Hip to be Square
“Son of a Preacher Man”, Dusty Springfield (1968)
From the very cool album “Dusty in Memphis”, this classic song Dusty definitely made her own.
Originally offered to Aretha Franklin, who turned it down, Dusty made “Son of a Preacher Man” a huge hit - and then Aretha decided to record it on her 1970 “The Girl’s In Love With You”. With incredible control, tone and finesse with difficult material, Dusty was arguably one of the best female singers of the sixties. Obviously with considerable innate talent, Dust was also a student of music with an analytical approach to listening to other performer’s song – dissecting songs like butterflies. She adored Motown and the gospel sound, and was one of the few white singers to be able to properly pull-off some of the complex Motown material.
Born in North London in 1939 her real name was Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien; a very Irish catholic name if I ever heard one. She had 18 singles on the Billboard top 100 in a very short span of 1964-1970. These include: “Wishin’ and Hopin”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, “I Just Don’t Know What to do with Myself”, among many others.
When she was 19 she formed a pop-vocal group with her brother Dion called “The Springfield’s” and there was no turning back. “I Only Want to Be With You” was her first single in 1963, recorded in a way similar to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”. Several great albums followed including her debut “A Girl Called Dusty".
The ‘Brill Building sound” as it was called had hit the U.K. when Dusty ventured to New York in 1964. She met Carole King who ended up writing many songs for Dusty. She performed at the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn and watched mesmerized as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha and the Vandellas performed. She loved ‘Heatwave’ and the way Martha Reeves sang. ”. In 1965 she was instrumental in introducing the U.K. to the Motown sound via the TV show “Ready, Steady, Go” where she did songs by the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, among others. She was accompanies by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and backed by the famous Motown backup band, The Funk Brothers.
In 1967 her contract with Phillips records was up, and so when Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records approached her record with them. Music was changing: Brill Building and Burt Bacharach songs were starting to not be cool and new and she had been reduced to doing the ‘workingman’s circuit ‘ in the U.K. Dusty was flattered yet intimidated as she did not think she was in the same league as Percy Sledge, Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, her idol.
While doing the Memphis sessions in 1967 Dusty suggested to Ahmet and Jerry that they sign a group that had just formed called Led Zeppelin. A certain John Paul Jones had been a bass player for her in concert performances. Pretty much on Dusty’s say-so Atlanta signed Led Zeppelin for an unheard of $200,000.
“Son of a Preacher Man” was the last big song Dusty would have for many years. Kind of the top of her game, she went to Memphis and recorded with the “Memphis Cats” to produce what is now a soul classic “Dusty in Memphis”. Used in Pulp Fiction to move some 2 million copies of the soundtrack and Enron: Smartest Guys in the room – Ken Lay is the son of Baptist minister.
Dubbed “The White Queen of Soul” (Aretha Franklin being “The Queen of Soul”), she played an important role in female soul singers, opening the door for many other women after her from Kiki Dee to Amy Winehouse. Although she had a hit in 1987 with the Pet Shop Boys titled, “What Have I Done to Deserve This”, her legacy was her ground-breaking 60’s work.
A one-of-a-kind, truly original, her image: the beehive doo, the heavy mascara, carefully selected evening gowns made her an icon of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. This style was followed by others after her, for example the B-52’s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.
Unfortunately with the creativity and sensitivity of a blues artist or early jazz singer, ala Billie Holiday or Ruth Brown, Dusty dove into drugs and alcohol to tame the beast that was deep insecurity and possibly catholic guilt. She was, after all schooled by nuns in a girl school at an early age. Being a lesbian and catholic was like water and oil and the stigma in the U.K. about homosexuality in the ‘60s were not friendly to her. Later she was embraced by the Gay community, but sadly not before she was reduced to somewhat of a campy nostalgia act.
Dusty died of breast cancer in 1999 and is still remembered fondly by many.