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My personal views on life and things that make me think twice.

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Dusty Springfield – The Legacy

Music Posted on Mon, March 02, 2015 07:11PM


Perhaps having discovered that vintage 1964 Dusty album in
1979 put me in the wrong place to appreciate ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Maybe lining it up alongside the barn storming
chords of ‘I Close My Eyes And Count to Ten’ released in 1968 to a Top 4 UK
chart position isn’t the thing to do either although given that bit of
information you might have thought somebody at Atlantic Records would have paid
a little more attention to the proposed material they were shoving under her
nose in the studio.

Producer Jerry Wexler is on record as saying that Dusty
didn’t give her approval to any of the songs suggested for the album. Dusty
says she approved two, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and ‘Just a little Loving’ and
it shows. He also made her record the vocals to a backing track when it was
common knowledge in the industry that Dusty liked to record against music played
back so loud she couldn’t hear her own voice. Was she really the star of the
show? Or just the ‘gal’ doing the vocals?

Either way, love it, hate it or indifferent I think Dusty
would be proud to know that the record that scared her to death is now considered
one of the World’s Greatest Albums, and is probably in a capsule being sent to
the outer limits of the galaxy as I type.

But what of her legacy?

Much has been made of the twilight years in the US, the
addictions, failed love affairs, the self-harming and the downward spiral into
oblivion. Perhaps too much has been said in the mistaken belief that immense
suffering cements your ‘diva’ status in the eyes of the record buying public,
only in the case of Dusty most of that knowledge has come to us

Unlike Piaf (shoved on stage pumped full of morphine),
Callas (scraping the high notes with a voice that was ragged and torn), or Janis
Joplin (imortalised in ‘The Rose’) the tragedy that was Dusty was kept hidden
by the love of some very stalwart friends so her destruction wasn’t a spectacle
but like so much of the lady herself, a private affair. That she had those
friends says more about the person she was than any discography.

Her ‘resurrection’ working with The Pet Shop Boys’ was no
accident. Who wouldn’t want one of the greatest voices ever to come out of the
UK to sing on your track, a voice that despite everything still had that
haunting fragility even over a disco backing track? And who, whether you
remember Dusty blazing her way through the Top Twenty in the 1960’s or not,
wouldn’t listen closely and know they were hearing something special?

It’s easy as a fan to see no wrong. It’s also easy to dwell
in the past and lionize the glory days. But perhaps it’s not so easy to
remember that always under the hair and mascara was ‘Mary Bernadette O’Brien’
and that maybe as her life drew to its close Dusty and Mary finally became one,
Dusty adding the gloss and stardust to plain little Mary and Mary, in turn,
adding a humanity that saved her alter ego from becoming a monster. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

But I was there to see her pass by one last time, along with
hundreds of others and we all wiped our eyes and talked about her as if she was
our friend. So maybe that was her legacy. Whether it’s ‘I Only Want to be with
You’ or any one of a number of cover versions Dusty somehow reached out of the
vinyl and touched people, deeply.

However I think it’s no secret that she sang ‘Quiet please!
There’s a lady on stage,
’ to such rapturous applause because that is what I
think she was, first, foremost and finally. A lady.

The Curse of the BIG Hit

Music Posted on Sun, March 01, 2015 04:01PM

Bearing in mind that Dusty Springfield notched up 13 UK Top
Twenty Hits in under five years plus two Top Ten Albums and four Top Ten EP’s
(extended play records – usually 4 tracks) the one that landed that elusive
number one spot in 1966 was the power ballad ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love
Me’ with its signature heartbeat of hesitation between the Wagnerian introduction
and the singers plaintive ‘when I said I needed you…’

It’s still the one hit best remembered today and beloved of
Dusty Drag Queens the world over. It has horns, it has heartbreak it has
sequins sewn all over it and above all it comes with those famous Dusty Springfield
arm movements punctuating the lyrics. It’s the one that comes on the radio or
the compilation CD and makes us all just STOP!

But it isn’t fun.

