It's twenty-two years years since Dusty Springfield, Britain's sixties soul legend and latter-day gay icon, died at the age of fifty-nine. One of a group of female singers in the mid to late 1960's, her troubled life was both a product and a symptom of her times.
If asked to name the big British female singers of today you would be hard put to draw up a long list. USA yes, groups yes, but solo female artists, with number one hits, few and far between. Yet back in the 1960's it wasn't just the Beatles, the Stones etc, who achieved national and international fame, but also female artists.
In Britain, Cilla Black, Lulu, and Dustv all had top ten hits, their own TV shows and fame to rival the biggest bands. Yet, whilst the first two went on to become entertainers and some would argue, national treasures, Dusty went to America, embraced drugs, alcohol and a confused sexual identity, before returning to Britain to die of cancer.
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien (aka Dusty), was born in London on 16th April 1939, five months before war broke out. Whilst there were differing accounts of Dusty's parents and her relationship to them, it is clear that the O'Briens were not a happy family. Dusty's father was a frustrated musician, with a temper that often led to verbal and physical violence, whilst her mother, an equally frustrated actress turned housewife, drank heavily to escape what she saw as a mistaken marriage. Dusty herself is quoted as saying,
"Our house was full of ambivalence, raging ambivalence. None of us wanted to be there."
Yet if family life left her with a legacy of unhappiness and confusion it also provided a love of music. Her father spurned popular tunes of the day in favour of the classics, jazz and blues, leaving his daughter more familiar with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. Her brother, Dion, sang and played guitar and Dusty, whilst at St Anne's Convent School, formed a group performing a repertoire from black American blues artists like Jelly Roll Morton. Rife with innuendo, it proved a little too risqué for the nuns!
At age sixteen, and although still living at home, Dusty began singing in London clubs, followed three years later by joining an all girl group, The Lana Sisters. It was a relationship that lasted only a year as, despite some success, Dusty left to join her brother and his friend Tom Feild, to form the Springfields. A gruelling round of Butlins holiday camps and London clubs then followed allowing the group to perfect their folk-country sound which culminated in an invite to the States to record.
To Dusty, going to America had long been her dream, although the trip turned out to be less than satisfying. In London they might spend three weeks rehearsing one verse, in America the song would be written in the morning and recorded in the afternoon. Dusty also began to recognise that country music was not her direction of travel.
Back in England, although the group recorded their biggest hit 'Island of Dreams' in 1962, with the advent of the Beatles, Dusty could see that musical tastes were changing. Within a year the Springfields were no more and at age 24 she started her solo career.
Riddled with self doubt, encouraged by critics who said she would never make it as a solo artist, Dusty confounded herself and them by her first recording 'I only want to be with you' rising to number four in the charts. Further success followed, both in Britain and the USA, with hits such as "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me".
Her success was underlined by tours to the USA, Australia and Japan. In 1968 she moved from Philips to Atlantic records and went to record in Memphis. Although she often felt the album, "Dusty in Memphis", was not her best work, it received critical acclaim and in particular the last of her big hits, "Son of a Preacher Man".
In 1970 Dusty left the UK and went to live in America, yet it was not a success. Being in LA became problematic and, as Dusty stated about the Laurel Canyon area into which she had moved:
"It was sort of nouveau riche. The trouble was - I was not very nouvelle and not very riche."
Musical tastes were again moving on and, isolated from the UK, an increasing number of her past issues emerged.
If she had been a man undoubtedly many of Dusty's 'dust ups' would have been interpreted as artistic temperament and tolerated. However, in a male dominated industry a women who musically knew what she wanted and was not afraid to argue for it, was not always welcome. Her perfectionism in wanting to get her sound just right and to control the recorded output was often interpreted as her simply being a Diva. True, there were cake throwing incidents and her iconic beehive hair-do and dark eyes began to look dated. There was also a constant tension between her outgoing stage persona and her private, almost shy, personal life as Mary.
If coming out involves a degree of courage and conflict now, in the late 1950's it was virtually impossible to reveal. For a woman to publicly declare a liking for women was to invite shock and revulsion, although better than for gay men who could be sent to prison for conducting a same sex relationship. So lesbian relationships were conducted covertly. Later Dusty would declare to being bisexual although any relationships with men were few and far between. As reported in an interview with the Evening Standard in 1970, she said;
“A lot of people say that I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it. I know I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more, people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
Perhaps her ambiguity was not just a fear of homophobia. As a practising Catholic her sexual preference ran directly contrary to the church's teaching. Combine this with her conservative and abusive background and it offered huge potential for personal conflict. Perhaps not surprisingly, as she fell out of favour and endured travelling an American B circuit of venues, Dusty turned to drink and drugs.
The final years
It was to be more than a lost decade until in the 1980's after a number of failed comebacks Dusty was re-invented as a female singer, recording two hits with 'The Pet Shop Boys'.
Her return to prominence enabled her to reach a new audience, start recording again as well as becoming the subject of a TV documentary. However, the late success she enjoyed was to be more of a swansong than a career re-launch. She moved back to Britain in the early 1990's, but after a long-running struggle with breast cancer, died some nine years later at her home in Henley-on-Thames.
Her huge talent in both her recordings and her attitude to music, meant Dusty was one of the few British solo artists to achieve success both in the States and Britain. Yet, she was born into a family with post war attitudes that did little to help her cope with the star she became. As her Guardian obituary put it:
"Two decades later the post-punk and feminist era might have served her better, perhaps psychologically securing her in a world where women had more chance of controlling their own music and defining their own sexuality."