April 16, 1939– Dusty Springfield is one of the most loved recording artists of my long lifetime. Her music has moved me, thrilled me and comforted me for 55 years. For me, her album Dusty In Memphis (1969) is a perfect LP. I cannot fault a single note. Every selection is delicious. It is at the top on my list of Top 10 Albums Of All Time.
Springfield was an unlikely Gay Icon. She was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London just a month before the start of WW II. She started life as an Irish Catholic schoolgirl, yet she gained stardom as a sultry singer of soul, the “white girl singing black music”.
Her love for other women was forbidden in Britain at the time. Like most of the great gay artists in history, there were innovative ways of maneuvering around the expectations of the straight majority while covertly conveying the constrained emotions in their work. Springfield’s gayness is at the core of the melancholy and vulnerability that she brings to her music. Her songs go straight to my heart: How Can I Be Sure, All Cried Out, I Close My Eyes And Count To 10, The Look Of Love, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, plus my personal favorite, her devastating version of I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. She does more than sell the song; she inhabits and makes it her own in the way that only the truly great artists can do.
With a strong, almost masculine countenance, but a feminine style, Springfield has always had real appeal for LGBTQ people. She studied and copied drag acts, creating an image that was confusing to a lot of the 1960’s listening public. In the press, that image was vigorously protected from her gayness. The press releases always stressed Springfield’s Catholic faith and middle-class roots. The fact she was living with a fellow singer, Norma Tanega, was conveniently overlooked. After she and Tanega split up, there was always another woman keeping Springfield’s bed warm.
She invented a look for herself which became iconic, with tall beehive hair and thick, dark eye make-up. Her style was copied by other recording artists of the time, plus many teenage girls and drag queens. Her career has left a lasting legacy on modern fashion.
Springfield became an expert in all aspects of music recording. The male dominated industry resented having a young woman who seemed to know it all. She had a sharp ear for quality and a perfectionist approach to making records. During her era, women were simply not allowed to use the mixing equipment or to commandeer the production booth. She gained a reputation for being difficult and eccentric. Her headstrong personality and working knowledge of the technical aspects of recording did not endear Springfield to the professional music community, but she certainly enchanted her fans.
In 1964, while on tour in South Africa, and with no prior interest in politics, Springfield found it abhorrent that it was illegal to perform a concert to a mixed audience. But, there was a loophole in the law that allowed live performances for mixed-race audiences as long as they were in a movie theatre. Springfield booked the biggest film house she could find and played to a large black and white audience. When she arrived back at her hotel, Springfield and her entourage were placed under arrest and deported. Back in England the public loved her for it. She was hailed as an anti-apartheid hero.
Springfield was at her apex in the mid-1960s. She had hit albums and her own television show. She is credited as the woman who brought Motown to the UK. But in the early 1970s, when I was digging her the most, the kids who bought records pushed against Springfield’s style, preferring songs with a strong political message. Her love songs and throaty jazzy vocals began to lose popularity.
At a loss, Springfield was sucked into a spiral of drink, drugs and all-night parties. She abused a variety of substances on a daily basis. The pressure of a closeted life manifested itself in depression and a desire to avoid the spotlight. An album she had started to record for Atlantic Records was shelved due to her “poor mental health”.
Ashamed by the abandoned album, Springfield moved to Los Angeles and dropped deeper into drugs and booze. She spent most of the 1970s living late nights of partying. She sometimes woke up in a hospital.
Late in the 1970s, Springfield began to speak openly about being bisexual, although she was never known to have had a boyfriend. The bad publicity devastated Springfield. She came out of the closet to her parents, but far from being outraged; they did not take her seriously. This hurt her even more deeply.
In the early 1980s, she married wild, lanky, and vivacious brunette actor Teda Bracci, who she had met at Alcoholics Anonymous. Bracci was a popular fixture on the L.A. Sunset Strip rock music scene in the 1970’s, often headlining at famous clubs like The Troubadour and the Whisky-A-Go-Go. But, theirs was a stormy relationship that only lasted two years and at the end of the decade she moved first to Amsterdam and then back to Britain.
In the 1980s, Springfield’s drug abuse was at an all-time high. She continued to have short-lived love affairs. Her recordings made little impact and had low sales. Springfield was constantly between rehab and the hospital.
Salvation came in 1987 when her longtime fans, Pet Shop Boys, asked her to collaborate on a project. The resulting record was What Have I Done To Deserve This?, a world-wide smash hit and one of my favorite singles of all time. Suddenly, the fading singer was among the smart set once more. Pet Shop Boys produced an entire album for her. At 48-years-old, her life started to get better. She gave up drugs and partying. More hit singles followed.
In 1994, just as Springfield’s career was back on track and a new generation was embracing her sound, she was diagnosed with that damn cancer. She received treatment, but remission was short lived. She spent her final years fighting against another bout of cancer. Springfield moved in with her lifelong friend, back-up singer Simon Bell, who took care of her.
On New Year’s Day 1999, Springfield was awarded an Order Of The British Empire for her contribution to music. Too sick to attend the ceremony, her longtime manager, with permission from Queen Elizabeth II, picked up the award on her behalf. It was carried directly to Springfield in hospice and given to her in front of a small gathering of friends, plus her Oncologist. On the very day when Springfield would have officially received the award, she lost her battle with cancer. Her memorial was attended by thousands of mourners including Elvis Costello, Lulu, Elton John, and Pet Shop Boys. 10 days after her death, her friend Sir Elton inducted Springfield into the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, stating:
“She was the greatest white singer of all time.”