Elton John gets ready to induct the late Dusty Springfield

By Chris Willman
March 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

At tonight’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in New York City, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen will provide the star wattage. But it’s another new inductee, Dusty Springfield, whose memory will transform the event into a bittersweet affair. Springfield, who died of breast cancer on March 2 at age 59, will be honored by Elton John.

The British-born Springfield had chosen to stay out of the limelight since being diagnosed with cancer in 1994. But her longtime friend and manager Vicki Wickham says Springfield had hoped to find a way to make it to New York. “She was really thrilled,” Wickham says. “She could be very cynical about a lot of things, but she was not cynical about (this award).”

Springfield first made her mark as a solo artist with the frothy British Invasion smash, “I Only Want to Be With You.” But she was in love with Motown and Aretha Franklin and soon became known for her subtle R&B shadings. She was even called “the queen of white soul” in some quarters, thanks to tunes like “Son of a Preacher Man” (which Franklin initially rejected but recorded after hearing Springfield’s hit version).

In 1968, Springfield had a dream come true when she moved to Atlantic Records and got a chance to cut an album with Aretha’s production team: Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Martin. The result, ”Dusty in Memphis,” is considered one of the all-time great pop albums, though it barely charted at the time and went out of print for nearly 20 years. The irony is that it really should have been titled ”Dusty in New York and Everyone Else in Memphis.” ”Dusty didn’t sing a bar of music in Memphis,” Wexler explains. ”It was partly her own feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, and also her incredible obsession with perfection.”

Springfield was intimidated by working with Aretha’s team, and she froze up, so the basic tracks were cut at Muscle Shoals without her breathy tones on top. But the vocals she added in New York were worth the wait. ”A lot of artists have this notion of perfectibility, of how good they want it to be. Almost none of them ever make it,” Wexler says. ”Dusty matched her vision of perfectibility with these beautiful, beautiful vocals, with this tender vulnerability which had a very sexy quality to it. Just in the phrase ‘son of a preacher man,’ you can hear, it’s like church bells are going off. I don’t think I’ll ever cut a better album than that one.”