Dusty Springfield -- The blue-eyed soul singer set the standard

By Chris Willman
Updated March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Legacy: Dusty Springfield

Perhaps Burt Bacharach’s elegy affords Dusty Springfield sufficient distinction: ”You just had to hear two or three notes and you knew it was Dusty.” Petula Clark, a fellow British Invasion bird, was also struck by Springfield’s singularity: ”The way she looked was easy to impersonate — the panda eyes and the bouffant hair. But the voice was impossible to imitate… Dusty was the perfect pop singer.”

Perfect, but not pure; there were other shadings that marked Springfield, who died from breast cancer at her home on the Thames, March 2, at 59. Here was a songstress for whom ”blue-eyed soul” might as well have been coined (”the white Negress,” Cliff Richard famously called her), but who, unlike most singers of that appellation, wouldn’t likely be mistaken for black in a blindfold test. ”There is a soul influence, but no blues influence,” says Jerry Wexler, who coproduced 1969’s classic Dusty in Memphis, describing her breathy, husky, understated phrasing. ”It wasn’t black soul — maybe it was Irish soul — but she had it. She stripped herself down and her singing was naked vulnerability, which made it very sexy.”

Few squeezed so much sensuality out of such lonesomeness. Her best-known songs remain her 1964 breakthrough, ”I Only Want to Be With You,” and Memphis‘ randy ”Son of a Preacher Man,” but many of her greatest hits were hymns to desolation, like ”I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” Consider the wellspring of emotion behind her breathtakingly minimalist reading of ”I Can’t Make It Alone,” and see if her plea to be taken back by the lover she dumped doesn’t sound like the dying gasps the lyrics claim, or at least an exhausted lull between crying jags…blue- and red-eyed soul.

Springfield’s career was unusually self-made for a ’60s woman’s, her persona peculiarly guarded for a pop star’s. The London convent schoolgirl born as Mary O’Brien had one 1962 hit (”Silver Threads and Golden Needles”) with the folk trio the Springfields (including sibling Tom Springfield); but, upon hearing ”Tell Him” emanating from a storefront, she underwent a kind of pop conversion experience and went solo, adopting a mod look borrowed from French models. The big hair and severe makeup were ”very much a mask,” manager Vicki Wickham acknowledges, for a very private woman who might’ve otherwise been disabled by insecurities about her looks and talent.

Springfield enjoyed 10 Top 40 hits in the ’60s, but by Memphis — a pinnacle of pop record-making but a commercial non-event — interpreters were out of fashion. The never-married singer’s cautious admission of bisexuality, predating even Elton’s, may have hurt her career in the ’70s, though she did enjoy one more smash, ”What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” a 1987 duet with the Pet Shop Boys. Springfield leaned toward reclusiveness even before being diagnosed with cancer in ’94, but if possible, Wickham says, she would’ve shown up to claim her Order of the British Empire and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors this month: ”She could be very cynical about a lot of things, but not about either of those.”

Says legendary songwriter Jeff Barry: ”The Mariah Careys and Celine Dions — she started that. Today, there’s three or four divas up there trying to outmaneuver each other; it’s like aerial dogfighting, and it’s great gymnastics. But Dusty sang the words, not just the notes, and to me that’s real big in a singer.” Who’ll miss that? Only anyone who had a heart.