”Dusty Springfield, that’s a pretty name, pretty as a pearl, what a pretty girl!” With these words, the singer Blossom Dearie seemed to sum up the very Dusty-ness of Dusty, at least the image most of us have of this great star. However, as with most things, the image only tells part of the story. Dusty was indeed a very pretty girl, embodying a sophisticated glamour that seems as faraway today as 60s Vegas Lounges, James Bond movies and the San Remo Songfestival, but at her core was an artistry of great depth and conviction.
Maybe it is the name. Maybe it’s those famous panda eyes and beehive hair. Maybe it’s the air of tragedy that coloured her life. Maybe it’s all this and more, but something about Dusty still resonates and puzzles all these years down the line. An hour or two with this compilation will provide you with the one answer you really need – it’s the music, for make no mistake, Dusty Springfield knew how to make great records. From her first solo album A Girl Called Dusty she kicked, scratched and, in her own words, “scowled” to get the sounds out of her head and on to the tape, often dealing with pernickety musicians. Dusty: “I was asking someone to do Motown bass-lines on a stand up bass and it was a shock. The ones who thought I was a cow I didn’t work with again. The ones who wanted to learn with me, they had the greatest time.”
There is indeed a sense of adventure and tension about Dusty’s early solo work which remains thrilling even now, arising in no small part from a unique combination of the reserved elegance of producers and arrangers like John Franz, Ivor Raymonde and Wally Stott with incredible sonic depth and warmth (unmatched in studio recording to this day) and her own yen for Soul, R&B, Latin and, of course, Aretha Franklin. Many examples of this mixture are provided here – the gorgeous If It Hadn’t Been For You, a glassy shimmer of strings and piano topped with a beautifully restrained but soulful vocal, or the opening track of this compilation I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face, with it’s amazingly animated rhythm track, drums and bass flying everywhere and Dusty just breezing along, turning up the heat a few notches whenever required. This track is typical of the incredible dynamic range of Dusty’s singing – unlike many of the dramatic chanteuses of the day, she knew the power of understatement – at times her style is almost conversational, but always with the ability to open up, deliver the goods and get the song across. Interviewed for this compilation, Chip Taylor, author of I Can’t Wait and Welcome Home, remembered: “One of the great things about Dusty from a songwriter’s perspective was that her heart took the song – she got it right away and understood what the song was all about – producers would always be looking for the latest trick or whatever, but Dusty just took the song to her heart and sang it with meaning.”
Dusty’s power as an interpretive singer was surely never more in evidence than on her 1967 recording of Burt Bacharach’s Lounge classic The Look Of Love, a performance that can truly be described as definitive. A comparison between this and Bacharach’s own instrumental version demonstrates how much Dusty has softened the melody’s angular lines to suit her own smoky, sensual style, understanding the intimacy of the lyric perfectly. The vision to choose and shape songs to her own voice is also ably shown on a fabulous reading of Where Am I Going. This show tune (from Sweet Charity), with it’s slightly overwrought, self analytical lyric, nestles happily on her album of the same name alongside songs by writers such as Aretha Franklin (who provides the super funky Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream) without raising an eyebrow. Her great trick here is to take disparate elements, put them together and “Dusty-fy” them, in this case helped by a flamboyant arrangement from the great Wally Stott. She knew when to seduce and when to entertain.
Wally Stott is also responsible for a wonderful arrangement of How Can I Be Sure – a beautiful vertical melody written by Felix Cavaliere and Ed Brigatti Jnr for their blue-eyed-soul act The Rascals. This track and Magic Garden (written by the God of Art-Pop Jimmy Webb and arranged here by Keith Mansfield and Skip Mosher) are excellent examples of how the division of labour worked in British and American studios right through the Sixties and some way into the Seventies, The Beatles notwithstanding. Songwriters, producers, arrangers, studio musicians and singers all were pooling their unique talents to come up with great art. In the middle of it all was Dusty Springfield, her taste and judgement faultless.
One of Dusty’s most tasteful and seductive performances is surely the wonderful, jazzy shuffle of Just A Little Lovin’ from Dusty In Memphis, her 1969 classic where she finally got to record with the American musicians she so admired. Legend has it that while in Memphis with Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and the “Memphis Cats”, Dusty was, for once, awe struck and could not produce a single note. Only on returning to New York was she able to get into a studio, crank the headphones to ear splitting level, take a deep breath and turn in some of the best vocal performances of her career. Dusty’s great American adventure continued in Philadelphia with the fledgling Gamble & Huff/Thom Bell songwriting and production team and her confidence was high – check out the soulful swagger of The Star Of My Show and the abandoned yelp of Brand New Me. This is pop music at it’s most joyous.
The depth and conviction of Dusty Springfield’s artistry is cut into every track on this compilation and blows away the stylish image, the tragedy, even the very pretty name. At the end of her adventure we are still left with the one answer we really need; it’s the music, all the rest is glitter.