Dusty Springfield: A Portrait

Siddhant Pillai traces the meteoric rise & fall of the iconic star of the swinging sixties.

Before Adele, Duffy, Amy Winehouse & Lulu, there was Dusty Springfield, Britain’s greatest female soul singer who brought unparalleled depth to whatever genre she touched – be it pop, R&B or disco. She was the original diva, cloaked in shimmering gowns & armed with a husky sensual voice to go with her black mascara panda-eyes & a towering beehive atop her head.

Born as Mary O’Brien on 16th April 1939 to a music loving family, Dusty was brought up on an eclectic musical diet that included Beethoven, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glen Miller, to name a handful. However, it was the American jazz vocalist, Peggy Lee, who she really idolized and emulated.

Dazzling-DustyDusty’s first professional rendezvous with music was with a vocal group called the Lana Sisters. With them she learned how to use a microphone & how to hold a stage. This was also when she experimented with make up, chopped her hair & chucked her glasses, in an attempt to look like one of the sisters. In 1960, she left the Lana Sisters to team up with her brother Dion and Tim Field, to form a folk trio called The Springfield, which tasted quite a bit of success in Britain. Soon after, while on the group’s first tour of the U.S, Dusty was completely taken by the Motown sound, particularly the song ‘Tell Him’ & abandoned plans of cutting a country album in Nashville to pursue a solo career.

In 1963, Dusty released her first solo single, ‘I Only Want to Be with You’, which sold over a million copies & stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks. The following year, she made her debut with the album titled ‘A Girl Called Dusty’. And in 1968 came her signature tune ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, which cemented Dusty position as one of the biggest solo acts in the world.

Dusty was a major star in the 70s and while her material was constantly being received with unanimous critical praise, her record sales had started taking a downturn. This was also the decade when tabloids obsessively hounded the personal lives of celebrities & Dusty was at the receiving end of this onslaught. In order to avoid the media scrutiny back home, Dusty started spending more & more time in the US, even turning into a bit of a recluse. During this phase she issued her album ‘Cameo’ which again failed to leave a mark on the charts in spite of garnering critical acclaim and subsequently she shelved the next project ‘Longings’.

In the mid 70s, her voice was only heard as background vocals on Elton John’s album ‘Caribou’ and Anne Murray’s ‘Together’. By the end of the decade, she was reduced to playing club dates in New York. Dusty’ career finally witnessed an upswing in 1987, after she teamed up with the Pet Shop Boys to record ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This? ‘ The single became a smash hit and won her legions of new fans.

Dusty was diagnosed with breast cancer while recording the album ‘A Very Fine Love’. Though the cancer went into remission after months of radiation treatment, it returned with a vengeance. Dusty lost her brave fight with the disease on 2nd March 1999, a few weeks before her 60th birthday. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by her fan & friend Elton John, who said “”I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … Every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”

The Author

Siddhant Pillai Siddhant Pillai

Assistant Editor at Saavn/travel adventurer/badminton player/sitar student! Posted Mar 12, 2015 in News