Springfield, Dusty (1939–1998)

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Springfield, Dusty (1939–1998)

British-born pop singer. Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in Hampstead, England, on April 16, 1939; died of breast cancer on March 2, 1999, in Henley-on-Thames, England; sister of Tom O'Brien (a musician); never married; no children.

Began performing in a girl group called The Lana Sisters (1958), then joined her brother and a friend to form a group called The Springfields (1960), their release of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" becoming an international bestseller; released first record as a solo performer, "I Only Want to Be with You" (1963) and followed it with a string of successful, folk-rock singles that brought her to the #1 position on the British charts with her hit recording of "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (1966); saw her career slip (1970s–1980s), but returned to the charts (late 1980s) through recording of "Do I Deserve This?" with the Pet Shop Boys; seemed destined for rediscovery, but was diagnosed with breast cancer (mid-1990s); was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1998) and, just weeks before her death, was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

When she was 16, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien did an amazing thing. She was at the time a shy, plump, red-headed schoolgirl from a respectable middle-class family in suburban London, nicknamed "Dusty" for her love of playing football in the streets with her brother and his friends. But within a matter of weeks, she had transformed herself into a fetching blonde who would, during the 1960s, become the "Queen of the Mods" among young Brits infatuated with Carnaby Street, Nehru jackets, and the Beatles. "I made a conscious decision to change my appearance," Springfield once said of her transformation. "I must have hated myself so much. I realized there was a whole world out there and I wanted to be part of it." It would not be the last time she would reinvent herself during a lifetime in the mercurial world of the music industry.

Music had been a part of her life from early on. Her father, an income tax consultant, indulged an eclectic taste in music that easily encompassed Beethoven and Ella Fitzgerald ; while her Irish Catholic mother's fondness for the ballads and laments of the Old Country provided an early folk influence. Her older brother Tom, meanwhile, was a fan of jazz and Latin-American music. "I was torn between jazz and Aaron Copland," Springfield said. "My parents made me listen, without me realizing it, to all sorts of music." Her own early passion was for blues, but her first amateur performances as a teenager during the 1950s in small London clubs favored folk and selections from her brother's collection of Latin-American songs. She made her professional debut in 1958 singing as part of an all-girl trio called The Lana Sisters, a job she had found by answering a notice in a magazine. The Lana Sisters were one of many girl groups like the more successful Kaye Sisters and The Mudlarks known for novelty songs like "Seven Little Girls Sitting on a Back Seat." The Lana Sisters recorded a few such numbers and sang them on television shows that were the British equivalent of "American Bandstand," but Dusty eventually decided that wearing a blue tulle skirt or silver lamé pants was not her style. Her time as a Lana Sister proved educational, however, for she carefully studied lighting setups, microphone and stage technique and television staging; and by the time her brother Tom invited her to join a group he was forming, she was the only member of the new trio with any show-business knowledge.

Nevertheless, The Springfields—as Tom O'Brien called the folk group he created in 1960 with Dusty and a guitar-playing friend—became an international sensation with their release of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," a folk-rock tune in which Dusty's voice held sway in harmony with the two men. Although it was never released in Britain, the song was a huge hit in the United States, where folk music was undergoing a renaissance. The Springfields were "absolutely cheerful as hell," Dusty once recalled. "In actual fact, we weren't, but we appeared to be and we didn't sing very in tune but we sang quite loudly and there was a niche for us at that time." The Springfields enjoyed considerable success during their two years together, but failed to survive when Dusty's yearning for a solo career proved too strong to resist, and she left the group in 1963 to record her first solo hit, "I Only Want to Be with You." It marked the beginning of an astonishing climb up the British charts with a string of hits that included "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," "Stay Awhile" and "Little by Little." She gained a reputation for an uncanny eye for the right material and for working closely with producers and arrangers to create a sound all her own. "Her songs hinted at unspoken, desperate truths about sexuality that weren't there for discussion by little boys," one critic observed, taking note of her husky voice with its overtones of American soul. It was a comparison that pleased Springfield, who had been deeply impressed by black artists like Dionne Warwick during a United States tour in 1962. "I have a definite and deep affinity with black musicians," she said at the time. "They put much more expression and feeling into their music than whites. I like to think that I do, too." She was also impressed with American record producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" approach to orchestration, supporting such artists as The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love with a full complement of percussion, brass and strings at a time when most British groups were lucky to have an unamplified standup bass and a piano for their studio arrangements. In England, Springfield's demands on her musicians soon led to a reputation for being difficult to work with. "They'd never heard this stuff before," Dusty said. "I'm asking somebody with a standup bass to play Motown bass lines, and it was a shock."

