Dusty In Memphis at 50: the story of Dusty Springfield’s landmark album

It’s Sunday.

It’s a day off for most. A time to shake up your bed, make some breakfast and coffee, maybe have a gander at the weekend papers and take it nice and slow till the afternoon. Clothing optional.  

What’s your favourite Sunday morning record? 

In an interview for MOJO magazine in 2000, I asked Adam Ant for his, and the insect warrior got it straight away: choosing a splendid choice of easy, seductive and laidback listening:

“Matt Monro singing (the first James Bond theme song) From Russia With Love. I really like his voice, and he always makes me think of Sundays. Marvin Gaye on a Sunday is good as well – Let’s Get It On. And Sinatra, of course, you can play him anytime – Summer Wind is my favourite. Why? I just love the feel of it. He’s so confident with it; that’s him at his peak. I’ll put that on, kick back, have some coffee, read the papers and just relax till the afternoon. Sunday’s a day off.”

Personally, if I’m travelling – be it in Tokyo (OK, from where I’m writing this), or sojourning in South America – or just at home in Australia or France, barely a Sunday morning goes by where the first thing I play isn’t a burst of Dusty Springfield. And not any old Springfield but the Gucci of Springfields; the peerless, timeless majesty of a pearl called Dusty In Memphis. It’s an album that literally screams Sunday morning, and was released in Britain 50 years ago.*

Dusty Springfield was the UK’s most formidable female singer of the 1960s, the “first person to demonstrate Girl Power,” according to her rival/friend Lulu. By combining lavish Spector-like ballads with gritty American R&B, she created her own Anglicised Wall of Sound, best exemplified by a succession of heartbreak hits such as 1966’s majestic Goin’ Back and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, the deliciously dramatic chart-topper which also made No.4 in the US.

Born in my old stamping ground of West Hampstead five months before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Dusty had reigned supreme during the heyday of Swinging London and the British invasion, and she was voted Best Female Vocalist in the New Musical Express annual awards for five successive years, and given her own BBC television show on which she cheerfully introduced such favoured guests as Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix and Scott Walker.

In fact, Dusty and The Walker Brothers swiftly became the Philips label’s biggest selling acts, but as was still the norm for most acts other than The Beatles, the albums of the day usually consisted of a smattering of singles and a fair amount of filler. All that was about to change though. 

By 1969, Springfield’s fortunes were deemed to be on something of a downward spiral. While that may have been true from a commercial standpoint, in artistic terms that was far from the reality. Case in point: in 1967 Dusty began a run of releasing singles that failed to chart in the UK, the only honourable exceptions being I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten and Son of a Preacher Man (both 1968). In fact, only 1970’s solitary How Can I Be Sure would make a (minor) dent on the Top 40 until the Pet Shop Boys spectacularly revived her career with quite possibly the greatest duet of all time, 1987’s matchless What Have I Done To Deserve This?

But what was the song that started the commercial decline? Only The Look of Love, the impossibly gorgeous theme song for the spoof James Bond film Casino Royale. The correlation between commercial and creative success had ceased to exist. And with Dusty in Memphis, Springfield not only proved that she was not only still relevant but hadn’t had even produced her best album up until that point. This was her moment, her definitive moment.

In recording terms, Dusty In Memphis was the first of her American albums, and represents what is perhaps now a lost art – a visiting English pop singer seeking to boost her credibility as a soul artist, backed by a crack country-soul house band of great players dabbling deeply in American music by finding and interpreting some of the best material coming out of Stateside songwriters at the time.

Pair great songs with an even greater singer together and you can create something miraculous within a known art-form. One truly irresistible stew This was where Dusty Springfield truly found her voice, though her love of the Memphis sound was no new infatuation, as she recalled in a 1990 interview with New Zealand journalist Chris Bourke, then editor of Rip It Up magazine.

“My first introduction to black music was as a kid listening to Jelly Roll Morton singles, old New Orleans stuff. But on a level of contemporary popular black music, no it was before that. I was getting imports while I was still with the Springfields. I was aware of early R&B before Motown was Motown, and early Stax – those labels that came out of the Memphis. Those were my earliest real influences. Around ’61, ’62.”

