Dusty Springfield’s remarkable comebackon July 1, 2020 at 12:00 am

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As her 1990 album Reputation turns thirty, Nick Levine looks back at how the troubled pop icon enjoyed a glorious and unexpected late-career high after years out of the limelight.


Dusty Springfield is a pop star whose place in music history is assured. These days, she is remembered as an icon of the Swinging Sixties, and her 1969 album Dusty in Memphis, containing her immortal version of Son of a Preacher Man, among other beautifully performed songs, is recognised as a pop-R&B masterpiece.

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However there is another remarkable chapter of her career that is more easily forgotten: the resurgence that she enjoyed in the late 1980s, after two decades spent largely out of the limelight.

Springfield made her name with sophisticated pop ballads that were complemented by her ultra-glamorous image (Credit: Alamy)

Springfield made her name with sophisticated pop ballads that were complemented by her ultra-glamorous image (Credit: Alamy)

During this period, she released one very powerful album, 1990’s Reputation, which turned 30 last week. It returned her to the charts for the first time in 20 years: no mean feat for a singer whose career was widely thought to have been in irreversible decline and who was dismissed as a ‘nightmare’ when men-of-the-moment the Pet Shop Boys told their record label they wanted to work with her.

‘Nightmare’ is a sexist and reductive assessment of Springfield’s personality, but more than 20 years after her death, she definitely remains one of pop culture’s most fascinating figures. During her 1960s heyday, after she left folk trio The Springfields to become a globally famous solo artist, she cultivated an ultra-glamorous image that complemented the sophisticated pop ballads she sang so beautifully. “She wasn’t a songwriter, but she was a brilliant interpreter of pop and soul songs, and probably had the best voice of any British singer during that era,” says Martin Aston, author of Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out. Kara Marni, a British singer-songwriter who sampled Springfield’s 1970 B-side Spooky on her recent single Curve, likens her voice to “cream on velvet” and praises her “delicate and subtle way of telling stories”. “She sang the words and not just the notes,” Marni adds, “which is why I think she connected with so many people”.

Springfield looked and sounded flawless, but behind her instantly recognisable beehive hairdo and panda-eyes make-up was an incredibly complicated person who battled serious depression, deep-rooted self-doubt and acute substance abuse. Though she bravely came out as bisexual in a 1970 newspaper interview by saying “I know that I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy”, she struggled to reconcile her serenely feminine public persona with a private life defined by long-term relationships with women – including one, with singer-actress Teda Bracci, that reportedly became violent. “Nobody was saying stuff like that at the time, particularly not young female pop stars,” says Jonathan Harvey, writer of Dusty – The Dusty Springfield musical. But tellingly, Springfield prefaced her 1970 revelation about her sexuality by saying: “I’d hate to be thought of as a big butch lady.”

Synth-pop salvation

When it came out 30 years ago this month, Springfield’s 13th studio album Reputation was her first to be released in Britain since 1979. Featuring five songs produced by the Pet Shop Boys, including the top 20 hits In Private and Nothing Has Been Proved, it completed a remarkable chart comeback that the synth-pop duo had kick-started three years earlier by inviting Springfield to sing on What Have I Done to Deserve This? A deceptively peppy electro-pop song about an unlikely love story – “the man is a pathetic feeble wreck and the woman is meant to be a major capitalist”, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant said – it peaked at number two in the US and the UK, becoming Springfield’s first major hit since Son of a Preacher Man nearly 20 years earlier.

“By 1987, before What Have I Done to Deserve This?, she was almost a forgotten idol,” says Aston, who points out that Springfield left the UK for Los Angeles in the early 1970s and “never came back” – at least until her late-1980s comeback. Between 1970 and 1982, Springfield released six albums, but none sold well or produced a significant hit single. In 1985, her career hit rock bottom when she signed a record deal with Peter Stringfellow, a British businessman best known for running a London strip club. The only single she released on Stringfellow’s Hippodrome Records, a cover of a Donna Summer B-side called Sometimes Like Butterflies, stalled at number 85. Springfield later told The Sun newspaper that “working with Stringfellow was one of the incidents that made me feel so fed up with the business, I nearly gave up for good”.

