One of the finest pop-soul vocalists ever.
Dusty Springfield was blessed with a powerful, smoky voice that ran the emotional gamut from cool sophistication to simmering passion. Over the course of a long, episodic career, she tackled adult pop, Memphis R&B and Motown-style soul, traditional folk and country and contemporary dance music. She’s been called “one of the five mighty pop divas of the Sixties" – the others being Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Martha Reeves – and no less an authority than Berry Gordy credits her for helping the Motown sound take root in the U.K. Moreover, Springfield forcefully asserted herself as an artist and personality at a time when women were generally not given much leeway in the music industry. In 1964, she became Britain’s most popular female vocalist, and her popularity proved durable, as she enjoyed hits in four successive decades.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London. As a child, she and her brother Tom would sing along with songs on the radio. When she was 12, she recorded a version of the Irving Berlin song “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam” at a local record store. In 1958, she joined a group called the Lana Sisters. She made her first professional recordings with that group. Then, in 1960, she and her brother formed a group called the Springfields with Tim Field. It was at that point that she took the professional name Dusty Springfield. A folk-oriented trio, the Springfields were Britain’s top-selling group in 1961, scoring hits with “Island of Dreams” and “Say I Won’t Be There.” In 1962, they enjoyed an American hit, "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," 15 months before the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ignited the British Invasion.
Drawn to rhythm & blues, Dusty left the Springfields in 1963 to launch a solo career. What she achieved was nothing less than a reinvention of British soul music. Her approach had little to do with guitar-driven rock and roll. She gravitated toward Motown’s orchestrated pop-soul, albeit filtered through the cool, poised vocal approach that reflected her British background. Smitten by the soulful sounds coming out of Detroit, Springfield actually introduced the British public to Motown’s caravan of stars as the host of a 1965 TV special.
Springfield immediately connected as a solo artist with 1964’s “I Only Want to Be with You.” The song made it into the British Top 10 and hit Number 12 in the U.S., making her the second British act after the Beatles to score a stateside pop hit. She became known as a British interpreter of American songwriters such as Randy Newman, Jerry Ragavoy, Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Several of her most memorable hits, including “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “The Look of Love,” were written by the latter duo. Her biggest U.S. hit came in 1966 with the heavily orchestrated “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” originally an Italian song called “Io Che Non Vivo (Senzate)” that was rewritten with English lyrics by Simon Napier-Bell and Vicki Wickham. That song hit Number One in Britain and Number Four in the U.S. Springfield toured the world extensively and appeared on numerous television shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1968, Springfield switched American labels from Phillips to Atlantic. Working with producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, she recorded the masterful Dusty in Memphis, which played more to her R&B leanings than any previous album. The Atlantic producers matched the British vocalist with some of the South’s finest session musicians. Springfield tackled a wide range of material by some of her favorite songwriters, including four songs by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The album included such soulful tracks as “Son of a Preacher Man,” which returned Springfield to the Top 10, and “Breakfast in Bed.” While the album only reached Number 99, it has grown in stature over the years and was reissued in a deluxe, expanded edition by Rhino in 1999.
In another adventurous move, Atlantic paired Springfield with the rising Philly-soul production-songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on 1970’s A Brand New Me. The album included the songs “Land of Make Believe,” “Silly Silly Fool” and the title track. By 1970, Springfield had scored 17 British hit singles and 10 U.S. hits.
Thereafter, the Seventies were generally quiet years for Springfield. She moved from London to Los Angeles and recorded only sporadically. In 1973, however, she recorded the theme song for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man. Then, in 1978, Springfield recorded two new albums, Begins Again, which was produced by Roy Thomas Baker, and Living without Your Love, which was produced by David Wolfert. The following year, she played a series of club dates in New York City. In 1982, she released the album White Heat, which was heavily influenced by New Wave music.
Five years later, in 1987, Britain’s Pet Shop Boys enlisted her to sing on “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” a dance-floor favorite that reached Number Two in the U.S. The song brought Springfield back into the public eye. The following year, Springfield moved back to the U.K., and in 1990, the Pet Shop Boys produced her album Reputation. “Son of a Preacher Man” saw a revival of popularity with its inclusion on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which was released in 1994 and sold 3 million copies. Springfield’s last studio album, A Very Fine Love (1995), returned her to the folk and country genres where she’d begun 35 years earlier with the Springfields. A career-spanning three-CD retrospective, The Dusty Springfield Anthology, was released in 1997.
In mid-1994, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, on March 2, 1999, she died, six weeks before her 60th birthday.
Since her death, Dusty Springfield has received numerous honors and awards, She received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2001, and in 2006, she was inducted into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her at number 35 in its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Inductee: Dusty Springfield (vocals; born April 16, 1939, died March 2, 1999)