Dusty Springfield 1939-1999

An appreciation by Joyce Millman

Published March 4, 1999 5:31PM (EST)

Dusty Springfield was a big girl. On old '60s TV shows like
"Shindig" and "Hullabaloo," in her signature bleached-blond beehive hairdo and tough-chick black eyeliner, and with her strong, broad-shouldered frame, she looked nearly Amazonian next to those skinny little birds in their fringed go-go dresses. Her voice was big as well -- big and husky, simmering and frisky, sexually knowing and powerfully vulnerable. Like her idol, Aretha Franklin, Dusty looked like she had skipped right from self-assured tomboy to confident woman.

Dusty saw it another way, though. In an oft-quoted remark, made at the height of her fame, she said that underneath it all, she still felt like an
"awful, fat, ugly, middle-class kid." Two months ago, dying of cancer, she
reflected on her life in a British newspaper interview, recalling that she
had an epiphany at age 16: "Be miserable, or become someone else." So
Mary Catherine O'Brien bought a tube of black eyeliner, took the stage name Dusty Springfield and became one of the greatest female pop singers of her generation.

Dusty first began performing in a group called the Lanas, and then with her brothers as the Springfields. In 1963, at age 24, Dusty had her first solo hit, "I Only Want to Be With You"; her husky, shouted vocal seemed startlingly, thrillingly mature -- too mature for the record's tinny pop instrumentation. Dusty is often grouped with both the British Invasion and the girl group sound, but, really, she was in a category of her own. She was first and foremost a soul singer; she adored American R&B and is credited with popularizing the music in Great Britain. In 1968, she
recorded her masterpiece, "Dusty in Memphis," with Aretha Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, which yielded the hit "Son of a Preacher Man" and included other frankly sensual R&B ballads like "Breakfast in Bed" and "Just a Little Lovin'." Back home, they called her "the White Queen of Soul."

But Dusty also had a bit of the chanteuse in her, which is apparent in
her torchy, languid performances of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," "In the Land of Make Believe" and "The Look of Love," all hit singles during the mid-'60s. And she was a diva too, as witnessed by her 1966 hit "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," with its over-the-top, melodramatic Ivor Raymonde orchestration.

In 1987 gay British popsters Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys rescued Dusty from a prolonged dry spell, marked by problems with drugs and booze and several failed comebacks, that had lasted for most of the '70s and '80s. Singing a duet with Tennant on the Pet Shop Boys' lovingly crafted dance hit "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" she cooed, smoldered, emoted. The joy in her voice was unmistakable.

After "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Dusty never really dropped completely out of sight again. She was celebrated as an icon of the gay community as much for her music and self-made-swan persona as for her bisexuality, which she had first alluded to in a 1975 newspaper article.
"Son of a Preacher Man" enjoyed a revival when it was included in a pivotal scene of "Pulp Fiction." She recorded another album (her last), "A Very Fine Love," in 1995, and was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Last January, she received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth. But her hard-won comeback was darkened by a 1994 diagnosis of breast cancer. She died from the disease at her home outside London Tuesday at the age of 59; she will be inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony in New York City on March 15.

In its obituary, the BBC News reported that Dusty's longtime friend Mike Gill has been working, with her approval, on a new four-CD box set of her work. In recent months, said Gill, Dusty began prodding him to speed it up. "Tell Mike to get things organized," Gill remembers her saying. "I want to go out with a bit of style."

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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