"What set it apart from pure kitsch is that she, like any grand diva, treated this work of somewhat dubious artistic merit with the integrity and creative energy one would bestow upon an aria." - The Queer Sixties by Patricia Juliana Smith
All her life, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien struggled to be comfortable in her own skin. In the persona of Dusty Springfield, she propelled herself to phenomenal success in her own country and beyond, becoming one of the most beloved and electrifying music interpreters of all time.
Of her many memorable recordings, it's You Don't Have To Say You Love Me to which I have the most visceral reaction. Springfield's stratospheric delivery can be appreciated as the product of massive talent alone, but it taps into something in everyone who has ever tried to convince themselves that they're willing to settle for a love that is decidedly less than reciprocal. Her repeated "believe me" is one of the most shattering endings to any song in pop history, melodramatic as it is. (She herself called it "schmaltz.") It was actually an Anglicized version of a song she'd heard at an Italian music festival; she asked her friends Vicki Wickham, who booked acts for Ready Steady Go! and Simon Napier-Bell, who managed the Yardbirds, to write English lyrics. Their efforts + her soulful stylings = worldwide stardom.
Setting her fate in motion when she informed the nuns in the convent where she went to school that she was going to be a jazz singer when she grew up, Springfield paid her dues in the music business as a teenager performing as one of the Lana Sisters, and then joined her brother's folk trio the Springfields. (Check out this unbelievable clip! And this one. Once again, I had no idea ...) Touring the U.S. with the Springfields in the early 60s, she was gobsmacked by the emerging sounds of Motown. Back in Britain, and once on her own, she was American soul music's top promoter, hosting a Ready Steady Go! special in 1965 that introduced the Temptations and Supremes, among others, to a new audience.
For all her prodigious talent, the strong-willed Springfield was never sure of herself. Last week Mombi and I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where a piece of Dusty memorabilia was quite telling - an exhibit devoted to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler included a letter written to him by Springfield as he was planning the much ballyhooed Dusty in Memphis recording. Perhaps overwhelmed by the fact that the sessions were happening in the same Southern soil where many of the musicians she idolized also laid down tracks, she basically rejects most of the songs he was suggesting for the project - often discounting her ability to do right by them.
Wexler disagreed. He'd seen her hold her own - the only white performer - on the British Motown revue (catch this priceless performance with Martha and the Vandellas!). There weren't very many white women on the planet who had as much soul as Dusty - then or now.