When you think of Dusty Springfield, I daresay you see many faces. The girl with the panda kohl eyes and bouffant beehive driving a glitter-festooned juggernaut of camp through the parochially Anglo-Saxon sixties ‘hit parade’ with melodramatic European ballads and blue-eyed soul chanteuse, singing the blues as only a good Catholic girl could. The Pet Shop Boys’ secret weapon during their imperial age with their stunning ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ or latterly her smoky soulful voice providing some cultural dissonance against Uma Thurman’s drug-fucked ennui in Pulp Fiction with her smooth vintage rendition of ‘Son of a Preacher Man’…
Therein lies the rub. Everyone knows who Dusty Springfield but her cultural presence is mostly defined through a handful of cultural cameos generations apart. You could almost say that she’s the girl that never was. In her foremost incarnation, she had her own songbook which crossed the generational divide between Frank Sinatra’s moods indigo, Petula Clark’s cabaret nous and Julie Driscoll’s discordant Northern Soul, with her riveting takes on European chanson (she was pole position with Scott Walker in terms of bringing Brel to the peanut gallery), early ‘60s beat (that foot-tapping backbeat on Saint Etienne’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us is lifted straight from I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face), popularising Bacharach & David (her takes on the songbook are more familiar than Dionne Warwick’s and less rough than Cilla Black’s) and the dissonant, woozy Spooky.
If she has any credence at all beyond pop fads and fancies it’s based upon one singular album, Dusty In Memphis, and surprisingly even the most seasoned listeners don’t pay much heed to what went after. This is disappointing, but a rich vein of untapped potential for you there reading now. Pulp Fiction did indeed yield Son Of A Preacher Man, which gave Dusty a fresh validation and authenticity for a whole generation of students, cinema buffs and hipsters beyond their parents’ record collections, but four years later she would be dead. Tragically, despite having a fascinatingly inconsistent but never less than intriguing back catalogue, it remains the fact that she’s less than the sum of her greatest moments.
Dusty In Memphis often occupies top spots in classic album charts, and as such her status could be considered similar to that of her sometime Philips labelmate Scott Walker, in as much as her most accomplished albums didn’t translate to commercial success. An absolutely top-drawer interpreter of gifted people’s material, all too often squeezed into a conservative market by her promoters and a certain malleability on her part due to being reluctant to play the fame game and having no real masterplan. In short, the kind of act in short supply today, less driven and micro-managed by Svengalis and the press, but no poorer for having left some fascinating documents of forgotten new directions along the way.
Dusty In Memphis, despite being a music monthlies’ favourite, did not sell that well, although it received high praise. But she went back into the studio to tape From Dusty With Love and cut a whole album penned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. If those names don’t mean anything to you, you’ll recognise their musical imprint. Laidback grooves, sultry swings, songs of loving and loss, Gamble and Huff defined ‘the sound of Philadelphia’ in the mid 1970s, providing hits for the Jacksons, O’Jays, the Three Degrees and single handedly influencing David Bowie’s calculated move into blue-eyed soul with Young Americans in 1975. This short and sweet album drips like honey with sweet soulful music, perfectly matched to that vulnerable, heartbroken voice of Mary O’Brien’s, and still sounds timeless now. Doubtless, small succour when the album failed in both continents and saw her return to the chicken and basket circuit. Nevertheless if you want to hear the roots of ‘70s soul and its mutant cousin, disco and funk, it’s here in understated, delicate form.
Lost is, for my money, one of the slickest album openers ever, all confident brass and nifty guitar licks, and staccato on-off beats before a belting chorus – it’s a real anthem – and when Dusty sings about A Bad Case of the Blues, she makes it feel like the sweetest kind of melancholy, whilst the British pressing’s title song, A Brand New Me, is a real gentle toe-tapper that soon builds into a punchy chorus before relaxing into cool smooth verses; it’s the epitome of ‘blue eyed soul’, a deceptively complex and tricky genre to emulate effectively.
There was a period of inactivity prior to her next album release, See All Her Faces, and this was primarily due to insecurity about her musical direction, and a certain amount of fannying around between her UK and US record labels. As a result, as the album title implies, there’s a lack of overall coherence, but track by track it’s a compelling listen. It’s a mishmash of tracks recorded between 1969 during the Dusty In Memphis sessions (Willie Mae and Laurie Jones, That Old Sweet Old Roll, both now found on fancier versions of that CD album), tracks cut for Atlantic with Arif Mardin, who soon found a great collaborator with Bette Midler (which in retrospect feels like a passing of the torch, since the Divine Miss M’s fine line in camp melodrama, and ability to switch seamlessly between bittersweet chanson and raucous toe-tappers, made her a glam-era Dusty) and a whole chunk of tracks recorded in London’s famous Trident studios all banked on side one.
There are many pleasures to be found here. The Dusty In Memphis outtakes have outlived their parent album’s longevity, thanks to carefully programmes hits compilations and reissues, Mixed Up Girl kicks off with a breakbeat that any number of 90s turntable artists would hock their nearest Blue Note LP for, Let Me Down Easy just oozes the kind of Bacharach-inspired languorous eunnui that Barbra Streisand spent the best part of the 1970s trying to effortlessly emulate, and Crumbs off the Table has the kind of fat bass, overprocessed horns and chicken scratch guitar defines the kind of post-Joplin whitebread swamp rock funk that Ike & Tina Turner, post-Tanx Bolan, Elkie Brooks’ Vinegar Joe and post-Vegas Elvis were working towards into the mid-‘70s.
This brings us to the last of Dusty Springfield’s underestimated soul trilogy, Cameo. Shrouded in an appalling pale blue album sleeve and released on the unprepossessing-sounding ‘ABC Dunhill Records’ label, it nevertheless kicks off in fine style with a smooth cover of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. The goodwill the opening track evokes is somewhat dissipated by the harsh-sounding analogue keyboard stabs and general sluggishness of Who Gets Your Love, but all is redeemed with the sexy, slinky Easy Evil, which anticipates the textures of Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain and is one of Dusty’s most sensual, downhome grooves. Elsewhere, Mama’s Little Girl has all the effervescence of the less careworn, more hopeful Dusty of the Ivor Raymonde years, and the delightful I Just Wanna Be There captures an euphoric, toe-tapping, happy go lucky swagger that puts one in mind of the Jacksons’ finest Motown 45s… So the Gamble & Huff influence was clearly two-way!
Cameo’s reception was as underbought as its realisation was overwrought, but word is that latterly it’s been received as one of Dusty’s best albums, even – some may say – standing tall with the mighty Dusty In Memphis. I’d leave that to your own subjective opinion, as all three of these post-Memphis albums yield career highs of Ms Springfield’s talents that have fairly been left unsung, even amongst the cognoscenti.
As anyone who’s read Penny Valentine’s Dancing With Demons will know, the 1970s was a most troubled decade for ‘Rusty Springboard’ (as Terry Wogan memorably coined her during his heyday) but for anyone intrigued enough by those fantastic singles and the enigma of this most unknowable and iconic of ‘sixties girl singers legends, you may well find a treasure trove of hidden gems. She’s the Sinatra of blues and soul – even if no one was buying these records, she’s singing to you and only you, with blood, sweat and tears. Hear her out.
Author biog: James Gent is currently writing and researching Flogging A Dead Parrot: The Complete Monty Python TV Companion (due out 2014), is interested in retro popular culture and his essays on Doctor Who have been published in the books Shooty Dog Thing (Hirst Books, 2010) and You & Who: Contact Has Been Made (Miwk, 2013)