Dusty, an essay

A Girl Called Dusty, by Markus Medeiros

Do not adjust your television set.

The film is black and white, and the quality is a bit grainy. It's instantly clear this is a clip from one of those TV variety shows from another time, the type that sadly declined along with the attention spans of millions who once made them a staple of prime-time viewing. A figure appears in the spotlight, casting a dramatic shadow.

The music starts. As the camera draws closer, and the figure comes into clear focus, you discover she's just as striking as the opening bars of the music that accompanies her. The oversized mass of blonde hair, then the face. Despite the overpowering bang from her hair and the startling amount of dark makeup surrounding her eyes, the eyes peer out with determination. The mouth, which has yet to unleash the tremendous sound that will be celebrated the world over, is fixed in a slightly crooked, demure, Mona Lisa grin. The face is full, disarming, inviting. Utterly endearing. And then she begins to sing.

iowtbwy"When I said...I needed you..."

To say she commands the stage is an understatement. The dramatic arm gestures- either reaching forward in desperation, or being defiantly thrown back with each declaration of despair- constantly threaten to upstage the voice, but never do. The song progresses toward a sweeping modulation. She clutches her chest as she pleads once again with her wayward lover, "you don't have to say you love me". And after taking the audience on one of the most harrowing emotional roller-coaster rides pop music has ever produced, she bows graciously. And the moment fades to black...

I have not mentioned the voice. It's unlike any I've heard before. It's a sturdy, reedy-type instrument, remarkably capable of being both heartily robust and tremendously fragile at the same time. Yet what she has revealed in this moment is only a glimpse of what that voice was actually capable of, the intensity of the joy and sorrow it so deftly could convey. This voice would cross genres, generations and musical tastes. It would change with time and tribulation, but it would ultimately never lose the intangible quality that makes it so mesmerizing in this brief, grainy, black and white moment.

Her name is Dusty Springfield.

Dusty childThis is not her given name. The little girl of direct Irish-descent, who successfully eliminated the physical spectre of a plain, bespectacled tomboy, but could never excise that child's dreams, or her pain. She discarded the name Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien as if a hindrance that would weigh her down in her pursuit of song. However, she would frequently conjure up the name in contemplative, sometimes surprisingly revealing moments. A childhood that would fleetingly echo itself in the most personal of her vocal musings. It both fueled and haunted her.

But while the public and private journey of Dusty Springfield may have framed her music, it was through the music itself that she left such a perfectly iconic mark. To Dusty, it was much more than simply the voice. To embrace cliché, it really was all about the music. The stories of her behavior in the studio are the stuff of legend. She toyed with board knobs, rallied unsuspecting British musicians to recreate the sounds she fell in love with in America, and slipped into the ladies room with a microphone to obtain the acoustics she desired.

She was labeled “difficult”.

She should have been labeled “trailblazer”.

I think my favorite story of Dusty is one that the legendary Jerry Wexler told during the recording of their masterpiece, Dusty in Memphis. On a personal note, I wanted to be a singer and have some studio experience, so my ears perked up when I heard this. When you’re laying down vocals in a recording booth, headphones will feed both the track and the vocal your delivering. According to Wexler, Dusty kept asking for “more track”. She asked repeatedly until she finally said, “more track, I can still hear myself”.


How are you keeping in proper time with the music? Better yet, how the hell are you staying in tune???? This has never ceased to fascinate me, and, if she were still with us, it’s probably the first thing I’d ask her. It speaks volumes of the exceptional ear this woman had, and the knowledge of her own instrument.

It was this ear, and that unrelenting desire to produce great music that produced some of modern history’s greatest pop symphonies- and in a decade crowded with them. The opening bars of “I Only Want to Be With You”- her first hit and still one of her best loved- heralded not only the arrival of a new era, but of a voice that would storm through radios and across the landscape of the tumultuous 1960’s culture. Her first album, titled simply A Girl Called Dusty, succinctly heralded for audiences the force that had been unleashed. It also subtlety hinted at the complexities that simmered just below the surface. But a force in Pop Music was born, and for the first five years of her solo career, the titles jump out in such quick succession, it’s a mere mortal’s forgivable sin to overlook more than one or two. There were so many classics. Hits on both sides of the pond. And so many hidden treasures.

