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A powerhouse of blue-eyed soul in the 1960s and beyond, British-born Dusty Springfield brought considerable depth and grit to such enduring pop-R&B hits as "I Only Want to be with You," "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" and "Son of a Preacher Man." Her dusky, sensual, jazz-inflected voice and delivery, which convinced many radio listeners that she was African-American and not a willowy blonde from North London, propelled her to the heights of fame in the 1960s, with 18 singles on the Billboard chart between 1964 and 1970, including six Top 20 hits. The apex of her career was unquestionably the 1969 album Dusty in Memphis, a soul-drenched declaration that topped countless best-of lists in the decades that followed. Springfield's career declined in the 1970s, but she returned to the spotlight with a 1987 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys on "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and a revival of "Son of a Preacher Man" on the "Pulp Fiction" (1994) soundtrack. Tragically, Springfield's comeback was cut short by breast cancer, which claimed her life in 1999. However, her best singles remained enduring classics and tremendous influences on a generation of soul, blues and country singers that followed her.
Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien on April 16, 1939 in the North London area of West Hampstead, England, Dusty Springfield was the second child of tax accountant Gerard O'Brien and his wife, Catherine, who hailed from County Kerry in Ireland. Raised in an upper-middle-class home in High Wycombe and later Ealing, she was a tomboy throughout her childhood, with a penchant for playing football in the streets with local boys that earned her the nickname "Dusty." She was also given a world-class introduction to popular music of the day by her parents, who introduced her to the songs of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, as well as American vocalists Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford, both of whom would have a significant impact on her own singing. After completing school, Springfield performed in local clubs and resorts with her brother, Tom, before joining the Lana Sisters, a vocal group comprised of non-siblings Iris Long and Lynne Abrams, in 1958. Billed as "Shan Lana," Springfield made her U.K. television debut with the group before leaving in 1960 to join her brother in the Springfields, a pop-folk group that scored U.K. chart hits in 1962 and 1963 with "Island of Dreams" and "Say I Won't Be There" before cracking the U.S. Top 20 with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles."
After the group split in 1963, Springfield kept the new moniker for her solo career, which was launched that same year with "I Only Want To Be With You." A brassy, Phil Spector-esque R&B-pop mélange, the single provided a perfect showcase for Springfield's dusky, soulful voice, which helped to propel it to No. 4 on the U.K. charts before reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year saw the release of Springfield's first solo album, the Top 10 release A Girl Called Dusty, as well as a pair of Burt Bacharach songs, "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," all of which established her as a world-class R&B singer with a particular talent for pop. Springfield also earned a reputation as a free thinker when she was deported from South Africa after refusing to play for racially segregated audiences. Upon her return, she recorded one of her most enduring hits, the impassioned "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" before helping to introduce Britain to the Motown sound on a special 1965 episode of "Ready Steady Go!" (ITV, 1963-66) devoted to the label's artists. The following year saw the release of another Springfield classic, the Bacharach-David composition "The Look of Love" for the film "Casino Royale" (1967). A cool, bossa nova-influenced pop number with a layer of molten sexual heat burbling just below its glossy production, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song while reaching No. 22 on the American charts.
However, Springfield's fortunes were in decline by 1968, due in part to changing tastes among pop music audiences. She attempted to gain control over her career by signing with Atlantic Records and traveling to America to record with a cadre of the label's best producers and studio musicians. The result was Dusty in Memphis (1969), produced by the men responsible for the "Atlantic sound" - Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, who had overseen classic recordings by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and countless others. Memphis was Springfield's crowning achievement, an album of enormous depth and effortless soul, as evidenced by its Grammy-nominated, Top 10 lead single, "Son of a Preacher Man." However, the record itself failed to connect with listeners, peaking only at No. 99 on the Billboard charts. The tepid response was soon echoed by her next few albums, including A Brand New Me (1970), which featured tracks produced by Philadelphia soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and 1973's Cameo, her first for the ABC/Dunhill label. Following the collapse of a 1974 album, which was eventually released as Longings, Springfield began a period of semi-reclusion in the United States which was marked by struggles with drugs and alcohol.
Springfield mounted a comeback with a pair of late-'70s albums, It Begins Again (1978) and Living Without Your Love (1979), that failed to make much impact on the charts, though a 1979 single, "Baby Blue," fared moderately well in the U.K. She continued to record throughout the 1980s, generated little response for a string of singles, while attempting to gain control over her personal life. Springfield finally returned to prominence through a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys on the single "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (1987), which shot to No. 2 on both the U.K. and U.S. charts. A follow-up single with Richard Carpenter, "Something In Your Eyes," and a duet with B.J. Thomas on "As Long as We Got Each Other," which served as the theme for the fourth season of the sitcom "Growing Pains" (ABC, 1985-1992), both reached the Top 20 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart.
Springfield scored two more Top 20 hits in the U.K. with the singles "Nothing Has Been Proved" (1988) and "In Private" (1989) before commencing work on her official comeback album, Reputation (1990). Written and produced by a slew of admirers including the Pet Shop Boys, the album reached the Top 20 in the U.K. While working on its follow-up, a country-influenced album tentatively titled Dusty in Nashville, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. The album, released in 1995 as A Very Fine Love, reached the Top 50 in the U.K. but performed poorly in the United States. However, Springfield was riding high on the success of the "Pulp Fiction" (1994) soundtrack, which made excellent use of "Son of a Preacher Man." Unfortunately, Springfield's health went into serious decline in 1996, forcing her to curtail her career. She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1999, with Queen Elizabeth II granting her permission to receive the medal at a hospital where she spent her final weeks. Two months later, Springfield died at her home in Henley-on-Thames on March 2, 1999. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortly thereafter.
By Paul Gaita
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