Since 1964’s ‘I Just Don’t Know What to do with Myself’,
with the exception of ‘Middle of Nowhere, ‘ and ‘Little By Little’, the
rollicking early Dusty of ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Can I Get A Witness’ was in little
evidence. Bouffant or bee-hived it seemed that the record buying public liked
her suffering and not in a soul sister way either.

People will say that music had changed but had it? A quick
look at the UK charts from 1963 to 1966 shows that only five female solo acts
scored the top slot amassing a disappointing 16 weeks of combined chart topping
out of a possible 208, seven of which belonged to Cilla Black. Sandie Shaw
matches her with two number ones leaving Jackie Trent, Dusty and Nancy Sinatra
on one a –piece. No amount of ‘Best Girl Vocalist’ three years running could
disguise the fact that there were at least two musical Dusty’s at work here.
The one that sang and the one that recorded.

Of course you can’t say they were bad songs because they
weren’t. Each one is meticulously arranged and beat-perfect. But you can see
how a singer with the musical range of Dusty Springfield found herself
shoe-horned in on misery. Was that R ‘n B / soul thing falling so flat that the
only way you could sell a record if you were a woman was to have a broken
heart? Or did we never really want a soul queen topping the charts, much
preferring a nice bit of Home Counties hanky clutching and a stiff upper lip?

I’m not saying that Dusty set out to be a feminist icon any
more than she set out to be a gay or lesbian one but perhaps the best leaders
are those that have ‘ been there done that,’ rather than the ones with the
biggest mouths who got megaphones from Santa.

Perhaps it was having to take that deep breath one more time
in the half beat following the brass section that finally propelled her west to
Atlantic Records and the land of Aretha. And maybe that was why, having got to
Memphis the subsequent album was a nightmare experience.

I’m not going to relive Dusty’s American twilight. That’s
not part of our relationship and besides if you want the best book read Penny Valentine and Vicki
Wickham’s ‘Dancing with Demons’, written with love, honesty and not one shred of
judgement. But I am going to wonder out loud why ‘Dusty In Memphis’ is such a
big deal and why I just don’t get it…

A Girl Called Dusty

Music Posted on Sat, February 28, 2015 06:51PM

My own relationship with Dusty Springfield tailed off a bit
in the late Sixties and early Seventies, only to be rekindled by a chance encounter
with her in a second hand shop in 1979.

The minute both of my sisters had married and left home our radio
was re-tuned to the Light Programme (as it was then) before you could say ‘Easy
Listening’. Plus the record player had gone too. Even the weekly flirtation
with the Top Twenty run down featured less and less Dusty which should have
been a clue as to where she was heading, despite having had four very
successful television series between 1966 and 1969.

Revisiting old clips, once you get past the HRH Princess
Anne empire line fashion tips, and take in the array of guests ( Tom Jones,
Jimmy Hendrix etc) that turned up just to sing with her you do wonder what evil
quirk of programming also lined Dusty up with Spike Milligan and Warren
Mitchell and a spirited rendition of ‘Cock-eyed Optimist’. Why would you do
that unless it was thought that too much soul wasn’t good for you?

I wondered that too in 1979, having come once more face to
face with Dusty after all those years. Only this time she wasn’t a panda eyed
Mod Princess. She was a tatty album titled ‘A Girl Called Dusty’ which was so
warped I had to stick coins on the business end of the record arm to stop it
bouncing. Still punk was over, Bowie had gone AWOL, Blondie had gone disco and until
that moment I thought Dusty had gone Greatest Hits on me. Yet here was track
after track of amazing covers from a singer last seen doing ‘hits from the
musicals’. Three Bacharach / David compositions and a Carole King, to name but
four and Dusty and I were bosom buddies again. Why I wondered wasn’t Dusty
Springfield buffed, cherished and loved as our very own Aretha Franklin?

The real wonder of this album (later re-mastered and
extended) is not only the breadth of music covered (‘You Don’t Own Me’ to ‘When
The Love Light Starts…
’) but that Dusty stamps an authority on each track that
in many cases puts her version beyond the reach of the originals.

