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The Pioneer of British Soul: Celebrating Dusty Springfield's Legacy, 25 Years After Her Death

From taking control of her career to standing up to inequality, the singer's life was as inspiring as her music.

dusty springfield
Source: MEGA

'When I first heard Dusty's voice, I fell in love,' said Elton John.

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Shortly after her first solo single, “I Only Want To Be With You”, became a top five hit in the UK, Dusty Springfield was asked how she was enjoying her success. “It’s marvelous to be popular,” she said. “But foolish to think it will last.”

It was typically self-effacing remark from a woman who would go on to become one of the most important British singers of all time. Whether it was calling her classic album Dusty in Memphis “rather overrated”, cranking up the volume in her headphones in the studio to drown out the sound of her own voice, or anxiety over her appearance, Dusty could never seem to see in herself what others could. But, 25 years since her death on March 2, 1999, her status as a musical icon is undeniable.

Over the course of her lifetime, Dusty Springfield was many things — a symbol of the swinging 60s, the woman who helped introduce the UK to soul, an LGBTQ icon, an anti-apartheid activist, an unexpected '80s pop star. She was also a bundle of contradictions. She was the white English convent girl who loved singing Black American music. Someone who frequently hated the sound of her own voice — and yet had one of the best in the business. Painfully shy, yet willing to stand up to the South African government. Known for her pranks and love of food fights, but prone to enormous bouts of melancholy. An instantly recognizable figure, who was always an enigma.

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Dusty was born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien to Irish parents on 16 April 1939, in Hampstead, London. Family life was far from happy. Her father, a tax advisor, verbally abused his daughter and her mother was dependent on drink. But they did instill in her and her older brother, Dion (later known as Tom), a love of music. At her convent school, she told her teacher she wanted to be a blues singer when she grew up — even if it looked unlikely at the time. “You’d never in a hundred years have picked her out as someone who was going to be famous,” a classmate told writer Lucy O’Brien in her book Dusty: The Classic Biography (recently reissued in an updated edition).

Dusty — whose nickname came from playing football with the boys — was worried she would end up as a librarian. "I had awful glasses, unstyled hair and thick ankles,” she said. But a fascination with Hollywood stars sparked the idea that she could transform herself into something else. As she said to Lucy O’Brien: “I just decided I wanted to become someone else…so I became someone else. I had to change Mary O’Brien to be successful.”

And so the invention of Dusty Springfield began. In 1958 she answered an advert in the newspaper and joined a band called The Lana Sisters — calling herself Shann Lana — and toured with Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Morecambe & Wise. She then formed a folk-trio with her brother and another friend, called The Springfields. In 1962 their cover of Wanda Jackson’s 1956 record “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” reached number 20 on the Billboard chart — the first by a British band to do so. In 1963, their single “Island of Dreams” was the fourth best-selling song in the UK. It was Dusty’s voice, though, that was the main attraction — and she had plans for her career beyond singing folksy songs.

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In 1963 she went solo as Dusty Springfield. Her first single, “I Only Want To Be With You”, was a top five hit in the UK. The timing was perfect for Dusty to be part of the British Invasion in America, and the song reached No. 12 in the US. Her first album, A Girl Called Dusty, came out in the spring of 1964 and stayed in the UK top ten for 23 weeks.

Her look — platinum blonde hair backcombed to within an inch of its life (“I used so much hairspray that I feel personally responsible for global warming,” she later told the New York Times), eyes painted as black as a panda — was already in place. Dusty had a specific vision for her music, too. Though she didn’t write songs, she had an instinct for picking great ones and interpreting them brilliantly.

Her British contemporaries were Sandi Shaw, Lulu and Cilla Black. But the music that excited Dusty most was that of Black American artists in the early '60s — bands like The Ronettes, The Chiffons, The Shirelles and Martha & The Vandellas. She loved the music on the Stax, Atlantic and Motown labels — in fact, she loved Motown so much she named her dog after it.

dusty springfield songsheet
Source: MEGA

Dusty's distinctive look became symbolic of the Swinging Sixties.

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Speaking in a 1989 radio interview she said: “I wanted to do Motown but I also wanted to be the Exciters, I wanted to be The Shirelles. I wanted to be the Scepter label as well. I wanted to be a cross-section of all of it.” Dusty was later dubbed “the queen of blue-eyed soul” but, reflecting on how she and other British artist like The Beatles tried to emulate the rhythm and blues sound of Black America, she says she had to accept that it was impossible. “In hindsight what gave [our music] its peculiar charm is that we made a lot of mistakes, we couldn’t quite cop it. We did it in an English fashion, which used to drive me crazy because I wanted to be totally accurate. But I was white, I couldn’t be.”

Still, she played a vital part in popularizing soul music in the UK. In 1965 she hosted the Ready Steady Go: The Sound of Motown special, which introduced The Supremes, the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas and the Temptations to a primetime UK audience.

She once said that she felt more affinity with Black artists. “When it comes to singing and feeling, I just want to be one of them and not me," she said. “Then again, I see how some of them are treated and I thank God I’m white.” Before she toured South Africa in 1964, she had it written into her contract that she wouldn’t play to any segregated audiences — a clause she steadfastly refused to break, and which led to her being deported from the country. The South African government said that Springfield had failed to observe “the South African way of life.”