In her acclaimed biography, Dusty, fellow West Hampstead resident (and my neighbour for several years in the Nineties) Lucy O’Brien quotes Jerry Wexler, who produced DIM along with Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, talking about the uniqueness of her sound: “There were no traces of black in her singing, she’s not mimetic… She has a pure silvery stream.”

Silvery, I like that. I’ve always thought if Dusty’s voice was a colour, it was silver. There is so much air in every note, and although the sound is rich, it has none of the sugary chocolatey-brown of, say, Karen Carpenter’s. It seems to exist higher up, almost suspended above our heads, literally transcendent. You look up to Dusty’s voice, in every sense.

Memphis belle: this 1968 shot of Dusty was used as the basis for the UK release of Dusty In Memphis

Pet Shop Boys vocalist Neil Tennant pointed to the emotional tension in her singing, saying there’s “an intensity and desperation to her voice that’s fantastically sensual”. Desperation: that’s very observant. It’s easy enough to hear the sensuality, of course, but to spot the undercurrent that makes her pierce you as much as soothe and seduce you, that’s getting more to the heart of her.

Of course, although she could be melodramatic, particularly on the mid-1960s recordings, Springfield was never a belter, an over-singer like Streisand, or to give a couple of more recent examples, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. Dusty was a singer who made use of the microphone, using it as an instrument as if she was part of the band.

When she did project, there would be a fragility to it, and a feeling that she was covering it up with an element of bravado. There was a possibility that the voice might fail her, a note might break, although it never did. The slight huskiness is often commented on, the sound of being on the edge of laryngitis, which she suffered from recurrently.

But here’s the terrible thing; the terrible, true thing that she thought, that maybe lots of singers think, which runs counter to all that we imagine it must feel like to be in possession of a unique and gorgeous voice that people love. This is what Dusty Springfield actually once said: “All I know is that I have a distinctive voice I don’t particularly like listening to.”

In the land of make beehive

In the recording studio, Dusty would be demanding and perfectionist, both admirable qualities, essential for the making of good music, but when it came to the moment of recording the vocals she would turn those thoughts on herself like knives. She would have the volume in her headphones turned up as loud as possible, to the point where it was almost painful, and the effect would be overwhelming. That way she could disappear inside her cacophonous wall of sound, and so, just as she hid her physical appearance behind the mask of sky-high hair and makeup, she would hide even her voice.

Singing in a choir, your voice can vanish among all the others, you are part of one big communal sound and no one is listening to you in particular. But as a solo singer, especially a famous and loved solo singer, this luxury is usually denied. You must be heard, and you must hear yourself. Dusty tried to escape hearing herself as a way of escaping confrontation with that which disappointed her, but one wonders also whether, as someone prone to a deep sense of self-loathing, she suffered from that confusion between her voice and her person, whether she perceived doubts about her voice as in fact doubts about her value as a person, even about her existence as a real, authentic person.

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DIM is a magnum opus chock full of simply magnificent vocal performances, and across the eleven tracks, the Memphis Cats and the Sweet Inspirations offer sterling accompaniment sympathetic to Dusty’s non-Southern Gospel background. It’s unquestionably Springfield’s masterpiece, and one of the best blue-eyed soul pop albums ever produced, even surpassing another “Memphis” set from ’69: Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, which, like The King’s ‘comeback’ single Suspicious Minds, was also recorded at Chips Moman’s hot new American Sound Studios in the Tennessee city.

But one of the best of all time? Well, we’re still listening and talking about it. So that would be a yes then. And all this despite selling relatively poorly, only reaching No.99 on the Billboard charts, and having the ironic distinction of being the singer’s first non-charting record in her homeland. In fact, with its famously lowly chart position, Dusty In Memphis is possibly the greatest “flop” album of all time. Like Scott 4 or The Velvet Underground & Nico, history has been kind to it. Often spoken of in hushed, awed tones, deservedly becoming a perennial entry in “great album” lists, and one that’s not been out of print since the early Eighties.

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Musically, Dusty In Memphis is a sophisticated, adult pop LP that was put out when ‘album rock’ was taking off, and soul and pop were still very singles-oriented. Which is probably why it didn’t do so well at the time – considering that lots of classic soul and pop acts of the time barely charted on the albums listing, I’d say that 99 wasn’t too shameful. The LP earned Springfield a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1970 and, as a posthumous tribute, received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001.

