorts of vocal people over an absolutely splendid bass line and have a hit.”

Mid-way through the sixties Dusty flew to America to join a touring Motown Revue comprising some of the company’s finest like Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, under the auspices of DJ Murray the K. “What could be more stimulating than listening to The Temptations from the side of the stage? That was heaven to me. I didn’t like performing there or anything else, but I wanted to stand there and soak it all up so that I could use it. But I could never get anyone to do it. And this is where I got this priceless reputation of being difficult in the studios over here because I was always asking musicians to do things they couldn’t understand.” When Marvin was performing, Martha and the girls backed him from backstage, and if one of the trio was missing Ms Springfield stepped in – “I never actually got to go on stage with them but I knew all the routines and knew exactly how to sound like a Vandella!”

One milestone for Motown fans over here, of course, was Dusty hosting 'The Sound Of Motown' television programme which hit our screens during April 1965. To celebrate his new licensing deal with EMI Records which launched the Tamla Motown label for the UK and Europe, Berry Gordy decided to send his prime acts to Britain for a nationwide tour, in much the same way as the Motown Revues toured America. It seemed logical, therefore, to take advantage of the artists being in the country and present them on television. In one show viewers were introduced to Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and The Earl Van Dyke Sextet.

With such a dedicated involvement with Motown and its artists, it was perhaps expected that Dusty would join ‘em. But no. “The climate wasn’t right” she explained. “I would have been intimidated because I was in awe of them and I don’t sing well when I’m in awe. I usually sing better in England. A few white singers did try it and didn’t last – Chris Clark, Kiki Dee, for example – I think Motown was right not to ask me. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t because I might have accepted and I wanted to stumble along on my own, make my own blunders.”

I don’t think ‘blunders’ was the right word because Dusty’s first two albums – 'A Girl Called Dusty' and 'Everything’s Coming Up Dusty' – were dramatically influenced by her passion for black music. She then lost her way a little with 'Where Am I Going?' in 1967 and 'Dusty..Definitely' a year later, before presenting to the world 'Dusty In Memphis' in 1969 and the following 'From Dusty…With Love' via a recording deal with Atlantic Records. Ahmet Ertegun had heard her 1965 single 'Some Of Your Lovin’ and begged her to record for Atlantic once she was contractually free. The sessions were recorded from fear as she recalled her first visits to the studios where she was, she admitted, paralysed by the ghosts of artists who had worked there. “I knew I could sing the songs well enough, but it brought pangs of insecurity..that I didn’t deserve to be there. I just knew that Aretha’s drummer was going to say ‘ain’t she a piece of shit’. It’s the most deflating thing you can say to me that somebody I adore and worship actually stood there and probably delivered an effortless performance while I’m slogging away trying to get it right.” It was more than right, the sessions represented a milestone in music, that remains high on soul fans’ playlists forty years on. From Memphis, she released a pot pourie of music with 'See All Her Faces' (1972), 'Cameo' (1973), and between 1978 – 1979 'It Begins Again' and 'Living Without Your Love', before the iconic 'The Silver Collection' in 1988 and her return to the pop music scene with 'Reputation' during 1990.

I think it’s true to say, Dusty captivated the sixties, struggled through the seventies, but returned with gusto during the eighties, thanks to her recordings with the Pet Shop Boys. Her last album titled 'A Very Fine Love' released during 1999 was typical of the familiar Springfield magic, with a promise of more greatness to come. It wasn’t to be. The album was her farewell. Following an incredibly courageous battle, Dusty died from breast cancer in March 1999, six weeks before her 60th birthday. Since her death, her music and visuals have been re-released, re-packaged with some unearthed for the first time. Her compilations always sell; her image typifies all that’s good and bad about that heady yet innovative decade, and her music continues to influence changing generations of singers and fans.

I think Dave Godin summed up the singer who was Dusty when he wrote – “Anybody can be a star if they are determined or ruthless enough, but to be a human being requires skill, talent and artistry. Dusty managed to be both, and being the one never compromised being the other.”

(Quotes from 'Chinwaggin' published by Bank House Books and 'A Girl Called Dusty' published by Andre Deutsch Universal have launched a Just Dusty Page to celebrate the April release of the 'Just Dusty' compilation containing her greatest and more.)

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