Source: MEGA

Dusty was labeled 'the queen of blue-eyed soul.'

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By the mid-sixties Dusty was one of the biggest stars of the British pop scene. In 1965 she performed at the NME Poll Winners concert alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1966 she scored her biggest hit so far with “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” (its vocals recorded in a stairwell)— which made number one in the UK and the top five in the US. Her voice was a beguiling combination of power and vulnerability; Bette Midler called it “haunting and husky, full of secrets and promises.”

The exuberant look she’d created was the perfect symbol of Swinging Sixties London — and the newspapers lapped up stories about her notorious parties and legendary food fights — including the time she hurled a bread roll at a waiter in a fancy restaurant. But behind the bubbly persona she was dealing with mental health struggles and an often crippling lack of confidence — coupled with the pressure of hiding that she was gay. “She was very insecure,” said Lulu. “She was a hard taskmaster in the studio because she was such a perfectionist, but that's why she was so great too."

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By the late ‘60s, Dusty’s career had stalled in the States. Despite early hits, she’d struggled to have a proper breakthrough, so in 1968 she decided to try something new. She signed with Atlantic Records — home of her idol Aretha Franklin — and began working with the producer Jerry Wexler on her fifth solo album. The result, Dusty in Memphis, is considered her musical masterpiece. It featured contributions from Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Randy Newman. Dusty’s voice is at its most soulful and seductive — further elevating songs like “Just a Little Lovin’”, “I Don't Want to Hear Anymore” and “Son of a Preacher Man”. Writing about the album for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus said: “Most white female singers in today’s music are still searching for music they can call their own. Dusty is not searching—she just shows up.”

Despite the album’s obvious quality, it was somehow a commercial flop on its initial release, only reaching 99 on the US chart and failing to make the top 40 back home. Dusty would only record one more album with Atlantic, 1970’s A Brand New Me (released in the UK as From Dusty With Love), which failed to crack the top 100 in America.

She might not have been dominating the charts in 1970 — but, thanks to an interview in the Evening Standard, she was still all over the UK press. Talking to Ray Connolly, she addressed the speculation about her sexual preferences. “I know that I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy,” she said. “More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

It was an enormously brave, and unusual, statement for a public figure to make at the time. It would set her on the way to being the LGBTQ icon she later became — but at the time, Middle England was still rife with homophobia.

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dusty springfield s
Source: MEGA

Dusty became an LGBTQ icon, despite the homophobia of the time.

That same year she decided to leave the UK and start a new life in the U.S. Dusty had once dreamed of being a Hollywood star but, after moving to Los Angeles, she faded into obscurity. She continued, intermittently, to release music, but it didn’t sell well. “I started to lose my way,” she said. “I stopped listening to the voice in me that knows what’s right for me.” Feeling adrift in a new country, and with her career waning, she increasingly turned to drink and drugs, and often self-harmed. By 1985, in a new low, she was signed to nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow’s record label and released an album that reached No. 85 in the UK charts. It looked like there was no way back.

Then in 1987, longtime Dusty fans the Pet Shop Boys asked her to appear on one of their singles. The band — coming off the back of their second number one single, “It’s A Sin” — were warned off the idea by their record company, who told them they could get Tina Turner or Barbra Streisand instead. “But we wanted her,” Neil Tennant said in the BBC’s Reel Stories. Dusty asked them what they wanted her to sound like — to which they said: like Dusty Springfield. “Oh, I think I can do that,” she said. “All of her life feels like it goes into that song,” said Tennant. “It’s that thing where someone takes your song and makes it ten times better.”

“What Have I Done To Deserve This?” went to No. 2 in both the UK and American charts. It was Dusty’s first major hit in 20 years. She recorded more songs with the band, including two more top twenty singles: “Nothing Has Been Proved”, the soundtrack to the 1989 film Scandal, and “In Private”. They also co-produced her 1990 album Reputation.

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In 1994, Dusty would get another boost to her career when “Son of a Preacher Man” was included on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, introducing a whole new generation to her music (a rerelease of the song even went to number one in Iceland). In 1995 she released another new album, A Very Fine Love — but it would turn out to be her last. During its recording Dusty was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she beat it the first time, it soon returned. She died on 2 March 1999 at her home in Oxfordshire — just weeks before her 60th birthday.

Less than a fortnight after her death, Elton John inducted her into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. “When I first heard Dusty’s voice, I fell in love,” he said.

Reflecting on her life in an interview with The Telegraph a few years before she died, she said: “All my life I’ve fought categories. I don’t want to be owned by anyone, by any movement.” She was talking about the media’s obsession with her sexuality — but the sentiment rings true for her whole career.

From asserting control over her music, even when it meant she was labelled difficult; to taking a stance against racism when many of her peers turned a blind eye; to transforming her persona through her image, Dusty was ahead of her time in so many ways.

She laid a path for female British soul, influencing stars like Annie Lennox, Amy Winehouse and Adele, not only with her voice, but with her spirit and her refusal to fit the mold. She was hard to pigeonhole, it’s true. But there’s one label she can easily be filed under: as one of the world’s greatest ever female vocalists.


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