Dusty Springfield

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Dusty Springfield Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 26/07/17

The twenty nine year old woman in the blonde bouffant wig listened to yet another acetate and deemed the material unsuitable for her vocal style; in fact she’d lost count by now of exactly how many she’d heard over the preceding weeks. Jerry Wexler hadn’t – as her producer, he’d wondered if he’d ever get this album project off the ground. With eighty possible compositions rejected the portents were not encouraging yet by some miracle, the next twenty were rapturously received by the British diva. Of course, Wexler didn’t inform her that she’d rejected the same numbers several weeks earlier and by some good fortune she appeared to have forgotten. But that was Dusty and when you were dealing with the greatest soul singer Britain had ever produced you just went with the flow or to be more precise, the Springfield flow.

Wexler went on to produce one of the seminal albums of the 60’s and the public sadly took twenty years to catch on. In the meantime, Dusty sank into artistic oblivion, vacated her homeland for wild times in L.A. and faced up squarely to a sexual ambiguity that had perplexed more than one tabloid newspaper over the years.

Here was an artist who was a manic depressive, a person who slept with men when she was strung out on drink and drugs but who saved all her serious emotional entanglements for women. Here also, was a woman who, inside a recording studio, was as demanding, if not even more so of herself, than the musicians who painted the musical landscape for her voice, that mellifluous instrument which suggested more than the merest hint of black in her family background. How could a caucasian woman, born in London just prior to the outbreak of war, appear the very epitome of British soul, an incongruous musical connection within itself?

Born Mary O’Brien, she, along with her brother, was the product of a dysfunctional family, an Ealing based unit that boasted a near permanent lodger in the form of a local catholic priest. Food at the family dining table was either passed around or hurled at various members and whilst Mary’s father lived his life in as orderly a fashion as his accountancy books her mother appeared to silently scream at her stifling domesticity and both siblings were by now developing a deep mistrust of marriage as an institution. Mary’s mother, whilst travelling abroad without her husband, (a convention in many marriages which I singularly fail to understand and seriously question the motives involved), would regularly send him postcards and letters tellingly signed off with “regards” rather than “love” or “affectionately.” Clearly all was not well in the union. If there were any possibility of this rather plain looking catholic girl forging a meaningful relationship with a man virtually all hope was lost in the years spent at the St Anne’s convent school for girls. Due to her parental influence and the segregated school system Mary O’Brien had no idea how to interact with members of the opposite sex once she reached adulthood.

A further impediment to her growth as a person was her parents’ undeniable favouritism towards her brother Tom due in no small part to his superior academic prowess. According to Dusty she had to deal with a father who practised corporal punishment with some zeal. The young Mary was already deliberately burning her hands on the stove to attract attention. Dusty was a cutter. People cut themselves to get attention or as a cry for help; the chanteuse certainly believed this and not for once would she tell friends “It’s the only way to get people to listen to you”.

An initial episode of self-harm is most commonly triggered by an argument with a parent or close friend. When family life involves a lot of abuse, neglect or rejection, people are more likely to harm themselves. Unfortunately some young people use self-harm as a way of trying to deal with very difficult feelings that build up inside. This is clearly very serious and can be life threatening. People say different things about why they do it. Some people try to cope with very upsetting experiences, such as trauma or abuse, by convincing themselves that the upsetting event(s) never happened. These people sometimes feel ‘numb’ or ‘dead.’ They say that they feel detached from the world and their bodies, and that self-injury is a way of feeling more connected and alive.

Self-harm is most common in adolescence and young adulthood, usually first appearing between the ages of 12 and 24. Such an action in childhood is relatively rare but the rate has been increasing since the 1980s. Unfortunately for the young Mary O’Brien there was no local GP who could have referred her onto the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) because our understanding of self harming amongst children in the 50’s was in its infancy.

Later, in her adult life, Dusty surrounded herself with a loyal team of business associates but abiding trust in those individuals was not freely given; on the contrary, thanks to her mother’s instinctive misgivings about people in general it is unsurprising that her daughter would think any other way.

Her career is well documented throughout various internet resources and wikipedia, as ever, offers a concise and useful starting point.


