Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century

2: Dusty Springfield, Singer

WE FIRST saw her in a gingham dress, like something out of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, full-bosomed, with a pinched-in waist, with her improbable hair back-combed and perched upon her head like a blond Walnut Whip.

Who could have guessed that this Barbie doll, singing trouble-free country songs with her brother Tom in 1962 in a terminally cheerful combo called The Springfields, would become the great tragic heroine of pop music?

Forget Marianne Faithfull. Anyone can take drugs and sleep with Mick Jagger. Stifle a yawn as you rehearse the Janis Joplin story. Sex and drugs and rock'n'roll and an early death. But Dusty. Ah, Dusty. Now that would make a movie.

We start in the present day with our heroine living semi-reclusively in England's leafy Home Counties. Requests for interviews are mostly turned down. Occasionally a snapper with a telephoto lens tries to catch her going out to empty the rubbish. It's sort of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. It wasn't Dusty that got small, it was the records.

Now flash back to the beginning, and a mystery unfolds. How did a middle- class girl born in Hampstead become one of the greatest voices in the history of soul music?

Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, born in 1939 to an income tax consultant and what Dusty describes as a "pure innocent Irish Catholic" mother, somehow transcended the sub-country music that could be considered a young red-headed Irish girl's spiritual home, went solo, and, by the late Sixties, had Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin's producer, itching to record with her.

Dusty in Memphis, the album Wexler and Dusty recorded, was described by the New York Times as "pop music's holy grail". It is one of the most famous pop albums of all time, more heard of than heard, although the hit single it yielded, "Son of a Preacher Man", revived most recently in Pulp Fiction, never pales. The single was final confirmation not only that the girl had gone from Hampstead but that all trace of Hampstead had gone from the girl.

Dusty was always more interesting than her records, though. In the mid- Sixties, the music critic Simon Frith noted, "Dusty was the object of an oddly furtive adolescent interest. Her image, like her hair, was brittle... Her songs hinted at unspoken, desperate truths about sexuality that weren't there for discussion by little boys."

The sex thing, of course. Dusty has said she is as capable of "being swayed by a girl as a boy", and endless prurient speculation drove her from Britain in the early Seventies. She settled in California, and for a decade and a half rattled about in a big house with a big swimming- pool, drinking, taking uppers and downers, doing the American supper-club circuit, and releasing mostly unworthy records.

Until the story takes another glorious twist in 1987, when Neil Tennant, a long-time fan and smart fellow, brings Dusty home to record with the Pet Shop Boys. Miraculously, the voice is intact, "husky and breathy," says Tennant, "with an intensity and desperation that's fantastically sensual."

In the midst of Dusty's glorious late flowering, though, breast cancer is diagnosed, a blight she is determined to defeat.

If anyone can, Dusty can. In 1964 - 1964, mind you, when blonde pop stars were for amusement only - Dusty was placed under arrest in her hotel in South Africa after refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She always has had a reputation for being "difficult", arising mainly from her unerring views on what makes a good pop record.

Difficult? Sure, she's difficult. If you want simple, make a film about Kylie Minogue.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference