Dusty Springfield (1933- 1999) is one of the most loved recording artists of my long lifetime. Her music has moved me, thrilled me and comforted me for more than 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 recordings 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 company.
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.