Perfection in the stairwell

Simon Napier-Bell on the making of one of Dusty Springfield's greatest hits
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The Independent Culture
It was 1966 and Dusty Springfield, who died last week, had just been to the San Remo song festival where she'd heard an Italian song she liked. She bought a copy home thinking she might record it. Having no idea how to get hold of English lyrics, she asked advice from Vicki Wickham, an old friend of hers, and a new friend of mine.

Dusty had expected Vicki to suggest Norman Newell or Hal Schafer, the best-known writers of lyrics for European songs, but Vicki grabbed the opportunity for us. "Simon and I will write them," she said. Dusty was doubtful. And to be honest, so was I.

Vicki and I spent most nights eating and clubbing together. But that night, after our usual lavish dinner, we changed our normal routine of going straight to the Ad Lib club, and instead took a taxi to Vicki's flat where we sat listening to a scratchy old acetate singing at us in Italian.

Neither Vicki or I were sentimental people, and we both hated gushy romantic lyrics. Nevertheless, I conceded, "It's from Italy. The words have to be romantic. It ought to start with `I love you'." Vicki shuddered at the thought. "How about `I don't love you'?" she suggested.

I thought that was a bit extreme. "No, it's going too far the other way. Why not, `You don't love me'?" That was more dramatic, more Italian, but a bit accusatory. So we softened it a little: "You don't have to love me". That didn't quite fit the melody, so we added two more words. "You don't have to say you love me". Great. That was it. We could do the rest in the taxi. When we got to the Ad Lib club the song was all but finished, and we arrived only 10 minutes later than usual.

I'm often told by people who read this story that it spoils their fantasy about the song's meaning. But the truth is, a great many songs are written in much the same way. It's just that most songwriters have the good sense not to tell people. Fortunately, Vicki told Dusty that we'd sweated through the night to get it just right. And luckily, Dusty loved it. Well, no! That's not really true. She said she quite liked what we'd written and would see how it fitted with the backing track, which was already recorded.

The next night she took our lyric to the Phillips recording studio in Marble Arch and showed it to her producer. He was as unsure of it as Dusty was, but suggested she try it. Dusty was always desperately unsure of herself, and this led many people to think she was intentionally difficult. When it came to recording she could accept nothing less than perfection, and always presumed she could come nowhere near it.

That night, she complained that the echo on her voice wasn't right, so the engineer ran downstairs to the basement to adjust the inputs to the echo chamber. As he did so, he noticed how good the echo sounded in the stairwell of the seven-storey circular staircase. Five minutes later, Dusty was halfway up it, singing into a mike hanging in space in front of her. What she then sang was one of the greatest pop performances of all time. Sheer perfection from the first breath to last. In its own genre, as great as anything by Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra or Luciano Pavarotti.

In the music business, things often come together that way. People mess around fiddling with microphones and being half-serious about lyrics. Then the artist steps in and gives an electrifying performance and all the messy pieces turn into a magnificent whole.

"You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" has been covered hundreds of times by other singers but I'm sure it's always been Dusty's original performance that has persuaded them to record it.

People often tell me the song makes them feel it's about their own personal love story. But that was Dusty's greatness. And it's exactly what all great singers are able to do. They use the lyrics of a song as a shell into which they put their own emotions. Even if the lyrics are mundane, they give them meaning far beyond their original intent. As listeners, we find our ill-defined feelings being expressed with clarity; our vague sensations being bought firmly into focus.

And no one ever did it better than Dusty - that evening, standing in the stairwell, letting Vicki and me know what it was we'd really written.

Simon Napier-Bell is a pop group manager and the author of `You Don't Have To Say You Love Me', published by Ebury Press at pounds 9.99