Throughout the album, Dusty carries everything with near effortless candour full of joy, before revealing her vulnerability on the more relaxed Goffin-King set closers, which display her trademark melancholy and uncertainty on love and life and, crucially, herself. It’s a sensuous smorgasbord, track after track of some of the most seductive quality music ever competed to vinyl. Tell you what, let’s run through them one by one.

Just a Little Lovin’

Kicking things off in bright and breezy fashion, on this warm and tender track (originally the B-side to Son of a Preacher Man) from Brill Building supremos Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Dusty imparts some simple but profound advice that could just be the key to world peace, or maybe she just wants to get laid: 

“Just a little lovin’, early in the morning, beats a cup of coffee for starting off the day.” 

Amid a wash of swoonsome strings, the greatest Sunday morning album just got off in the most perfect way possible. Sul-tremendous.

So Much Love

So Much Love was written by the king and queen of heartbreak; the celebrated songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who managed to get a further three of their impositions on Memphis. This particular song was first recorded by Ben E King in 1966, and again by The Hour Glass the following year, but in ’69 Dusty made it her very own. Backed by the marvellous Memphis Cats, her soaring vocal, sung at the top of her register, never sounds strained; becoming more and more energised the higher she goes.

Son of a Preacher Man

Son Of A Preacher Man is easily one of Dusty’s most epitomising moments. John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins originally wrote the song for Aretha Franklin, but, deciding that it didn’t fit with her repertoire, the daughter of a preacher man passed it on to Dusty, whose refined, suggestive, powerhouse delivery turned it into an epic, career-defining anthem. The fact that the track hit the Top 10 in ten countries including the US and UK makes its parent album’s lowly chart position even more surprising. 

In 1994, Son of a Preacher Man was featured in a memorable scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. In the director’s commentary on the movie’s DVD release, Tarantino recalls that he probably wouldn’t have filmed the scene at all if he couldn’t have used that song and the mood that it evoked. Further testament to the fact that, despite Dusty’s seemingly innocent vocal delivery, there’s just no hiding the saucy undertones at play here.

I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore

“Who is my favourite singer? It’s a question I’m often asked, not surprisingly, and my answer is usually the same: Dusty Springfield. I remember clearly the first time I heard her. Elvis Costello was presenting a radio show, playing a selection of his favourite records, and as was usually the case with anything like that on the radio, I was taping it on to cassette. This was 1980, or maybe 1981. He played I Don’t Want to Hear It Any More from Dusty in Memphis, and there was her voice – that smoky, husky, breathy, vulnerable, bruised, resigned, deliberate, sensual voice. I don’t have Dusty’s range, and I wish I did. If I could sing those songs the way she sang them, I’d be so proud, is what I think. I’d be fulfilled.”

Taken from Tracey Thorn’s Naked at the Albert Hall, 2015. Costello, of course, penned Losing You (Just A Memory) for Dusty’s 1982 album White Heat.

Pondering the ambiguities of romance and ill-fated love affairs, with the soulful backing of the Sweet Inspirations. Dusty never did anything by halves and I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore is a classic for the ages. On this first of two Randy Newman numbers, there’s a slightly incongruous, gossipy “girlfriend” quality to the backing vocals, which, nevertheless, Dusty In Memphis superfan Neil Tennant liked enough to deign to replicate on the Pet Shop Boys song In Private, which Springfield released as a single in 1989.

Don’t Forget About Me

A beautiful interpretation of a superb Goffin-King written track, punctuated by the grandiose guitar licks of Stax Records and Booker T. and the M.G.’s local legend, Steve Cropper. This driving soul anthem had previously been recorded by a whole host of acts from Barbara Lewis to P.J. Proby but Dusty took the song to a whole new level of sophistication only she could reach.

Breakfast in Bed

Despite Atlantic head honcho Jerry Wexler describing Dusty as a surprisingly shy and insecure artist in the studio, the suggestive and provocative themes underpinning many of the songs on this album are anything but. And this one might just have you craving a cigarette afterwards.

I bought my first Dusty CD, the almost perfect Silver Collection in 1988, and followed it up with DIM (and 1970’s From Dusty With Love) a year or two later. I remember playing it to a young colleague, Jason, a huge Elvis fan, who marvelled at how seductive Breakfast in Bed was. “God, this song’s so sexy!” he would exclaim loudly while washing the pots and pans. He was spot on, of course, and this slinky tailor made classic from Muscle Shoals songwriters Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts puts a knowing spin on the chorus of You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me to devastating effect.

