The invention of Dusty Springfield

Mary O'Brien was born with the voice that would make her our greatest female pop singer, but everything else that went to make the icon of Dusty Springfield she created herself. Adam Sweeting investigates
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It has become a no-brainer for fans and critics to describe Dusty In Memphis as one of the greatest albums of all time. Its 11 songs partnered her incomparable voice with a batch of sublime arrangements, masterminded by the Atlantic Records A-team of Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. Elvis Costello calls it an album "that will chill and thrill, always and forever", and Rolling Stone voted it one of their Top 10 Coolest Records. It was Neil Tennant's love for Dusty In Memphis that prompted the Pet Shop Boys to approach Dusty in 1987 to give her a career-reviving hit with "What Have I Done To Deserve This?"

Atlantic's grandees get another chance to reminisce about the making of Dusty In Memphis in the South Bank Show's forthcoming profile of Springfield, but Dusty herself never understood what all the fuss was about. "It's become rather an overrated classic," she told me in 1990. "It's not as if it's some magnificent work of art. It's a good record." I don't think she was being deliberately perverse. She just had a shrewder perspective on her own work than anyone else.

Dusty's death in 1999, at the age of 59, has boosted the legend of Springfield as the Great Female Voice of British pop, though it hasn't done much to promote a deeper understanding of what made her a great artist. "There's something sad about the way people become almost more famous when they die," reflects Lulu, a fellow-performer who became a close friend of Dusty's during the Sixties. "I loved her voice, and there was a beautiful, attractive quality in her vulnerability. She was very insecure. She was a hard taskmaster in the studio because she was such a perfectionist, but that's why she was so great too."

There were several reasons why Springfield may have felt ambivalent about Dusty In Memphis. Despite raves from the critics and generating one of her best-remembered hits with "Son Of A Preacher Man", the album wasn't a commercial success. It was also a record over which Dusty had less control than she'd grown accustomed to. Jerry Wexler and his collaborators were probably unaware that Springfield had effectively produced all her own work in England, even if it didn't say so on her record sleeves. "All the hit records I had in England were found, produced, almost promoted by me," she told Rolling Stone magazine in 1973. "I never took any credit. It wasn't fashionable for women to have credit. Now it's very fashionable. But I did the whole bloody lot myself!"

Furthermore, the Memphis album marked the beginning of her period of exile in California, when she suffered grievously from being cut adrift from the friends and fellow-artists who'd supported her during her spectacular run of success in Britain. From 1963's barnstorming "I Only Want To Be With You" through "In The Middle Of Nowhere", "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", "Goin' Back" and her biggest international hit "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me", Dusty had become one of the biggest names in British pop during its most revolutionary decade. Now, transplanted to a West Coast which never looked quite right to her convent-educated English eyes, she descended into a trough of poor records and tawdry gigs on the casino and supper-club circuit. She became, in her own phrase, "Rent-a-Diva".

Springfield was intelligent enough to realise that the dawning of the Seventies was likely to render her Sixties persona, with its spectacular frocks, platinum beehives and black eye-shadow, perilously passe, and she had begun to feel a chilly wind blowing through her record sales. Yet it's inconceivable now that such a successful artist could have been left to blunder up a personal and creative cul-de-sac. She ended up stranded, unable to find sympathetic musical collaborators and struggling to build lasting personal relationships. The Seventies were a litany of unmemorable albums, while her private life became a free-fall into drugs, alcohol and self-mutilation.

Since her death, details have emerged about her lost decade-and-a-half in Los Angeles, and the South Bank Show film sketches in the outlines while stepping tactfully around the murkier details. It's clear that Springfield's sexuality caused her protracted agonies, and part of her motivation for relocating to California may have been the desire to escape the prurience of the British press.

As Neil Tennant commented at the time of her death, "in England, she had the whole lesbian thing thrown at her in the papers. She wasn't married. Did she or did she not have a boyfriend? Those days were tough. I mean, that was before even tennis players came out. I think that's why she went to America. She was fed up."

One of those tennis players was Billie Jean King, who came to know Dusty well. King tells the South Bank Show. "She wanted to be true to herself... and she had a lot of demons because of it. I think her sexuality was difficult because I think she knew she was gay by this time, and there is no way back in the Sixties and Seventies that you were gonna talk about it."