Now whether Dionne Warwick really did say of ‘Anyone Who Had
a Heart,’ that, ‘the others recorded it but I sang it,’ I don’t know. However play
the two together and you’ll see the difference. Dionne sang it like it was a
hic-cup and she’d live to fight another day. Then listen to Dusty. There is a
girl who has been devastated and betrayed beyond belief.

Gene Pitney may have only been twenty four hours from Tulsa
when he lost his heart to a road-side diner floosie, but you get the impression
she had bigger breasts than the girl he was only a day away from or did
something sexual the girl back home wouldn’t do. Dusty’s voice on the other
hand echoes the full shock of her whole life being turned upside down by one
careless moment of longing. Anybody male or female hearing that voice would
have begged borrowed or stolen anything with wheels and an engine and driven
off to bring her safely home. So why didn’t we?

Click link in post to hear ‘When The Love Light Starts…’

Tomorrow – ‘The Curse of the Big Number’.

I Only Want to be with You

Music Posted on Fri, February 27, 2015 06:57PM

‘I Only Want To Be
With You’

When you’ve grown up with somebody’s music it’s hard to
separate fact from fiction and your own memories from the sound track of your
childhood. It’s also hard to divine what might be only nostalgia and what could
be real, so I’m not going to try that here. This is about Dusty and me, real or
imagined, and a relationship that has spanned half a century, from scratchy
much loved 45’s,through the CD revolution and onward through the ever expanding
frontiers of the digital age.

In retrospect you only have to listen now to the voice soaring
above the melody of the refrain on ‘Island of Dreams’ to know that at some
point in the not too distant future Fate, Talent, Ambition or a destructive
combination of all three would see ‘Mary O’Brien’ abandoning the towering
beehive hair-do and become that unassailable musical icon, Dusty Springfield,
in her own right. No brother, no ‘Wimoweh’ and certainly no maracas.

It’s also easy to forget that by 1963 when she stepped out
of those folksy dirndls of her ‘Springfield’ trio persona and into the
trademark pencil skirt and blouse of a ‘Mod Princess’ Dusty had already notched
up seven years of live performance, perfecting the harmonies and phrasing that would
let her take a song from nowhere and copyright it with a style that could never
be imitated. This was no ‘made for TV star’ rising to fame on the back of
capricious downloads. This was the real deal. And if we needed proof, there it
was before our very eyes on the television set under the doily in the corner of
the front room.

In November 1963 I was five, Johnny Franz produced what is
arguably one of the best, if not the first, examples of the British ‘wall of
sound’ and Dusty Springfield’s voice powered ‘I Only Want To Be With You’ out of
our TV and up to number 4 in the British Hit Parade, scoring 10 weeks in the
Billboard Top 100, where it peaked at number 12 long before The Beatles landed
and took America by storm. Let’s not overlook the small fact that she also sold
one million copies along the way.

So who was this new woman who looked like everybody’s
sister? Where was the faux Nashville twang of ‘Tell Them I’ll Be There’? ‘Dear
God’, said my mother who had quite liked ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’. Was
Dusty just jumping ship and grabbing hold of the coat tails of a new musical
generation, taking a chance on the slippery slope that was already seeing off
the likes of Alma Cogan and the Big Sellers of the Fifties?

No I don’t think so.

What we didn’t know then was that under the peroxide and
mascara Dusty had a rich and varied musical heritage thanks to her father that
spanned the classics to jazz. She also had an ear to match. There is the often
told story how her father would tap out tunes on the back of her hand and how
the young Mary would know exactly what he was tapping just from the beat. What
I didn’t know then was that during her tours of the US that same heritage had
drawn her to a sound rarely heard in the sound proofed booths of British record
shops. Dusty had discovered soul music and with the strains of the ‘Exciters’
big hit ‘Tell Him’ nagging away in her head she was going to take British pop music
in a new direction.

Tomorrow, if you’re still with me, I’ll be looking at what
is still one of my favourite albums, ‘A Girl Called Dusty’. If not take a look
at this link. It might just change your mind. ‘I only want to be with you’