“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”, “Wishin’ & Hopin’”, “All Cried Out”, “In the Middle of Nowhere”, “Some of Your Lovin’”, “Little By Little”, “Goin’ Back”, “All I See is You”, “I’ll Try Anything”, “What’s it Gonna Be”, “The Look of Love”, “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten”. All brilliant, yet I’ve left off countless other recordings that either scaled the charts of the time, or have been rightfully acknowledged as superior interpretations of the greatest songwriters of the era.

Dusty DefinitelyConsider Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today”, from Dusty’s 1968 classic album Dusty…Definitely (which most American ears were criminally deprived of hearing for decades). In a couple of mournful minutes, Dusty shows us what it’s really all about. What the vocal stylist does- they don’t just sing. They don’t just tell the story. They live it, in all its glory and shame. They share a bit of their own soul, and with the coupled words and music of a genius like Newman…or Bacharach & David, or Goffin & King…they provide us with a cathartic mirror. They live the lyrics, and when those words take up residence with the voice, we may just discover something previously unearthed about ourselves.

1969’s Dusty in Memphis is rightfully heralded as her magnum opus. The one downside of this album’s exalted status is that it dwarfs all of the tremendous accomplishments that surround it. Yet it’s beauty and power cannot be denied. It’s without hyperbole that I can say this is really one of the most beautiful pieces of work I’ve ever heard. I may need a thesaurus- the word “beautiful” is drowning out any other I can call to mind. And those who seek out straight “soul music” within it are missing the point. This is the moment where the accessibility of pop and the emotional depth of “soul” meet up and create a perfect home.

“Son of a Preacher Man” remains the shimmering highlight of an album full of them. Dusty Springfield is a soul singer here, and like any great soul singer, she takes her time. She coos and calmly explains her joyous predicament. She very well could be black, but by the end of the track that issue becomes moot. Near the end, she reasons in a hushed tone, “I guess he was the son of a preacher man”. She stretches and lays her voice around the arrangement like a frontier person laying claim to some land. Most importantly, you believe her. There’s a remarkable conviction in her vocal that illuminates the song and drives it (along with it’s irresistible production, with the Memphis Cats going to town). This same conviction dominates the album. It’s the first of many instances where Dusty truly appears emotionally bare.

I’d liken it to walking in, for the first time, on the person you love getting dressed. You witness every part, every piece that’s utterly perfect, every inch that may be brilliantly flawed. And you realize in this moment of vulnerability they are more beautiful than you could’ve possibly imagined.

Dusty in Memphis concludes with the heart-wrenching “I Can’t Make it Alone” (I’ve always thought “No Easy Way Down” should’ve closed the album, but that’s probably my own personal flaw), but this was just the beginning for Dusty. In the ensuing years she would create music that would invite, startle and challenge her audience.

It’s the most horrible of ironies that during a period of true revelation of her strengths as an artist, her commercial fortunes would decline. Perhaps it was inevitable. The 1970’s were the decade of the singer/songwriter, where puffed-with-pride critics would dismiss the luminous adventures of a vocal interpreter as fluff. Utter nonsense in retrospect. It’s just a shame that critics chose to adjust their posturing decades later, and welcome deserving pieces of art as A Brand New Me and Cameo as the superior slices of mastery that they were. In their time, they were appallingly neglected.

As has been oft-written, she was crumbling personally, and these unfortunate events precluded the releases of two other albums that have mercifully come to light and revealed further shades of genius, Faithful and Longing. Such revealing moments as “Love Shine Down” and Janis Ian’s “In the Winter” were shielded from critical opinion. They were exiled to the shadows. And we all suffered unknowingly.