She gave up going to confession from early adulthood, periodically saying that she was underserving of hell in the afterlife for simply being self indulgent. What she didn’t seem to appreciate is that her religious upbringing gave her a code by which to live her life and to knowingly distinguish between right and wrong. Intellectuals give credence to the notion of “self liberation from religious constraints” when espousing the virtues of a hedonistic existence yet these very people will probably be the first to pray to God when their atlantic flight develops engine trouble. I suspect Dusty never fully discussed her private life because precious little of it brought her contentment. We can all profess to be adventurers (or some people at least), and whilst many individuals are suitably modest and self effacing about their creditable deeds, reprehensible actions remain closely guarded out of shame and regret. We all know deep down what actions on our part will meet with disapproval from our peers. Personally I’ve never been able to relate to people who cannot face up to who and what they are. An inability to self analyse invariably leads to repetition in life, and usually of the worst type of acts. The Christian faith teaches us that humans are responsible for their actions and God weighs them and brings them to judgement; reward and punishment are, generally speaking, received in this life. Just like Dusty, I have no definitive answers to life’s most searching questions, but in the last few years I have read extensively on the subject of eschatology in its futuristic sense, and I believe in the last four things : death, the final judgement, Heaven and Hell. I don’t look forward to my time in Hell or the challenges it will present me, with but that doesn’t mean my life here on earth must be tarnished each and every day with thoughts of it. I have very few regrets about my life, but those few regrets run deeply. Dusty appeared unable to reconcile in her mind what awaited her after death, and she tortured herself and for that reason alone I feel for her. In the words of Norma Tanega with whom she shared a home for a while, Dusty wanted to be straight, a good catholic and black. Instead as she saw it, she was the opposite on all counts.


The authorised biography of Dusty, “Dancing with demons,” contains a harrowing section on pages 170 – 224 which details her descent into drug addiction, alcoholism, possible attempted suicide and abusive relationships. More than anything, it’s the irreparable damage such a lifestyle had on her work ethic for she didn’t record for five years and one cannot say this career hiatus was an emboldening experience that encouraged a change for the positive in her life. On the contrary she became a quivering emaciated wreck, attending AA meetings and finding herself in emergency hospital wards after overdosing and experiencing scenes of domestic violence with a female partner. It’s a totally underwhelming period in her life and very lttle improved until she returned to live in the UK.

Nevertheless, she was a loyal friend, possessed of some endearing self deprecating ways and fiercely anti aparteid as evidenced by her performing stance on her 1965 South African tour which created a commotion in the press. She was a long term champion of the Motown Sound and did much to promote black artists in Britain. She is also a model object to women everywhere on the subject of making the best of one’s features; the beehive hairpieces distracting attention from her jawline, the heavy mascara contrasting dramatically with her blonde colouring – it hardly seems possible that this glamorous star is the same girl in the St Anne’s Convent group hockey team photo less than ten years earlier.

As for her recorded output, the perfectionism she sought in her voice reflected the near constant backdrop of parental criticism she endured as a child; no less a luminary than Burt Bacharach observing her need for retake after retake in order to capture what she could hear inside her head. Head voice, falsetto, controlled exhalation, vibrato, modulation, intonation, sustain, the adult Mary O’Brien heard defects that even experienced engineers mistook for a perfect take.

As for her natural preference, eighteen of the twenty five numbers featured on Dusty’s first two albums had their origins in black american releases, a clear message of intent as to the future direction of her career and a homage to her primary musical influence. On “A girl called Dusty” and “Everything’s coming up Dusty,” the instrumentation has a distinctly english feel to it, competently played yet less than instinctively organic as if somehow displacing Dusty’s melismatic vocalising; the right girl in the wrong town. Over the next three years, a matchless series of hit singles would keep her at the forefront of the British Invasion but all roads were inexorably headed for the American deep south and a collection of songs that would forever define her artistry.

[Programme for Dusty’s Sept/Oct ’66 UK tour.]


Recommended listening

Everything's coming up Dusty (1965)

A stalwart of my ‘in-car CD collection,’ I play the original 13 track album, although the extended CD is one of the best Dusty collections available today. The additional 8 tracks date from her ’64 New York sessions, but since Dusty spent hours sequencing her material, it seems appropriate to hear the material in the manner she desired.

Continuing in pleasing fashion, the pattern established with her first release, it’s a varied set of songs including Randy Newman’s haunting `I’ve Been Wrong Before’ (which just edges Cilla’s version for emotional intensity) and showcases a distinct leaning towards the American soul, pop and r’n‘b records that she perennially collected. The chanteuse covers her favourite singer Baby Washington – ‘That’s How Heartaches are Made’ and ‘Doodlin’ – as well as Garnet Mimms’ ‘It Was Easier to Hurt Her’ and Betty Everett’s ‘I Can’t Hear You No More’ amongst others. There’s the odd dud – ‘La Bamba’ , a staple feature of her live act, yet out of step with the rest of the material – but there’s also a show tune ‘Who can I turn to (when nobody needs me)’, recorded a couple of years earlier by Tony Bennett, which Dusty handles with great aplomb. Ably supported by the great Madeline Bell and future Apple artist Doris Troy, this is the Motown album that never was, and would cement her position as a mod favourite.