Springfield began her career as part of folk trio The Springfields, before they disbanded in 1963 (Credit: Alamy)

Springfield began her career as part of folk trio The Springfields, before they disbanded in 1963 (Credit: Alamy)

A month after the single’s release, she was admitted to the psychiatric unit at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, New York after calling paramedics to say she’d ‘accidentally’ cut herself. “I think she was both a manic depressive and an addict,” Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham says in Karen Bartlett’s biography of Springfield, Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend, adding: “The combination was absolutely lethal.”

Because of all this, it felt like a minor pop miracle when Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe resuscitated her career just two years later. When the duo first approached Springfield with the duet in 1985, she turned them down – a glaring example of her self-sabotaging streak in action – but Wickham and the song’s co-writer Allee Willis managed to change her mind. According to Aston, collaborating with Tennant and Lowe during their imperial phase “brought her back to the forefront of British pop”. Like Tina Turner’s return to the charts earlier in the decade, Springfield’s appeal was predicated partly on her public image as a great survivor. “She still had the big hair and make-up that people remembered her for, and crucially she still sounded great,” Aston adds.

Looking back now, it’s a shame the Pet Shop Boys didn’t make an entire album with Springfield: a year earlier, they’d written and produced Results, a sparkling LP that reinvented Liza Minnelli as a classy contemporary pop diva. However, Tennant and Lowe were apparently put off by Springfield’s painstaking approach to recording, which was caused by her own nagging self-doubts telling her she was a ‘fraud’. “Doing a whole album with Dusty would probably give you a nervous breakdown,” Tennant recalled in the Pet Shop Boys’ recently reissued 1990 tour diary, Literally. “She recorded Nothing Has Been Proved one syllable at a time. It took two days.”

The poignant subtext

So the Pet Shop Boys only oversaw side B of Reputation, with side A split between their regular collaborator Andy Richards, Swing Out Sister producer Paul Staveley O’Duffy and musician-producer Dan Hartman, who’s best known for recording the original version of Relight My Fire. Side A’s glossy pop-soul songs now sound a little dated in places, but Springfield’s voice – huskier than on 1960s hits such as You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me and Wishin’ and Hopin’, but still pretty magnificent – always cuts through the clutter.

Side A peaks when Springfield’s soaring performances spotlight lyrics which offer some clever and poignant subtext. It’s hard not to read Born This Way, which shares its title with a recent queer anthem by Lady Gaga, as a tacit acknowledgement of Springfield’s sexuality. Either way, elsewhere she definitely connects with world-weary lines that appear to reference her rollercoaster career. “There’s one thing in life, I have no doubt – you’re on the way up, or on the way out,” she sings knowingly. Equally, the stirring title track seems to acknowledge Springfield’s lifelong fear of having her private life dissected in the press. When backing singers chime in with “a reputation isn’t worth the patience – who cares what they’re thinking?”, it’s a very moving moment.

Pet Shop Boys were instrumental in Springfield's comeback, collaborating with her on single What Have I Done to Deserve This? and part-producing 1990's Reputation (Credit: Alamy)

Pet Shop Boys were instrumental in Springfield’s comeback, collaborating with her on single What Have I Done to Deserve This? and part-producing 1990’s Reputation (Credit: Alamy)

However, the Pet Shop Boys definitely provide the album’s highlights. As massive Dusty fans, Tennant and Lowe knew how to write for her voice and persona while also encouraging Springfield, a seasoned pro who turned 50 while the album was being recorded, to branch out musically. When they were asked to write a song for Scandal, a 1989 film about the so-called ‘Profumo Affair’ of 1963, they decided Springfield should sing it. After all, she’d released her debut solo single, I Only Want to Be with You, in the same year that John Profumo stepped down as Secretary of State for War after lying about his extra-marital affair with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model. This adds an extra layer of pathos to Nothing Has Been Proved, a slow-burning ballad that namechecks the scandal’s key players including Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies.