But her innovations paid off. It took her only three years to reach the #1 spot on the British charts in 1966 with "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," an emotional ballad about a woman's loneliness that Springfield delivered with melodramatic power. Despite her tendency toward American idioms, Dusty had first heard the song at the San Remo music festival, sung in Italian, and by a man. "I just knew that when the audience stood up in the middle of the instrumental and applauded that this was obviously the right song to do," she said of the number's attraction for her. "I just knew it was time for a big, Italian-type ballad and it was such a strong, strong tune." Backed by a lush string arrangement that built to an impressive crescendo by song's end, Springfield sang the English lyrics written for her with a poignancy and boldness unusual for a "girl singer" of the time. Her ascension to the reigning icon of Mod London was assured when she delivered the song live on Britain's wildly popular television music show "Ready, Steady, Go!," wearing a mini-skirt and knee boots and adorned with dark mascara, pale lipstick, and the bee-hive bouffant that started a fashion craze. As further proof of her influence, Springfield was named Best Female Vocalist in Britain's prestigious New Musical Express awards in a near consecutive run from 1964 to 1969, missing the honor only in 1968.

Almost as famous as the "Dusty Springfield sound" and the "Dusty Springfield look" was the "Dusty Springfield party," at any number of clubs and restaurants, with its trademark food fight. Springfield would use the slightest provocation—a rude waiter, a patronizing recording executive, a superior attitude from a fellow artist—to hurl whatever delicacy was at hand. "It was usually just a vol-au-vent," Dusty protested years later, "but it inevitably missed and hit someone else, which set everyone off. What I liked was the chaos it caused; the way things came out of people who were really quite prim." More serious notoriety came from Springfield's refusal to play to segregated audiences in South Africa during a 1964 tour, for which she was banished from the country and

her records whisked off the record-store shelves and destroyed. Although she was ostracized by older members of the British music business for the repercussions her protest caused for other artists, it only increased her popularity among younger audiences and led to her own BBC television show in the late 1960s with an eclectic mix of guests that included Tina Turner , Jimi Hendrix, and even Woody Allen.

Springfield's popularity in the United States rode the wave of the so-called "British invasion" of American pop, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Her first hit single, "I Only Want to Be with You," rose to the Top 20 on the American charts in 1963; "Wishin' and Hopin'" followed the next year, reaching the Top 10; and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" hit #4 two years later. But her American popularity was more than just chart numbers for Springfield, for she soon gained a reputation among American soul and rhythm and blues artists as an enthusiastic champion in Britain of Berry Gordy's "Motown Sound." She even promoted and hosted a BBC television special, "The Sound of Motown," introducing such acts as Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, The Supremes , The Ronettes, and The Temptations to English audiences. During her American tours, Springfield would often include appearances at traditionally black venues as part of a Motown tour. "I mostly hung out with the Ronettes … and shared a dressing room with them," Dusty once recalled. "It was, like, a hundred and four degrees in this very, very small dressing room and all our beehives were in there—three black beehives and one white one. It was collisions constantly."

It would have been easy to go the diva route, but there's no substance and it bores me.