Dusty in Memphis (1969)

Jerry Wexler was dodging flying ashtrays and engineer Tom Dowd was fielding personal insults as Dusty redefined “Diva” terminology; small wonder therefore, that the sessions were stressful. Her popularity was waning and if thirty was a birthday to fear Dusty was ahead of the game where her female competitors were concerned. She’d recorded the definitive version of Bacharach & David’s “The look of Love” for the Bond spoof Casino Royale the previous year which had restored her to chart prominence, but more than a year had since elapsed and a valid career outside the charts still appeared the sole preserve of a more senior stable of artists. Arriving in the deep south she was more vexed than ever. Struggling to connect with younger listeners, in search of a new direction and ably assisted by a crack studio team that would re-energize Presley the following year for his “From Elvis In Memphis” album, the beehived blonde set to work.

My favourite track, and that’s saying something amidst this jewel encrusted collection of Memphis soul, is Goffin and King’s “Don’t Forget About Me,” where Reggie Young’s guitar soloing propels an hypnotic and incessant groove ably sustained by bassist Tommy Cogbill’s lowdown funk and Gene Chrisman’s economical drumming.

The songwriting credits are diverse and eclectic ranging from Brill Building teams like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“Just a Little Lovin’”), Randy Newman (“I Don’t Want to Hear About It Anymore”) and as previously mentioned, Gerry Goffin and Carole King (“Don’t Forget About Me” and three others) but Michel Legrand (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) is represented as are Bacharach-David (“In the Land of Make Believe”), a defining exercise in falsetto control. The most familiar cut is Eddie Wilkins’ “Son of a Preacher Man” but if that’s the extent of your knowledge of this defining moment in Dusty’s career, then vote with both your feet and wallet and acquire forthwith. For the download generation all will be forgiven if a brisk walk to your local store holds little appeal; in any event the remastered CD contains a wealth of soul tinged bonus tracks making it an essential online purchase.

Goin’ Back: The Definitive Dusty Springfield (4-CD/3-DVD Pink Box Set Version)

My website doesn’t cater for the casual browser, but rather those individuals with a thirst for fully exploring an artist’s work.


The inclusion of Paul Howes’s excellent volume on Dusty’s recordings is an obvious inclusion within the box set, but may be a trifle offputting for those who already own it. The DVD collection is thoughtfully compiled, but again many admirers like myself, have been compiling footage of Britain’s premier Diva for a number of years. The 19 September 1967 performance of “Nowhere To Run” from her BBC Tv series is a visual rarity for Dusty nearly always wore long dresses or trousers. Amongst a whole raft of physical defects that caused her anguish, her knees were always near the top of the hate list, alongside her nose and heavy jawline. In a short one piece outfit she looks fine, no skinny catwalk model for sure, but who wants one of them anyway?

If you already own the book and film material then concentrate solely on the music and purchase

Dusty Springfield – Simply Dusty (The Definitive Dusty) – CD Box Set (Remastered) 2000

Notable for the inclusion of three original recordings from the_ “Longing”_ album sessions; Janis Ian’s “In the Winter,” Melissa Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Home to Myself” and Colin Blunstone and David Jones’ “Exclusively for Me,” all of which had been mixed and digitally remastered as early as 1995. These three titles were finally released as part of Mercury/Universal Music UK’s 4 CD boxed set Simpy Dusty, a project which was commissioned with Springfield’s full approval before her death in 1999.

It’s been a particular source of annoyance throughout my entire life how artists of note are pigeon holed by their first ten hits. Dusty was involved in several aborted album projects in the 70’s and only die hards will be aware of a recording like “In the winter.” Evidently the parties involved at ABC/Dunhill couldn’t even agree on a suitable title for these ’74 sessions since “Longing” was originally titled “Elements.” Ron Frangiapane contributes a sweeping orchestral score that matches the dramatic content of the song’s lament without overpowering Dusty’s vocals; building slowly before escalating in intensity at 1.32 – undoubtedly one of Dusty’s finest. The price of this excellent box set is almost justified by the inclusion of this recording alone.

The American Federation of Musicians defines arranging as “the art of preparing and adapting an already written composition for presentation in other than its original form.” An arrangement may include reharmonization, paraphrasing, and/or development of a composition, so that it fully represents the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure” Arranging involves adding compositional techniques, such as new thematic material for introductions, transitions, or modulations, and endings and is essentially the art of giving an existing melody musical variety. Frangiapane adhered admirably to this definition and songwriter Janis Ian cited the recording as the definitive version of her composition.

Elements/Longing (Unreleased album) 1974


Unfinished, replete with guide vocals, and unreleased in its original conceptual form, the “Elements” project would be slated for release in 1974 under the revised title of “Longing.”

