The First Lady: Dusty Springfield, Simply… Dusty

Dusty Springfield succumbed to cancer on 2 March 1999, just a day before she was due to receive an OBE from The Queen at Buckingham Palace, and less than a fortnight before her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York.

The American honour is a particularly pertinent one. Dusty was often called “one of the five mighty pop divas of the Sixties”—the others being Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Martha Reeves, all of them American except Dusty—an Irish Catholic girl from West Hampstead in London.

There was one other thing that set her apart.

Elton John spoke at Springfield’s posthumous induction and said, “I’m biased, but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been.”

Oh, shush.

I’m not blind to racial differences and the cultural differences that have arisen from them, but really, why does the colour of her skin matter? There is no question that African-Americans invented jazz and blues music. There is no argument against the notion that white Europeans invented what we call classical music. Neither invention arose from the colour of their skin but from cultures influenced by racial segregation. I would never think of calling Miles Davis a black trumpeter any more than I would think of calling Dave Brubeck a white piano player.

Having read several Miles Davis bios (and, apropos of nothing, had no idea he was gay or had died of AIDS until I opened the first), I am deeply aware of the pain and anger that burned itself into Miles’ soul that came from being a black man in a racist society; however, when he went to France in 1949, nobody gave a merde what colour he was—they just wanted to hear him play. The problem is one of culture, not skin colour, and to make it anything else is profoundly disrespectful to the artists and their music.

If I were to refer to Duke Ellington as the greatest black American composer, I would essentially be dissing him by implying, “Well, he was pretty good . . . for a black guy.” So, why dis Dusty because she had the misfortune of having a soulful voice emerge from a white body? I think Elton was trying to pander to African-Americans in the audience in NYC and at home by implying, “Oh, but of course, she’s no Aretha or Diana.”

Elton was probably channeling his guilt for spending his entire career trying to sound like a black guy, but that’s his problem. At least he can afford the therapy.

On the twentieth anniversary of Dusty’s death, here’s my review of Universal Music’s Simply… Dusty box set I penned for Mojo magazine in 2000, replete with excerpts from one of two often hilarious interviews I conducted with the television presenter Dale Winton, who sadly died last year.

• Long-awaited 98-track 4CD anthology from all phases of the pop icon’s career, including a 1952 garage track, and recordings with The Lana Sisters, The Springfields and Pet Shop Boys

• Lavish 64-page booklet with tributes from Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen

• Greatest hits, rarities and exclusive material spanning over 40 years

• Songwriters include Jimmy Webb, Sting, Alex Harvey, Elvis Costello, Carole King, Randy Newman, Isaac Hayes and Charles Aznavour

All the extraneous talk of tantrums and tears, beehives, booze and bisexuality has, over the years, tended to overshadow the fact that Dusty Springfield was, as Lulu puts it, “the first person to demonstrate Girl Power.” And that power is indelibly stamped on the recordings she bequeathed to the nation. Some of the most beautiful pop music and singing you’re ever likely to hear. In any country. Period.

With bold, brassy horns announcing its arrival, 1963’s I Only Want To Be With You, her first solo single, is where the Springfield story really starts. By combining lavish Spector-like ballads with gritty American R&B, she created her own Anglicised Wall of Sound, best exemplified on Disc 1 by the self-penned Once Upon A Time and the deliciously dramatic You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, her only Number 1; helped by a good covering of the melancholy, treacle-thick strings that became arranger Ivor Raymonde’s trademark.

Disc 2 shows Dusty at her most versatile. Her voice was capable of such remarkable fragility that you could listen to it and weep buckets, while Bacharach & David’s soft and dewy The Look Of Love is so seductively delivered that it wouldn’t be wise to bet against a good percentage of thirty-somethings having been conceived while this was on the hi-fi in ’67. The tour de force, though, is the magnificently impassioned I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, which still sends a shiver up the spine – even more so once you learn that her manager had wanted Kiki Dee to sing it.

By 1969, the singer was at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound, five years before Bowie and his Young Americans. The smooth, melodic R&B on tracks like A Brand New Me suited Dusty’s increasingly laid-back, husky vocals, and it was this Gamble & Huff sound that went on to dominate soul music in the ‘70s.

Commonly referred to as her ‘lost’ years, many of the tracks on Disc 3 were inexplicably left in the can, even though they show Springfield at her vocal peak, Dusty die-hards will relish three cuts from 1974’s unreleased Longing LP, while a yearning version of David Gates’ Make It With You makes even Bread appear tasty.

Written off by the ‘80s, it fells to the Pet Shop Boys to tempt her out of the closet. Pop really doesn’t come much classier than What Have I Done To Deserve This? In fact, the moment when those four words, “Since you went away,” reintroduced Dusty Springfield to the world is one of the finest in popular music.

The fourth disc ends on a particularly poignant note: the last thing she recorded, for a 1995 TV advert, was Gershwin’s glorious Someone To Watch Over Me. Dusty’s probably watching over us now, amazed at the fuss we make of her in her absence. This box set is ample proof that she more than earned that ‘finest female singer we’ve ever had’ tag. Simply irresistible.

Steve Pafford

DALE ON DUSTY

TV fave Mr Winton tells Steve Pafford why Dusty was the definitive diva

“I was eight in 1963. ITV would do five-minute features before the News, and this bouffant black-eyed goddess came on. I thought, Ooh, how fabulous!

Seeing that image had a profound effect on me. Until I was 13 the only records I would buy were Dusty’s. There was a vulnerability about her; you were never sure if she’d make it to the end of the song. I think gay men identify with that sense of drama, the showmanship. They love the showbiz side of being a diva. It’s an indefinable quality that’s expressed emotionally through the songs. I can’t explain it more than that.

Steve Pafford

First published: Mojo Collections, Winter 2000

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