For another decade, Dusty would continue to record and search unceasingly for the utopia of critical appeal and commercial success. 1978’s It Begins Again may suffer from over-production that marks it as simply typical of it’s time, but she emerges as more deft a vocal stylist than ever, simply radiant at times. Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love” and Barry Manilow’s “Sandra” can be dismissed as heavy-handed MOR, but Dusty elevates the material into something event-worthy. Her vocal on the former is positively dreamy. On the latter, the pain is so palpable you expect her to come apart on vinyl at any moment.

White HeatPerhaps it is White Heat, Dusty’s last album from this lean period, that best highlights the brilliance, the tension, the burning angst that were all parts of her personal and professional being. Flush with the sounds of New Wave, Hard Rock and classic Pop, it’s atypical of her catalogue, but a relentlessly compelling listen. This is Dusty with no apologies- startling, daring and willing to bend in just about any manner that her immense talent will allow. It’s one of her greatest achievements, and long overdue for reassessment and embrace.

Some may argue that she shortchanged herself as a person, being lost in (as the mesmerizing “Soft Core”, the closing track of White Heat puts it) a maze “of drugs and alibis”. Discussion of her activities and of her sexuality seems to permeate this period. Another injustice. It’s pointless to over-analyze, and wrong to judge. Perhaps it’s at this juncture where Mary O’Brien and Dusty Springfield, in the darkest of days, bumped into each other.

Fortunately, Dusty Springfield’s life and career were not to remain tied ominously to tragedy or failure. In the early months of 1988, radios around the world carried that unmistakable voice again. The Pet Shop Boys provided Dusty with what she so deserved, a vehicle to exhibit that voice to its best advantage. That moment remains crystallized in pop history:

“…Since you went away, I’ve been hanging around…I’ve been wondering why, I’m feeling down. You went away, it should make me feel better. But I don’t know…”

Dusty Springfield was back.

The voice was undeniably altered by the years…and the disappointments that filled them, but that only worked to her advantage on the haunting follow-up hit “Nothing Has Been Proved”, and its resulting album, Reputation. The vocal stylist had become a world-weary traveler, and in the best moments of the album, you find yourself reveling in the realization that this voice has found its way home.

It’s a shame Dusty never recorded the song that, at the dawn of her career, was so influential in the musical direction she chose, the Exciter’s “Tell Him”. It encompassed the basic elements of Pop would become the hallmark of her music, and Dusty would’ve sparkled on the song. However, she did enjoy a chapter of which many of the greats have been deprived- the opportunity to come full circle. On A Very Fine Love, Dusty returned to Nashville (where she had visited and recorded, over 30 years earlier), and while the end result is admittedly imperfect in the scope of greatness, it provides a fairly satisfying finale to the voice. The title track is an easygoing testimony of triumph. Her voice, raspier than it’s ever been, aches without respite on “Go Easy on Me”. Life has been good. Life has been rough. Finally, on “Roll Away” (her swan song as a singles artist), she concludes simply, “it’s only time and the river”.

roll awayShe left us over a decade ago, much too soon. I’ll be selfish- we deserved more. We should’ve heard Dusty Springfield in her sixth decade, continuing to espouse the same joy, longing and cautionary tales of love and heartbreak that she had been imparting to the faithful for countless years prior. In the end, we have all been shortchanged.

“Believe me…believe me…”

That figure in the black and white clip returns to me. I wonder if Dusty was aware that she had been a prophet of the new female vocalist in popular music. That she became a revolutionary figure to so many men and women searching for their own sexual freedom. That the voice- that same sturdy, reedy-like instrument that blazed against some of the most magical music ever created, will continue to be heard, and studied, and appreciated…long after we have all completed our time in this world.

Perhaps she would’ve been amused. Maybe she wouldn’t have noticed.

In the end, underneath all the physical detail, the makeup and hair, and behind that unforgettable voice, she was, after all, just a girl…a girl called Dusty…


by Markus Medeiros