Ignoring the prevailing musical trends of the day, Dusty would opt instead, for a collective homage to emerging songwriters of the day – Janis Ian, Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow – serving up a personal and intimate collection of songs utilising her hitherto unheard close miking technique, and a sublime series of understated orchestrations, that suitably underscore the material’s emotional intensity. ‘Beautiful Soul,’ Dusty’s oblique reference to her own sexuality, is a touching confessional, sitting comfortably amongst the collection’s top drawer material. “Corner of the sky” would be revived by Petula Clark in 2007, overdubbing her own vocal to create an electronically processed duet. It works, and can be easily re-allocated to the original album’s tracklisting.

If she truly was “out of it” during the July sessions, then one can only speculate what the finished article would have sounded like. Nine of the aborted ten tracks are on the “Beautiful Soul: The ABC – Dunhill Collection” release from 2001, whilst the Petula/Dusty ‘duet’ is on YouTube.

An essential purchase, and an original album that would have ranked amongst the top three she ever recorded.

Dusty Springfield - 5 Classic Albums (2017)

A slipcase delight – I must have procrastinated for at least ten seconds before purchasing this little value for money package!

The availability of these albums: ‘A Girl Called Dusty,’ ‘Ev’rythings Coming Up Dusty,’ ‘Dusty….Definitely,’ ‘Dusty In Memphis’ & ‘From Dusty…..With Love,’ restore Britain’s greatest white soul singer to the forefront of record store shelves, and about time too.

Now for the rest of her catalogue…………………..

Recommended viewing

Dusty Springfield – South Bank Show (2006)

A soul searching South Bank Show introduced as ever, by Melvyn Bragg – original air date: Sunday 9th April 2006, ITV1 UK.

Bragg’s team interviewed an array of intimate friends, lovers and show business talents prepared to go on record to describe the intense highs and lows of Dusty’s swinging life, before her untimely death in 1999.

Born Mary O’Brien in London as war began in 1939, Dusty Springfield came to represent 60’s renewed British optimism and modernity. A plain convent educated girl, Dusty’s transformation of herself into a blonde glamour icon was a remarkable act of will and the programme delves deeply into her musical influences and vocal style yet raises more questions than answers about her personal angst.

Recommended reading

The Complete Dusty Springfield (Paul Howes) 2001 Reprint 2008

Drawing on meticulous archive research and interviews with Dusty’s friends and collaborators, Paul Howes details every song in Dusty’s entire catalogue. This revised edition of “The Complete Dusty Springfield” includes new chapters on the Lana Sisters and the Springfields, expanded entries on Dusty’s solo tracks and an in-depth analysis of Dusty’s live work for TV and radio.

Featuring three excellent picture portfolio sections, an introduction by Petula Clark and a song index, this is the definitive volume on Dusty’s 280+ recordings. She may be a gay icon but her reputation will ultimately stand or fall on her recorded legacy; another one of those essential reference works on my studio bookshelves.

Dancing with Demons – The authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield (Penny Valentine & Vicki Wickham) 2000

Written by Dusty Springfield’s long-time friend, Penny Valentine, and long-term manager, Vicki Wickham, this slim volume attracted considerable criticism in various literary circles upon publication. Lacking any form of discographical listing the narrative somewhat fails to lend any sense of what made Dusty exceptional in her work. While the authors clearly care for their subject and her music, accusations abounded from literary reviews of the time that their attempts to interpret Dusty’s eccentricities, along with their hazy sense of chronology, were as much of a disservice to the singer’s legacy as any sleazy tell-all would have been. The timing of the book’s publication was unfortunate, pre-dating as it did by several months, the publication of Paul Howes’s work which focuses exclusively on Dusty’s professional career. Had the chronology of both volumes been reversed some of the literary harping would have appeared unduly pedantic. As it is, the personal insights and recollections, however illuminating, do not explain how Dusty reconciled her demons with her work; a more satisfying overview can be found within

Dusty Springfield – In the middle of Nowhere (Laurence Cole) 2008

Cole has a background in education and pschotherapy and combines his love of Dusty and soul music in general with his professional credentials to define the singer as a cultural icon. Reflecting on Jerry Wexler’s recollection of her “stigmata of perfectibility” Cole analyses her musicality and professional drive and relates her “hands on” approach to all aspects of her career to the precedent established by Britain’s biggest female star of the 50’s, Alma Cogan. If “non straights” have no social obligation to make a declaration about their sexual orientation perhaps Dusty also perceived the commercial benefits of such a stance for, after all, it is unlikely her entire audience at live shows was compromised solely of gays and lesbians.


Youtube – rare recordings, BBC Tv shows, live concerts, interviews.

Dusty Springfield website links


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