28 February 2021

Dusty Springfield: Being Great Isn't Always Easy

Dusty Springfield that's a pretty name

It even sounds like a game

In a green field hobby horses play the game when it's May

Pink and paisley skies shining n green eyes

A magic pin wheel

Flowers in her hair

Dusty Springfield

Silver star shine over crystal waters

Petal pretty as a pearl

What a pretty girl.

s fall from her glance

Flowers sparkle

With a dew of morning, feathers float from her dance

Suddenly the song's the thing

Fill your cup, come to the spring

And you'll stand so still

You'll feel the thrill

 -  "Dusty Springfield" words & music by Jim Council, Blossom Dearie, & Norma Tanega

On March 2 it will be twenty-two years since Dusty Springfield died.  Widely regarded as the greatest British pop singer of the 20th century, but still underrated according to her peers. Elvis Costello: "(I)t's one of the greatest voices in pop music, without doubt. And I don't really think she's ever got credit for that because people concentrate on the icon aspect of it. You know, the hair and the eyelashes and the hand gestures."

Springfield's career still inspires: she was a woman who made the life she wanted from the life she was given.  At the beginning of her solo career in 1963 Springfield hid that she produced  her records, fearing the public would react negatively to a female singer who took the credit. The music business seemed agreed that female singers did not know what was best for them, that there needed to be a man in charge. An interesting footnote is that Brian Epstein, a manager who would have had his hands full even if the Beatles were his only clients - and they were not - said he wished he could have managed Springfield's career. Soon after the Springfields group split up in 1963, Vic Billings became her manager; their association is still regarded as one of the best manager/artist relationships of the 1960s.

Born Mary O'Brien in suburban London, she attended a Catholic girls' school where she  played field hockey in spite of severe nearsightedness.  The sisters at St. Anne's didn't see much of a future for the plump redheaded tomboy but Mary was determined: "I just decided, in one afternoon, to be this other person who was going to make it."  She bleached her hair and developed a unique style of makeup, believing that looking like a different person would help her become that person.  Her teenage nickname Dusty ,combined with Springfield, the name of a vocal group founded by her older brother, completed the transformation.

Finding her voice apart from the Springfields  began in 1962 while the group was en route to Nashville to record an album. During a stopover in New York City Dusty took a late night walk when she became transfixed by a song piped over a loudspeaker at the famous (motto: "I found it at the Colony") Record Store on Broadway at 52nd Street. The song was "Tell Him" by the girl group the Exciters.  Springfield later described the experience: "The Exciters sort of got you by the throat ... out of the blue comes blasting at you "I know something about love" and that's it." You can trace a direct line to Dusty's first solo hit "I Only Want To Be With You" in November 1963

Soon she was meeting the songwriters who would contribute so much to the Springfield songbook.  Dusty met Carole King at the Brill Building where King and her husband Gerry Goffin wrote their hits in a small studio. "(S)he was this little thing with lots of hair and I thought "my God, all this music comes out of you."  On another song-hunting trip to New York, Dusty flew over for a day to have dinner with Burt Bacharach: from that trip she brought back "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

Since her death in 1999, it has become known that Dusty Springfield's romantic relationships were with  other women, a subject she avoided discussing publicly during her lifetime for fear it would destroy her career. 

Norma Tanega (1939-2019) was a Native American singer-songwriter who came to England in 1966, where shea met Dusty Springfield.  The two lived together in Kensington for five years. During that time Tanega wrote several evocative songs for Dusty -  No Stranger Am IThe Colour of Your Eyes  English lyrics for Nana Caymmi's Bom Dia (Morning), Midnight SoundsEarthbound GypsyGo My Love (released posthumously, with melody taken from J.S. Bach), and English lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim's La Strada do sol (Come For A Dream).

Tanega told an interviewer that Dusty had once explained that she conceived of singing as a river with two currents, one for the notes, one for emotion. "She [Dusty] would always know when the emotion would drop off and that's when she would stop and start again. The emotion and the tone had to mesh. People said that she didn't know her own ability, how good she was. She knew her ability alright, that's why it had to be perfect. She knw how to ride that river better than any other raft in the business."

Springfield's affinity for black American music ran deep.  She described her June 1964 stint performing with Martha & the Vandellas at the Brooklyn Fox Theater as  "the biggest thrill of my life,"  To have persuaded her British label to allow her first two albums to consist of mostly cover version of black songs was a daring move at the time. Springfield had embarked on a tour of South Africa in December 1964 that...After performing before an integrated audience in Capetown the singer was reprimanded and deported.  The affair caused a scandal back home where artists who had enjoyed lucrative tours of South Africa condemned her refusal to perform for segregated audiences because it made them look unprincipled, which they were. 

Madeleine Bell (b.1942) appeared in Black Nativity: A Gopel Song Play by Langston Hughes when it debuted off- Broadway in 1961.  Although the initial run was not long its impact and influence was ...  Bell came to England with the review and at a New Year's Eve party in 1963 she met Dusty Springfield.  The musical relationship that developed between the two was one of several such between church-trained African American vocalists  including Gloria Jones and Doris Troy who, along with Bell would work as Springfield's backing vocalists beginning with In the Middle of Nowhere, recorded in March, 1965.  The call and response between the lead singer and the backup singers made for a close interaction that was energizing to the material in a way British audiences were not accustomed to.  

Blossom Dearie (1924-2009) composed song tributes to artists she admitted - Hey John about her excitement on meeting John Lennon, Sweet Georgie Fame for the British jazz singer and Dusty Springfield. Dearie had often mentioned Springfield as bein one of her favorite singers.

And yes, that was her real name.  Dearie is a name that goes back to 13th century Britain; her father was of Scots-Irish descent and her Norwegian mother called the girl Blossom. Dearie was born in East Durham, Albany County, New York. She moved to Paris in 1952 where she formed a successful jazz vocal group, the Blue Stars. 