It’s nigh on impossible to overstate just how enticing this song is, and not even Chrissie Hynde’s reggae-lite version with the dreadful UB40 can change that. This is them doing it for the kids at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988. Yes, I was there. But no, I was ostensibly there for one particular act, Eurythmics, though my sister was excited to see George Michael live for the first time. Bringing things full circle, many years later George told me In Memphis was his and Elton John’s favourite Dusty album. Elton went on to destroy, sorry reinterpret, In Private as a drunken karaoke-type duet with the Pet Shop Boys too, but let’s not go there.

Just One Smile

Some singers and writers are understood to write ‘in character’ – Elvis Costello or Father John Misty for instance, because the characters they create are so obviously not themselves, and are either highly exaggerated or satirical creations or, in the case of Randy Newman, a monstrous opposite. It’s another way in which the skill or decision-making involved in writing and singing can be overlooked in favour of a romantic belief that the artist is always engaged in the pursuit of self-expression. This simply isn’t the case. Something is being expressed, yes, and it may be something heartfelt and true, but it may not be about them or their own feelings.

A sublime blend of words, musicianship and arrangement, Just One Smile bears Randy Newman’s trademark balance of light and dark that’s been making listeners smile and sob, sometimes simultaneously, for decades. Once a UK Top 10 hit for Gene Pitney in 1966, this melancholic tale of the giddy highs and painful lows of a love affair showcases Dusty’s delicate voice that simply aches all the way through with a haunting vulnerability that she seldom bettered.

The Windmills of Your Mind

Dusty was commanding, and at times demanding, with regards to the arrangement and production of her chosen tunes in the recording studio. During the initial sessions at American Sound Studio, the band struggled to get The Windmills of Your Mind sounding right, but at Springfield’s suggestion, the song was re-arranged and sung in a slower tempo, bringing out the subtly enticing element they’d been searching for all along. The final result adds a dash of psychedelia to this cinematic gem, written by French composer Michel Legrand with English translated lyrics by American power couple Alan and Marilyn Bergman, marking the song out as the only one on DIM not of US origin. The original was Noel Harrison’s Oscar-winning theme song for the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Affair, but hey, he didn’t have Dusty’s set of pipes, did he?

Incidentally, Jerry Wexler, president of Atlantic Records insisted Dusty record the song, overcoming the singer’s strong resistance; Springfield’s friend and subsequent manager Vicki Wickham would later allege: “Dusty always said she hated it because she couldn’t identify with the words.” Windmills was promoted as a 45 on the back of Harrison’s Oscar win and, interestingly, sat at No.45 on the Billboard charts on the day I was born, 26 June 1969.

In the Land of Make Believe

Despite being the first female singer to out herself as bisexual (with admirable swingorilliance), there was a silence and secrecy that extended over much of Dusty’s private life. Perhaps this clandestine façade was a source of inspiration for songwriters such as Bacharach and David, who penned this dreamy number of tantalising mystery. Actually, it was an old song previously covered by The Drifters then Dionne Warwick, but let’s go with that anyway.

No Easy Way Down

A short-lived East Coast garage band called The Germz first recorded this song in 1967, and it’s another bittersweet soulful offering from pen partners Gerry Goffin and Carole King, delivered with Dusty’s unique brand captivating contemplation, framed by equal measures of delicacy and strength. Barbra Streisand had a stab at the song on her 1971 album Stoney End, which also happened to feature a version of Just a Little Lovin’. 

I Can’t Make It Alone

Time has worked wonders for the enduring legacy of Dusty In Memphis. It represents a monument for her willingness to take risks despite her own anxieties and fears: She travelled across the ocean, assembled some of the greatest music producers and musicians of the day, and recorded one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. It set a template for a whole new era of soul and R&B that would inspire 21st Century songstresses like Adele and Amy Winehouse. And with I Can’t Make It Alone, even Madonna tipped her bipperty bopperty hat to this aptly named closing track with her 2005 single Jump.