—Dusty Springfield

Initially, her attachment to rhythm and blues helped Springfield survive the music industry's transition by the late 1960s to a harder-edged variety of rock music, away from the splashy colors and cheerful good fun of the previous decade. As her record sales in Britain began to slip for the first time in her career, she turned increasingly to America, signing with Atlantic Records to handle her career in the United States. The result was the album considered her best, Dusty in Memphis, produced and recorded in that legendary city in 1968. It was her first collection of songs in the spare "Memphis Sound" style successfully employed by black artists like Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge, with its simple rhythm track and underplayed guitar lines. "I hated it at first," she later said of her experience with the album and the style. "I was someone who had come from thundering drums and Phil Spector, and I didn't understand sparseness. I didn't understand that the sparseness gave it an atmosphere." The album was a turning point for her, however. It failed to find a large audience but it saved Springfield from the variety house and cabaret circuit frequented by acts on the downward slopes of their careers. Dusty had found a new, more musically sophisticated audience, although a much smaller one than she had been used to. The trend continued with her next album, 1969's A Brand New Me, in which she tried out a more melodic form of rhythm and blues centered in Philadelphia and known as "Philly Soul." Like Dusty in Memphis, the new album was only a modest commercial success, attracting the admiration of musical sophisticates and fellow musicians. It was, as one critic wrote, "after-hours music made by musicians for one another's sake."

A Brand New Me proved to be an ironic choice of title. The series of albums Dusty recorded during the 1970s was a jumble of musical styles that only confused the public and failed to find the consistent audience of her earlier years. Springfield later blamed the decline on her misplaced trust in her American managers. "After all, they had all managed the best people," she said. "I should have followed my intuition, though—my insides told me that it was wrong." Little more than ten years after taking Britain and America by storm, Springfield now found herself playing nightclubs and doing television shows in what she called her "Rent-a-Diva" period, but going nowhere professionally or musically. There followed a confused period of California living, a concept Dusty admitted had been influenced by the movies she had seen as a child in Hampstead. The reality proved otherwise. There were two more failed albums, followed by depression and alcohol and drug abuse. "California can be a dangerous place to come to alone. It's a very strange country in many ways. Out of sheer disenchantment, I was really anaesthetizing myself by taking too many tranquilizers and drinking too much. Somewhere—you never know where—I crossed the line from heavy drinking into problem drinking." Some years later, Springfield admitted she had entertained thoughts of suicide, but somehow pulled herself back. By 1978, she could tell a journalist that she had "grown up more last year than in the whole of the rest of my life put together" and offered her first album in several years as proof.

It Begins Again and 1979's "Living Without Your Love" were hardly commercial hits, but Dusty seemed invigorated by returning to the studio and by her first British tour in six years to promote It Begins Again. She delivered well-received performances at London's Drury Lane Theater and at the Royal Albert Hall and met the curiosity merited by her return from obscurity with aplomb, telling one press conference that the worst thing that could happen to her was not losing her professional standing but "to lose myself along the way, just as I nearly lost myself before trying to hang onto that part of me that is Mary O'Brien as opposed to that part of me that is Dusty Springfield." Her new self-confidence led her to explore other outlets for her music. There were several songs performed as part of film scores, notably "It Goes Like It Goes" for the Academy Award-winning Norma Rae; and, in a turnaround that caught the industry off-guard, her release in 1982 of the erotically charged disco album White Heat. It was, said New Musical Express, "a huge leap away from the relative security of the cabaret circuit into the dangerous currents of pop commercialism." Critics hailed the album as a triumphant comeback, although, once again, the record failed to catch on in record stores and, once again, it seemed as if Springfield's career was over.

