Ashes To Ashes, Dusty To Dusty
Longtime Fans Bid Farewell To One Of Soul's Greatest Singers.
By Tom Danehy
MARCH 29, 1999: LIFE, THE SAYING goes, is crappy and then you die. But before that final disappointment hits, life's usually at its crappiest when someone else dies. It could be a loved one or a friend, or someone you've never met. Someone who touched you from a distance, nudged you in one direction or another, showed what greatness can be accomplished when one is fueled by passion.
It's been a bad month for great people. In the space of five days, we lost Stanley Kubrick, Joe DiMaggio and Dusty Springfield. All three expanded our lives in subtle and glorious ways--Kubrick through his unflinching confidence in his own vision; DiMaggio by setting for himself, and then adhering to, an almost inhuman standard of excellence; and Dusty, by living up to her nickname in a series of recordings which will live forever.
There are enormously popular singers and then there are Great Voices. The latter are set apart by nuance, style and the ethereal ability to transmit, in an undiluted fashion, emotion and power and sex from the singer's throat to the listener's ear. It's a symbiotic relationship--the singer sings, we listen with undivided attention and devotion. A simple equation, seldom completed.
I've heard lots of good voices in my lifetime, but only three great ones--Aretha Franklin, Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield. And now only Aretha remains.
Growing up in a ghetto in the 1960s, it wasn't the macho thing to like female vocalists. Oh, you could nudge your buddy and smirk at the sight of Mary Wells in a too-tight dress on American Bandstand. Or hope that, at the school dance, the right girl-group slow song might allow you to pull your dance partner closer, past the "Let's-see-some-daylight-in-there" point, where you might catch a hint of the possibilities of life.
But you didn't like girl singers. They were girls. You wanted to dance like James Brown, sweat like Otis Redding, and forestall puberty so you could sing falsetto like Smokey Robinson just one more year.
But I couldn't help myself with Dusty. Her voice cut right through me. Sultry and smoky, breathy and dripping with emotion, fired by passion from the heart she wore squarely on her sleeve.
I used to joke that puberty was a particularly difficult time for me, coinciding as it did with the sight of Julie Newmar as Catwoman and Dusty Springfield singing "The Look of Love."
Resurrected recently for a series of commercials, "The Look of Love" is the undisputed sexiest song of all time. And unlike Madonna, Foxy Brown and all the other slut-rockers who've taken the fun and mystery out of sex, the most risqué lyric in the whole song is, "I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you...Don't ever go."
Born Mary Catherine Isabel O'Brien, she was part of a British generation which giddily worshipped at the altar of American rhythm and blues. From this phenomenon sprang, among many others, the blues-rock of the Rolling Stones, the mystical soul of Van Morrison, and the heart-breaking sincerity of Dusty Springfield.
Saddled throughout much of her career by sub-standard material, she began as part of a skiffle-folk group, The Springfields. After heading out on her own, she bounced around from one sound to another, translating an Italian ballad into "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," and breathing life into the schmaltzy Beatles-esque "I Only Want To Be With You."
But it was on the pop-soul classic "Wishin' And Hopin' " that she found her niche. Behind that trademark facade of blonde bouffant hair and raccoon eye makeup was a Voice, an instrument from God which could belt out Motown, growl Stax, and purr Atlantic with equal ease. Like Mick Hucknall today, she was an oddity; a white soul singer who just happened to be the best in the world.
When Motown sent one of its famous multi-act revues over to England, they begged Dusty to host the show at its various venues and on the big BBC broadcast. Encumbered by the chronically lame BBC orchestra, she nonetheless tore the roof off the sucka', stealing "Heat Wave" from right under Martha Reeves' nose. The broadcast became the stuff of legend in England. Elvis Costello credits it with sparking his interest in music, and Elton John said it made him join her official fan club the very next day.
For her part, Dusty remained unconvinced of her own power. In an interview before her death, she said she felt overwhelmed by the talent of the Motown performers. She added that the ultimate highlight of her career just may have been when she joined Reeves and others on stage to sing backup on Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike."
As she remembered the moment, a smile crept across her face and she sang, in her dustiest, "Hitchhike...hitchhike, Baby."
Her career was schizophrenic: She enjoyed icon status in Britain, while never really catching on big in the U.S.; she was revered in the industry (she was Aretha Franklin's favorite singer), but enjoyed only a so-so following among American music fans.
This changed with the 1969 release of Dusty In Memphis, one of the greatest pop-soul albums of all time. Best known for the smoldering "Son Of A Preacher Man," it also includes the playful "Just A Little Lovin' (Early In The Mornin')" and the magnificently sad "Breakfast In Bed." When she whispers "You've been cryin', your face is a mess; Come in, Baby, I can dry your tears on my dress," it's all over. But even this album didn't do blockbuster business, though it quickly achieved classic status. It will appear on just about every Best of All Time List ever compiled.
(Incidentally, Aretha had been offered "Son of a Preacher Man" first, but turned it down, not wanting to offend her preacher father. But after hearing Dusty's version, she had to record it. Franklin says she didn't come close to Dusty's version.)
Dusty exiled herself to Holland for much of the '70s and '80s, consumed by (and consuming) drink and drug. She made a triumphant return on the Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" in 1988. She later had a hit in England with the theme song from the movie Scandal, and then later with a song from the film While You Were Sleeping.
But at that same time, she learned that she had breast cancer. She was given a year to live, and then lasted almost five. Last week she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Elton John doing the honors. She'd wanted to live to see that day, but fell short by two weeks. Life is indeed crappy.
The hell with macho. She was my favorite.
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