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 more than six decades. 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 is an unlikely Gay Icon in many ways. Born on April 16, 1939 in London with the name Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, it was just a month before the start of World War II. She grew up as an Irish Catholic schoolgirl, yet she gained stardom as a sultry singer of soul, as she said: “…the white girl singing Black music“.
Her love for other women was forbidden in Britain at the time. Like most of the great queer artists in history, there were ways of getting around the expectations of the straight majority while covertly conveying the constrained consciousness in the work.
Springfield possessed a melancholy and vulnerability in 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 did more than sell the song; she inhabited and made it her own in the way that only the truly great artists can do.
With a strong, almost masculine countenance, but with a feminine style, Springfield has always held real appeal for all sort of people under the LGBTQ umbrella. She created a confusing image for a lot of 1960s and 1970s music lovers. Press releases always stressed Springfield’s Catholic faith and middle-class background. But, in fact, she was living with a fellow singer, Norma Tanega, something that was conveniently overlooked.
She invented a look 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. That look has left a lasting legacy on modern fashion.
In the 1960s, Springfield became an expert in all aspects of music recording. The male dominated industry resented having a young woman who seemed to know how to do it all. She had an ear for quality, and she was a perfectionist when making records. During her era, women were simply not allowed to use the mixing equipment or to even be in the production booth. She had a reputation for being difficult and eccentric, with a headstrong personality, plus a knowledge of the technical aspects of recording. This did not endear Springfield to the professional music community, but it 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 if they were in a movie theatre. Springfield booked the biggest film house around, and she played to a large Black, brown 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 considered to be an anti-apartheid hero.
Springfield was at her very apex in the mid-1960s. She had hit albums and her own television show. She is credited as the woman who brought the Motown sound to the UK. But in the early 1970s, just when I was digging her the most, most kids who bought records pushed against Springfield’s style, preferring songs with a stronger political message. Her songs were mostly about romance, and her throaty, jazzy vocals began to lose some popularity.
At a loss, Springfield was sucked into a spiral of drink, drugs and all-night parties. She abused a variety of substances daily. 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 had a sort of marriage with wild, lanky, and vivacious 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 1970s, often headlining at famous clubs like The Troubadour and the Whisky-A-Go-Go. But, the relationship only lasted two years and at the end of the decade she moved first to Amsterdam and then back to Britain.
By then, Springfield’s drug abuse was at an all-time high. She continued to have a string of short-lived love affairs with women. Her recordings had low sales. She was often between stays in rehab and hospitals.
In 1987, her longtime fans, Pet Shop Boys, asked her to collaborate on a project. The resulting record was What Have I Done To Deserve This?.
It was a world-wide smash hit and one of my favorite singles of all time. Suddenly, the fading Springfield 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 springing 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 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 that included other stars, Elvis Costello, Lulu, Elton John, and Pet Shop Boys. Ten days after her death, her friend Sir Elton inducted Springfield into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stating:
“She was the greatest white singer of all time.”