But a second comeback lay in store when Dusty was approached in 1987 by the British techno-pop group the Pet Shop Boys, otherwise known as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, who wanted her to sing with them on "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," to be released as a single. "That was a watershed," said Springfield. "It just sort of plopped into my life and changed it." Tennant and Lowe, she discovered, had long been fans of the husky, sensual delivery of her Memphis and Philly soul albums of the '70s and had decided that "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" was a perfect vehicle. "What is it you want?" Springfield asked them when she arrived in a London studio in the fall of 1987 to begin work. "The sound of your voice," was the simple reply. To her amazement, the song rocketed to #2 on both the British and American charts. It was quickly followed by "Nothing Has Been Proved," written by Tennant and Lowe for the film Scandal, about Britain's John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal of 1963, and released as a single and as a video, with Dusty appearing as an elegant nightclub singer. Finally, after nearly 20 years, it seemed Springfield was back in the commercial mainstream.

In 1990, she released her most successful album in 30 years, Reputation, produced by the Pet Shop Boys. The album's reflective lyrics touched on the impermanence of fame and the need for self-acceptance, using a variety of musical idioms from rap to Motown to ballad. The album was, as one critic said, "Dusty's songs of experience," but Springfield had no intention of making Reputation her swan song. By 1993, after moving back to Britain and receiving an offer of a new contract from Columbia, Dusty once again veered off in a new direction by asking that the planned new album be recorded in Nashville, where she had long ago recorded with The Springfields. A Very Fine Love (1995), although not a country album, drew on the impressive musical talent present in Nashville. "There are some amazing musicians there," Springfield said after the album's release, "and though they're best known for playing country, their skills in the pop and R&B fields are equally well developed. They really enjoyed themselves on these tracks."

But the weeks working on the record were arduous ones, with Dusty frequently complaining of chest pains that obliged her to work in short bursts before fatigue took over. Returning to Britain when the album was completed, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a series of radiation treatments while the release of A Very Fine Love was delayed. "It was a bit dodgy for a time, but I came through it," Springfield told a reporter after she had learned her cancer was in remission. "I don't think this thing is going to get me." A Very Fine Love was finally released in June of 1995, earning only mediocre reviews and struggling to reach #43 on the British charts. It was, Country Music magazine complained, "warmed-over pop-soul" and a poor comparison to Reputation of five years earlier. By now, however, Dusty was immune to negative reviews. She pronounced herself pleased with A Very Fine Love, especially the album's last track, the honkytonk blues number "Where Is a Woman to Go," sung by a lonely woman in "a little 'ole bar across town" facing up to the mistakes in her life. "It's very much a grown-up woman's song," Springfield said, "and it means a lot to me."

A Very Fine Love would prove to be her last album. Her breast cancer returned in 1996, forcing her to embark on a rigorous series of chemotherapy treatments. By early 1998, the rumors of Springfield's deteriorating condition were too prevalent to dismiss. "I am amazed at her courage," her manager told USA Today, "but she loves life and is not giving up yet." But by the time Dusty was awarded Britain's coveted Order of the British Empire (OBE), she was too weak to attend the ceremony at St. James's Palace in person. Only close friends knew that the cancer had by now spread to her bones and had become terminal. On March 2, 1999, ten days before she was to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Dusty Springfield died peacefully at her home in Henley-on-Thames, just outside London. Over a thousand people crowded into the streets around the small Catholic church where Springfield's funeral was held on March 12, fans reaching out to touch the glass-enclosed carriage that carried her coffin. "Let youngsters like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey sing with bravado," one writer said in eulogy of her. "Dusty Springfield, with a mere vocal wink, can still go places that aren't in the repertory of their imaginations."

Springfield once said that her great misfortune was her early success, and hinted at the challenge that lay before her during an interview in 1968, during those heady years as "Queen of the Mods." "I feel like two separate people," she said then. "When they announce me as Dusty Springfield, I stand backstage and think myself into her personality." In the end, she learned to accept both parts of herself, to give herself the love that millions of others had showered on her all her life.


Hoerburger, Rob. "The Lives They Lived: Dusty Springfield," in The New York Times Magazine. January 2, 2000.

O'Brien, Lucy. Dusty. Rev. ed. London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1999.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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Springfield, Dusty (1939–1998)

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