Perhaps this fourth and final Goffin/King-penned weepie was a heartbreakingly honest admission from an exemplary artist who constantly put herself on the line, pushing her limits, armed with nothing but blind faith that her fans would follow her as she shook off her mumsie pop-folk origins and took on the challenge of hot-blooded R&B. Before the year was out, Springfield was trailblazing yet again, recording a Philly Soul album at Philadelphia’s famed Sigma Sound Studios with TSOP’s in-house crew Gamble and Huff, a good five years before Bowie followed in her footsteps with Young Americans. 

As her career moved on, and she left behind the glory of the British pop hits and the magnificence of albums like Dusty in Memphis, she really did begin to get lost, wandering a path with no obvious musical or career signposts to follow. She had matured as an artist, and at the very point when she should have been reaching a pinnacle in terms of success, her audience began to dwindle. Cameo, released in 1973, was a complete flop. Longing, scheduled for 1974, didn’t even get as far as the release stage.

But at the end of the day, ain’t there one damn album that can make you break down and cry? That’s Dusty In Memphis then. 

Steve Pafford

*As was seemingly but unfathomably custom at the time, the Philips and Mercury label group delayed the UK release of Dusty In Memphis, having been first issued in the US by Atlantic Records that January. Famously, David Bowie suffered a similar fate, with 1970’s Tony Visconti-produced The Man Who Sold The World following on five months after its American unveiling, in April 1971. That didn’t sell much either. 

Postscript: Dusty on Dusty In Memphis, courtesy of that Rip It Up interview from 1990:

You seem to have had quite a different career in the States. In Britain, it was pop. In America, it was the soul of Memphis and Philadelphia.

“Yeah, though Memphis actually happened while I was still living in England. But certainly that was the start of my thinking about going to the States. In hindsight, the Americans have never really understood what I do, they have a great need to categorise things. It makes radio stations very nervous if they can’t pigeonhole somebody because of their formats. And in England I was identified, I could almost do anything and get away with it. But in the States you can’t do that. So I had several very big hits in the States, but because I insisted on being more eclectic than the record companies would like me to be.”

Do you regard the Memphis record as the great thing that so many critics do? 

“No. I do realise, and again it’s only in hindsight, like so many other conclusions I reach, that it has a real flow, a real sound, even though I think it lacks certain things in the background, in the musical side of it. It does have a sound. And it does have some quality that some of the other albums lacked. A cohesion. It’s such a credit to Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd – their patience with me. Because I was very intimidated doing it, and very fearful. And people have said, well, how could you be. I mean there’s nothing more deflating to one’s confidence than to have somebody say, ‘Stand there, that’s where Aretha stood.’ 

“And the only person I know who understands that – and I was really surprised and we had a long talk about it – was George Michael. Because he went through the same thing. Only his was like, “That’s where Percy Sledge stood,” or “That’s where Otis Redding stood.” Or something. And we laughed about it, when I was working with the Pet Shop Boys on the album, we happened to be working in the same studio, and we had a cup of coffee together and talked about it. And I thought, My God. Somebody understands.

“That I’m not being down on myself. That it was a very real feeling, and that it was something that I had to fight the entire time I was doing the Memphis thing, and it was something I had to conquer. And that it was a true restrictive feeling. Jerry and Tom did not understand that. I was so nervous that I lost my voice! With sheer nerves, over-thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m not good enough to be here’. And they’re going to see right through me – I’m just a white girl trying to sound black. And they actually do see through me… But that wasn’t the way it was for them, that wasn’t their experience, but it was mine. And the patience they showed in getting it out of me was extraordinary. And that album is such a credit to their ability to work with an artist and look past all the insecurities, and to have the patience to know that it’ll come eventually.”

It’s ironic that Aretha was offered Son of a Preacher first but turned it down. She only recorded it after hearing your version. 

“Yeah. [laughs] And she did a great job. Whenever I did it after that, I always used her intonation.”

With the Memphis album, it is intriguing that so many of the great soul players are from a country background.

“Yep. And it’s ironic to know now that most of those people who were studio musicians in Memphis have all moved to Nashville. I don’t know that Memphis is a major recording centre anymore.”

Dusty’s final album, 1995’s A Very Fine Love, was recorded in Nashville, and was titled until quite late in the day Dusty In Nashville. She lost her battle with cancer on 4 March 1999.

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