Tributes pour in for late U.K. singer

The far-reaching impact of Dusty Springfield's recorded legacy was immediately apparent in the welter of public tributes that followed word of her death. The outpouring was led by Queen Elizabeth II, who was said in a statement from Buckingham Palace to be "saddened" by the news.

A true icon of British pop music of the '60s, Springfield died March 2 from breast cancer at the age of 59 at her home in Henley-on-Thames, near London.

Springfield had been suffering from cancer since 1994. She was made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the U.K.'s New Year Honours list, and her investiture had been due to take place on the day she died. She was allowed to receive the award in the hospital in January.

Vicki Wickham, Springfield's close friend of 36 years and her manager since her 1980s career renaissance, says, "I think Dusty was very satisfied with where she'd got to, but if I'm honest, she didn't like the trappings that went with success. She was such a perfectionist, and she always felt she wasn't as good as, say, Aretha [Franklin], who she loved."

Veteran British pop svengali Simon Napier-Bell, who co-wrote the English lyrics to Springfield's biggest hit, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," with Wickham, adds, "She had this amazing thing of sounding fragile with great power. Her best performances - whether it was "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" or "Wishin' and Hopin'" or "Son of a Preacher Man" - I think they match any great performance by Aretha, Sinatra, or even Pavarotti."

Springfield's impact on a generation reached far beyond her 11 Top 10 U.K. hits and the same number of U.S. Top 40 entries. Many fans and peers regarded her as the best, and most soulful, pop singer ever to emerge from England; her Dusty in Memphis album, released in 1969 and recorded with Jerry wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin, may have had limited commercial success but has assumed legendary critical status.

Its best-known song, "Son of a Preacher Man," brought her smoky, sensual vocals to a new generation via its inclusion on the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack in 1994. Dusty in Memphis was recently reissued on Rhino Records.

"One thing about Dusty is that people ask who she influenced, and the answer is nobody," says Wexler. "I can't think of anybody who carried Dusty Springfield's imprint, as opposed to Aretha Franklin, where there were many acolytes. But Dusty was sui generis - the 'queen of white soul,' I called her.

"Her particular hallmark was a haunting sexual vulnerability in her voice, and she may have had the most impeccable intonation of any singer I ever heard," he adds.

Elvis Costello counts himself as an artist greatly influenced by Springfield. early in his career, he performed her 1964 British hit "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," written by burt Bacharach and Hal David. Costello later contributed a song to Springfield's 1982 album White Heat (Casablanca). "She was one of the greatest singers of all time, and I enjoyed her singing my whole life," he says.

In a prepared statement, Bacharach, who co-wrote several Springfield hits, including "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "The Look of Love," said, "I just feel grateful that I knew Dusty and that I worked with her. I also feel grateful that the world knew her."

Springfield was borm Mary O'Brien in Hampstead, north London, on April 16, 1939, and she made her recording debut with the vocal trio the Lana Sisters. Adopting her new stage name, she formed the Springfields with her brother Dion (who became Tom Springfield) and their friend Tim Feild.

The trio signed to Philips and charted for the first time in August 1961 with "Breakaway," scoring top five U.K. hits with "Island of Dreams" in 1962 and "Say I Want Be There" the following year. U.S. acceptance came early, too, with a No. 20 placing in 1962 for "Silver Threads and Golden Needles."

Springfield went solo in 1963, remaining with Philips and scoring an instant smash with Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde's "I Only Want To Be With You." It hit No. 4 in the U.K., triggering an unbroken run of hits throughout the '60s and starting her U.S. chart career. It reached No. 12.

A devoted Motown disciple, Springfield was soon an established star, with her unusually R&B-edged vocals and distinctive image of beehive hair and heavy eye shadow. She was soon securing the best material from songwriters of the day.

By 1966, Springfield had her first BBC-TV series, Dusty. Her big hits continued until early 1969, when "Son of a Preacher Man" became her last major single for almost two decades. In the 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles and revealed her bisexuality, becoming something of a gay icon. However, this was a period of career and personal decline, and deals with such labels as Dunhill, Mercury, and Casablanca brought few rewards.

In 1987, Springfield was invited to sing on "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" by the hot U.K. chart act the Pet Shop Boys; the result was a No. 2 hit at home and in the U.S. "It was a dream come true for us when Dusty Springfield agreed to sing with us on 'What Have I Done To Deserve This?'" say the duo members, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, in a statement. "She hadn't recorded for several years, but as soon as she . . . began to sing, we knew that the greatest female singer Britain has ever produced was still on brilliant form."

The relationship led to further fruitful collaborations, notably 1989's "Nothing Has Been Proved," featured in the film Scandal. By then she was labelmates with the Pet Shop Boys at Parlophone; in 1990 she released the Reputation album, which featured four tracks written by the duo.

Her catalog continued to attract new generations of listeners, and Goin' Back: The Very Best of Dusty Springfield was a top five U.K. album on the Philips imprint in 1994. Her last album was 1995's A Very Fine Love for Columbia.

Paul Sexton
Billboard, March 19, 1999