To Dusty Springfield, with Love, for Her 79th Birthday
Music’s goddess of love would have been one year shy of octogenarian status on April 16.
I have Dusty Springfield fever again. It hits me regularly yet almost always unexpectedly, sometimes when I’m not even in the mood for love. But naturally, just one note, just one sad sweet sensual sigh, just one song sung blue (like “Just One Smile” — before hope floats and bubbles over on the chorus), and love is in control.
So let’s talk about love, with which the name Dusty Springfield is practically synonymous, and, well, Dusty. Despite stiff competition from the musical peers of her ’60s heyday — Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black — she always stood out. It was partly the sky-high beehive hairdo, which gave her such a distinctive look, but mostly, it was The Voice.
It was a voice that tearfully and exactingly conveyed love and heartbreak on her cover of the Fred Ebb and John Kander pop standard “My Coloring Book” (slightly retitled “My Colouring Book” on 1964’s A Girl Called Dusty, released the day after the singer turned 25). Every word, every subtle shift in her immaculate phrasing (“Co-UH-lor them gray”) is deliberate and loaded with beautiful soul.
As usual, she never oversings, never makes a sudden leap or takes a startling dip just for the sake of it. Many a pop diva — including Streisand, Aretha, and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog — have tackled “My Coloring Book,” but only Brenda Lee challenged Dusty for ownership of the tune.
It was a voice the conveyed such pure unadulterated joy on her version of the unsung Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown chestnut “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” bluesy confidence on “I Had a Talk with My Man Last Night,” and synth-pop soulfulness alongside Pet Shop Boys on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”.
I wasn’t around for most of the ’60s, having been born a month and a half after the release of Dusty’s landmark 1969 Dusty in Memphis album, but if I had been, I would have known it was her the moment, every moment, her voice came on the radio.
Years ago, I had a friend named Declan in New York City who said of all the covers of classics that Dusty didn’t do, the one he wished she’d taken a crack at was Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears,” which the singer-songwriter’s group the Miracles took to number 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965. Apparently, Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 remake wasn’t good enough for Declan. He longed to hear Dusty’s patented breathy take on the ultimate sad song.
After a while, every time Declan and I saw each other, we’d immediately launch a duet of “The Tracks of My Tears” Dusty-style, much to the amusement of everyone standing nearby. They didn’t get it. We weren’t trying to be funny, the way another friend and I were when we’d sing every pop song imaginable in Cher’s husky warble. We were paying homage. I think Dusty would have been pleased.
Actually, I’m sure of it. I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing and meeting Dusty in 1995, shortly before the release of her final album, A Very Fine Love. Of all the celebrity interviews I’ve done over the course of my journalism career, only my time spent with David Bowie (also on the phone and in person) and Tammy Wynette (my other favorite female singer ever) comes close to my moments with Dusty.
We talked about Aretha Franklin (who once paid her the highest compliment — a simple “Girl” as they stepped onto the same elevator — and whose version of “Son of a Preacher Man” Dusty preferred to her own), her late-’80s/early ’90s revival via Pet Shop Boys, and the breast cancer that would eventually take her life two weeks before her 1999 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I don’t have any boobs, so it wasn’t hard to find,” she said of discovering a lump during recording sessions for A Very Fine Love in Nashville.
Dusty was so personable, so real, it felt like she was sitting right beside me, although we were chatting on the phone. I kept forgetting I was talking to an icon and not a favorite aunt who had come over for tea.
After the interview, I called her publicist to thank her for setting it up. When I told her everything Dusty had said about her battle with cancer, she was shocked.
“She must have really liked you, because she’s been ending interviews all day with writers who have brought it up,” her rep said.
It made me feel special, like Dusty trusted me enough to confide in me. I didn’t know how to bring up her fight with breast cancer and wasn’t sure if I would. But she started talking about it without any prompting from me. I don’t think any other interviewee has ever paid me a higher compliment.
Several weeks later, I finally met Dusty in person at a record-release party for A Very Fine Love, and I was surprised by how tiny and delicate she was. She’d told me during our interview that although the cancer was in remission, she was still pretty weak from the treatment. For some reason, though, I still was expecting her to be as “larger-than-life” in person as she was on all of those ’60s album covers and in her vintage performance videos. She gamely posed for photos with everyone, and when she signed my Dusty in Memphis CD booklet, she griped about the bonus tracks.
“I don’t even know what they’re doing there,” she said. “They had nothing at all to do with the recording of the album.”
I told her I was actually glad they’d kind of desecrated her beloved album with assorted random songs because every extra helping of Dusty Springfield ought to be considered a blessing.
When she died on March 2, 1999, at age 59, she left behind enough servings to fill dozens of CDs. Although I couldn’t possibly pay adequate tribute to the lady who pretty much invented blue-eyed soul, I’ve tried anyway by creating a Dusty-only Spotify playlist simply called “Dusty.”
These 30 songs are far from the tribute she deserves. They’re my personal “The Best of Dusty Springfield,” not her “Greatest Hits,” as they exclude all of her solo Top 10 U.S. singles. Yep, no “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” or “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” but you can find those on any Dusty tribute.
Still, they’ll be the perfect antidote the next time Dusty fever hits — as soon as I recover from this one.