England's Lady Soul

On March 2, 1999, Dusty Springfield died of cancer at her home in Henley-on-Thames. She was 59, just six weeks short of her 60th birthday. Too ill to go to Buckingham Palace for her investiture, Dusty had received her OBE at her bedside. Retaining her humour to the end, she remarked: "It's a nice medal. But couldn't they have got a better ribbon? It's a bit frayed!" Never one to let circumstances get in the way, returning from hospital one day in the ambulance she made the driver stop, got out, went shopping, and climbed back in. Such insouciance endeared Dusty to everyone.

When news of her death broke, the reaction was phenomenal: the Queen said she was saddened, and Cher, Elton John and other stars paid tribute. Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe commented: "She brought pleasure to millions of music lovers." Dusty was cremated after a flamboyant ceremony at St Mary's Church in Henley on March 12. Thousands of people turned up, bringing the town centre to a standstill. It was as if Britain had only just realised what a great singer it had lost.

I interviewed Dusty 10 years ago when working on the first edition of my biography. She responded carefully to questions, avoiding pat replies and giving her unique slant on life, one that combined warm, Goonish humour with a pragmatic appraisal of the music business. In the process of relocating to England (Los Angeles - her base for over 15 years - was "part naff, part glamorous"), she said that "musically, Americans get frightened if you fling a lot of stuff at them. Besides, I've been homesick for a long time. I've been waiting for the groundswell of movement in Britain. Now seems the right time."

With her penchant for Spectorish ballads and raw American soul, Dusty always was a woman ahead of her time. In the '60s she rejected the notion that female pop vocalists should look pretty and sing sweet, and pushed back the envelope in terms of production. With minimal multi-tracking technology, Dusty's producer/arranger Ivor Raymonde would squeeze as many Royal Philharmonic musicians as he could into his Stanhope Gate studio at Marble Arch. A fan of Spector's Wall of Sound, Raymonde said: "We'd make the records very important-sounding with a huge band, then take the recorded acetate and deliberately distort it." Dusty didn't find the process easy. "Philips was an extremely dead studio. It sounded as though someone had turned down the treble and . . . I couldn't get an edge," she once said. "There was no ambience and it was like singing in a padded cell. I had to get out of there!" She would often end up in the ladies' toilet for its superior acoustics. "I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten", for instance was recorded at the end of the corridor. When recording, she would have the music cranked up high in her headphones to a decibel level "on the threshold of pain".

While other '60s beat girls like Cilla and Sandie Shaw weered towards girl-next-door pop, Dusty injected a wayward energy into a UK scene that had been stifled by mainstream Light Entertainment. As a white suburban convent girl her influences were unusual - from Bessie Smith to jazz artist Blossom Dearie. An earthy approach to life pulsated through her decorous Home Counties exterior. When the Springfields "went electric" at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool they unveiled new, three-foot high amplifiers. Impresario Harold Fielding was unimpressed. During rehearsals he boomed from the back of the auditorium: "Those bloody things'll have to go." "No, they're staying," Dusty said firmly. "They're going." "Up yours, they're staying." At this Fielding's wife piped up: "Don't let her talk to you like that!" "Tell that bloody cow to shut up," Dusty replied. Fielding said she'd never work in one of his shows again, Dusty just shrugged. According to Raymonde: "She'd got quite a reputation for being a hard case."

Dusty was assertive at a time when women were expected to toe the line. She was hard on musicians she felt didn't come up to scratch, but kept those who she felt genuinely wanted to help. "Those who would play for me standing up if they had piles, which is what a drummer did for a week at the Talk of the Town - and he drummed beautifully."

Perhaps one of her greatest achievements was inventing that look - the impossible beehive, the smudged panda eyes, the glittering gowns. In true diva style, she had a succession of wigs (named Cilla, Sandie and Lulu), and a host of gay fans who appreciated the fact that she had modelled herself on drag queens. During a Gay Liberation march in the late '60s, for instance, about 20 gay men led the parade dressed up as Dusty Springfield. "She should have been an old-style movie star," her '60s manager Vic Billings recalled, "Someone like Greta Garbo, wanting to be alone and languishing in her bedroom all day, maybe reaching over for the occasional chocolate." Friends said that Dusty could be "as temperamental as hell," but she also had the graciousness of a Southern belle.

Towards the end of her life she found a new sense of peace. "I am a woman of a certain age," she said after recording her last album, A Very Fine Love. "I'm comfortable with that and want to reflect it in my music." It's that gentle poise and panache that will be remembered, along with a voice that, full of vulnerability and raw emotion, always told a story.

Lucy O'Brien
Mojo: The Music Magazine, May 1999