Dusty Springfield 20 years on: Remembering the British soul star who defined a decade

Sixties icon best known for ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ channelled American influences with taste and foresight to masterly effect

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Friday 01 March 2019 18:37
Dusty Spingfield for Mother's Pride advert

British soul singer Dusty Springfield died 20 years ago on 2 March 1999.

The use of her song “Son of a Preacher Man” in Quentin Tarantino’s ensemble crime film Pulp Fiction (1994) introduced her to a new generation, but the popularity of that one track has arguably overshadowed the rest of her output.

But there is a great deal more to discover from a star who came to define the Sixties arguably better than anyone.

Born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien to an Irish Catholic family in West Hampstead, north London, on 16 April 1939, she was raised in High Wycombe, and started out singing with The Lana Sisters alongside Iris Long and Lynne Abrams, a gig she got after answering an advert in The Stage in 1958. She cut her hair, abandoned her glasses and toured the US air force bases of Europe with the trio for two years.

She then joined The Springfields in 1960, a pop-folk outfit with Reshad Feild and her elder brother Dion, a tax accountant. The group’s members all took the band’s name for a surname, with “Dusty” coming from her habit of playing football in the streets with local boys as a child.

By 1963, when the group disbanded, The Springfields had had a series of hits and pre-empted the “British invasion” that would see The Beatles, The Kinks et al take the US by storm.

In November that year, Dusty Springfield went solo and was free to pursue her own ideas, drawing influence from R&B girl groups like The Exciters, whose hit “Tell Him” is a clear blueprint for her orchestral-pop sound.

Her first single “I Only Want to Be With You” was a smash, as was the album that followed it, A Girl Called Dusty (1964). The record’s highlights included covers of Lesley’s Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”, The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and Ray Charles’s “Don’t You Know?” as well as her first collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David: “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart”.

Further Bacharach-penned singles would follow: “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and ”I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”.

By now, Dusty was an established star, her only serious rivals on the UK scene were Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Lulu, after whom she jokingly named her three beehive wigs.

But there were controversies: she was deported from South Africa for playing for an integrated audience and developed a reputation for being difficult after throwing a cake at an objectionable waiter.

She also suffered the indignity of being knocked out of the Italian Song Festival in San Remo at the semi-final stage in 1965. The competition that had inspired the creation of Eurovision. However, she heard an Italian ballad, “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)”, sung by its composer Pino Donaggio at the same event. It would provide the biggest hit of her career when translated into English: “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”.

A skilled interpreter of songs, Dusty Springfield was also an influential tastemaker in the Sixties, sometimes credited with bringing the Motown sound to British TV audiences for the first time when she curated a special edition of the ITV programme Ready Steady Go! that featured Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations and The Miracles.

While a single like “The Look of Love” brilliantly captured its moment, Springfield nevertheless faced criticism for being inauthentic and adopting American tropes.

To address this, she signed with Atlantic Records – home of her heroine, Aretha Franklin – and relocated to Tennessee in 1968 to record Dusty In Memphis.

Despite featuring “Son of a Preacher Man” and “The Windmills of Your Mind” and songs by Bacharach and David, Carole King and Gerry Goffen, and Randy Newman, the record was a commercial flop but has since gone on to be recognised as one of the greatest albums of all time.

The disappointment was to mark the beginning of the end for the singer. The 1970s were marked by a steady decline in interest in her records, a period that coincided with an increase in tabloid prurience towards her personal life after she revealed her bisexuality in an interview with Ray Connolly of The London Evening Standard to promote her single “How Can I Be Sure?”

Reappraised today, her remarks are startlingly frank and brave indeed: “I don’t go leaping around to all the gay clubs but I can be very flattered. Girls run after me a lot and it doesn’t upset me. It upsets me when people insinuate things that aren’t true. I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady. But I know that I’m as perfectly 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.”

“Do you realise... what I’ve just said could put the final seal to my doom. I don’t know, though. I might attract a whole new audience,” she told Connolly.

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Springfield relocated to America to avoid the subsequent furore but struggled to fit in with the suburban social milieu of Los Angeles. She was rescued from obscurity by the Pet Shop Boys in 1987 to duet with Neil Tennant on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” before being diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-Nineties and dying in 1999.

After a funeral attended by hundreds of fans – Elvis Costello, Lulu and Tennant among them – her brother and former bandmate, known as “Tom Springfield”, scattered her ashes over the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

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