Almost no way. In 1970, Dusty gave an interview to Ray Connolly of the Evening Standard in which she confronted the dragon head on. "A lot of people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learned to accept it... I know I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don't see why I shouldn't."

Thirty years later the comment would barely have been noticed, but Dusty realised she was walking into a minefield. "For 15 years she didn't have another hit," Connolly added, and these were years in which Dusty passed through a string of unfulfilling relationships. It's instructive to compare how David Bowie's "I am gay" confession to the Melody Maker in 1972 lit the blue touch paper under his career.

Her sexuality aside, Springfield laboured under the burden of being female in an industry where all the key executives, managers, producers and musicians were men, and women were expected to be compliant dolly-birds. In England, she had been able to exert control over her work in the studio, albeit uncredited. When she moved to the States, she forfeited all her behind-the-scenes leverage.

Stories abound of how Dusty, in her heyday, drove producers and musicians to infinite lengths in search of sounds often only she could hear. Simon Napier-Bell, who co-wrote "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me", remembered how the track was recorded. "Dusty complained about the echo on her voice. When the engineer went to the basement to adjust it, he noticed how good the natural echo sounded in the stairwell. Five minutes later, Dusty was halfway up it, leaning out from the stairs, singing into a microphone hanging in space in front of her."

Derek Wadsworth worked with Springfield for 15 years as musician and arranger, and remembers how she would adjust musical keys to create the maximum emotional impact. "She would work very hard to get exactly the semitone which would make her strain the vocal at the top end, so you get this kind of wonderful torture. For example, in "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" she pushed that key change to the absolute limit, so she could only just squeeze it out. To me, she sounded like a little mouse on a railway line when an express train is coming towards her, and you just want to hug that little mouse and save its life."

She grasped the bigger musical picture, too. "It was like putting a jigsaw together. Dusty would have made a great scientist, because she analysed every detail." It's Wadsworth's view that the "Dusty Springfield" persona had been crafted with equal fastidiousness by the woman born Mary O'Brien in west London in 1939.

"Dusty Springfield was a creation of Mary O'Brien. She was almost not like a real person. She put the whole package together - the hair, the shoes, the gestures - and she had impeccable taste. I know in particular she modelled herself on Peggy Lee. She liked the way Peggy put her eyes on one side halfway through the song and did this little smile. There's a saying that the true nature of art reveals itself only at the very highest level, and I think that was the way with Dusty."

Springfield might have been designed to provide employment for battalions of psychotherapists. If she felt conflicted sexually, her personality also divided into an introverted, analytical half which found fulfillment in the endless fine detail of recording and production, and a performing half which adored stages and spectacle.

"I think Dusty became a gay icon because of the extreme artificiality and formality of her persona," suggests Camille Paglia, cultural critic. "I think there was that element of pushing her energies to the absolute limit that the gay audience usually esteems in a major star. You can see Dusty's power if you compare her with Madonna who is one of the great pop divas of our own time, but who strangely lacks the ability to bond with a live audience or to open herself emotionally. With Dusty there's a sense of passion, not only passion as emotion but passion as in the passion of Christ. It's almost as if she's tortured by her gift."

If the Pet Shop Boys hadn't ridden to her rescue with the aptly-titled "What Have I Done To Deserve This?", Springfield might only be dimly recalled as a derelict Sixties icon, but their intervention allowed her to connect with a new generation. Now, writer/director Jessica Sharzer is preparing a movie about Dusty's life (rumours of an Ang Lee biopic were unfounded), set to star The West Wing's Kristin Chenoweth, and some measure of immortality seems assured.

Dale Winton, a Dusty fanatic who named each chapter of his autobiography after one of her songs, thinks that's only reasonable. "I am very pleased to say that her enduring legacy is not the beehive and the black eye makeup. People have got savvy to the voice, the style, the phrasing and the delivery, and that is how she will be remembered. Put any of her records on your iPod today, and you have absolute class." m

The South Bank Show's Dusty Springfield will be broadcast on 9 April at 11.10pm on ITV1