In the early 1960s, Dearie began to appear in London jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's, where she recorded two popular live albums. It's possible that Springfield heard Dearie perform there: Springfield's tastes were eclectic stretching from rhythm and blues to jazz to Brazilian music and even standards and folk music. Both singers performed songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Springfield recorded a song associated with Dearie - Sweet Lover No More. Their voices were as dissimilar as chalk and cheese; Dearie's a light, girlish soprano and Springfield's  a dusky contralto.

For more: Let's Talk Dusty

Images:

1. Dezo Hoffmann - Dusty Springfield at San Remo Song Festival in front of Savoy Hotel, January  1965.

2.  unidentified photographer - Dusty Springfield in the late 1970s.

21 February 2021

Off The Coast Of Reality: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer's Venice

Delicate and wispy, evocative,  characterized by poesie, a potent combination of poetry and mystery: that's a good definition of pastels. Dry pastels are made of ground  pigments with gum arabic acting  as a binder.  The medium has been used since the Renaissance; it entered Europe by way of the trade in minerals.  In the 15th century Venice was a republic built on trade, the place where Europeans and Asians with something to sell would meet. 

Artists experimented with those minerals, making colored crayons from Chinese Cinnabar to produce vermillion, Russian malachite  for an intense green and, most precious of all, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan that produced a profound blue never seen before that was named ultramarine.  Levy-Dhurmer used that blue to good effect for the night sky that is the  backdrop for a bravura display of fireworks, seen here raining down from unseen heavens.

Venice is a city where the ephemeral nature of all things is always apparent. Solid objects are twinned with their. reflections,  restless and shimmering, in the Venetian canals. Like Stockholm which is built (mostly) on a chain of islands, Venice comprises more than one hundred marshy islands off the Italian  mainland. 

Originally settled as the Roman Empire collapsed,  refugees fled to the mudflats of the Veneto which offered a natural hideout from the northern invaders.  The local fishermen taught the newcomers to navigate the byways of the lagoon and its islands.  A city whose 'fortress' was the sea  inspired a unique architecture that combined elements of Byzantine, Moorish, and Gothic (seen here in the lancet arches of the Doge's  Palace).   The short-lived painter known as Giorgione (1477 ?- 1510) was the emblematic artist of this liminal world. He was a master of elusiveness: to this day the meaning of his small oeuvre remains an enduring mystery.  

Image: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer - Feu d'artifice a Venise (Fireworks in Venice), date unclear, pastel, Pettit Palais, Paris.

13 February 2021

Norman Lewis: On The Path To Abstraction


Words don't adequately express my delight in the figure of the little in the striped dress playing the trombone, the trombone that is longer than she is tall. Part of the fun of lookin at Jenkins Street Band is in picking out the musicians and their instruments. I see a cornet player, a trumpeter, and a saxophone player wearing a wild checked jacket. That could be another musician wearing the polka dotted bow tie or it could someone holding a collection box.

During the 1940s the painter Norman Lewis was moving from the social realism he had practiced in the 1930s toward the new thing: abstraction.  Doubtful that overt commentary would bring about change and believing that "The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development,"  Lewis used gestural drawing (seen here in Jenkins Street Band from 1946) to make the transition. You can almost hear the improvisational playing of these street musicians through  the ease and freedom of line in Lewis's drawing.  

Street bands were a common sight in Harlem where Norman Lewis grew up.  The child of immigrants from Bermuda, Lewis (b.1909) was always keen on art but the family's resources went to Norman's older brother's music lessons. Saul Lewis would eventually play with the Count Basie and Chick Webb bands. Harlem in the 1920s was a mecca for the well-to-do (white) downtown crowd lured by the hot new jazz. that played in storied venues like the Cotton Club and Small's Paradise.  But there was no shortage of music on the street, of locals who wanted to play and those who wanted to listen. You didn't need to have money to hear music in Harlem.

To read more about Norman Lewis

Hear more Street Music here.

Image: Norman Lewis - Jenkins Street Band, 1944, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of Art, Washington, DC.

06 February 2021

Altered States: Claude Cahun


 











We think of assemblage as an art form of the 1960s but  Object by the French artist Claude Cahun dates from 1936. Typically her assemblages were ephemeral and made only to last long enough for her partner Marcel Moore (given name Suzanne Malherbe) to photograph them. Object is the only three dimensional work that still exists as Cahun created it. 

Nothing Cahun used in the making of Object was left in its original form. A painted tennis ball became  the tilted eye. For the surrealists the eye symbolized  inward-looking, made popular by psychoanalysis. Cloud-shaped white wood hovers behind someone's real brown hair that Cahun glued on.  A hand that  originally belonged on a department store mannequin appears to have written the words on the yellow board.

The words written on the yellow base are their own an assemblage. "The Marseillaise is a revolutionary song, the law punishes counterfeiters with forced labor." (English translation)  The first is a slogan used by the anit-Fcsist Popular Front, winners of France's 1936 legislative elections, the second is warning that appears on Belgian currency.  The references are ambiguous;  Cahun was dissatisfied with the Surrealists for their lack of political involvement  and questioned the commitment of the Popular Front groups

Cahun (1894-1954), whose given name was Lucy Schwob, took part in two Surrealist exhibitions the year of Object, one in Paris and the other in London.  She was also one of many who attracted the ire of the irascible Surrealist Andre Breton. She created her works for herself and had no interest in fame.  Lost from view after her untimely death, Cahun's work was only rediscovered in the 1990s by a generation  who found simpatico in her fluid identity. "Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me."

Image: Claude Cahun - Object, 1936, wood, paint, tennis ball, hair and found objects, Art Institute of Chicago.