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.

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.

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