Serving as Reputation’s de facto lead single – albeit more than a year before the album finally arrived – Nothing Has Been Proved cemented Springfield’s comeback by cracking the UK top 20 in early 1989. In Private, also written by Tennant and Lowe for Scandal, but rejected by the filmmakers for sounding ‘too contemporary’, gave Springfield another top 20 hit later that year. Its perky dance-pop sound is more instant than Nothing Has Been Proved, but the lyrics “about someone having an affair with a politician and being found out”, according to Tennant, definitely benefit from Springfield’s ability to convey complex emotions. “What are you gonna say when you run back to your wife? I guess it’s just the story of my life,” she sings with a knowing sigh.

An unlikely rap

Nothing Has Been Proved and In Private kept Springfield in the charts, but the two most adventurous songs Tennant and Lowe wrote for Reputation were never released as singles. Occupy Your Mind is a seven-minute acid-house banger inspired by the sunrise raves that defined British underground dance culture at the end of the 1980s. In this avant-garde setting, Springfield almost comes off like a high priestess of enlightenment as she sings: “In a world so confused – believe.” Equally audacious in its own way is the deliciously breezy Daydreaming, Springfield’s first and last attempt at making a rap record. She’s clearly no Cardi B, but Springfield gamely pulls the whole thing off by keeping her spoken-word delivery cool and laid-back.

At the time, eyebrows might have been raised by a middle-aged white woman trying to rap, but Springfield’s deep-rooted love of black music protected her from criticism. “She had a great respect for and an extensive knowledge of soul, gospel and R&B, so she was never just a white woman appropriating another culture,” says Bishi, a musician and performance artist who counts Springfield as a major influence. Indeed, Springfield played a pivotal role in introducing Motown music to the UK when she hosted a 1965 BBC special featuring performances from The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. In the ’60s, Springfield was often referred to as “the queen of white soul”.

In 1964, Springfield demonstrated her commitment to racial equality by refusing to play for segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa – as a result, she was deported by the authorities before she finished her tour. Springfield revered black soul artists and constantly compared herself to them. In 1995, she told Mojo magazine that her original version of Son of a Preacher Man, which had recently enjoyed a revival after being featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, was “just not good enough”. She continued: “Aretha [Franklin] had been offered it but didn’t record it until after I had, and to this day I listen to her phrasing and go, ‘Goddammit! That’s the way I should have done it.'”

Springfield's late-career bloom was sadly cut short by her untimely death from cancer in 1999 (Credit: Alamy)

Springfield’s late-career bloom was sadly cut short by her untimely death from cancer in 1999 (Credit: Alamy)

In Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend, one of the singer’s partners, Norma Tanega, sums up her problems by saying “she wanted to be straight and she wanted to be a good Catholic and she wanted to be black”. Sadly, Springfield’s myriad insecurities make a lot of sense when you read about her childhood. Born Mary O’Brien to parents of Irish descent living in west London, Springfield – as she would eventually rename herself – was raised in a household that was financially comfortable but profoundly dysfunctional. Springfield described her parents’ marriage as ‘lousy’ and recalled bitter rows culminating in bizarre food fights. Years later, Springfield would continue her family’s food-throwing tradition in various dressing rooms around the world.

Harvey points out the marked contrast between young Mary O’Brien and the pop superstar she became, Dusty Springfield. “When you see photos of her as a teenager – short hair, glasses, a bit butch, playing hockey – and then see the ultra-feminine silhouette she hid behind when she reinvented herself as Dusty, I’m interested in that,” he says. He also notes how contradiction seemed to follow Springfield throughout her career. “She experienced so much success and yet she was at times homeless, sectioned and skint,” he adds.

Springfield’s classic 1969 album Dusty in Memphis will always be perceived as her masterpiece, and rightly so, but there’s no denying that Reputation gave her career a brief but satisfying final flourish. “So often showbiz stories are about decline – think of Judy Garland at the end of her life. But Dusty had everything, lost everything, then got it all back again,” says Harvey. Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer while recording what would become her final album, 1995’s A Very Fine Love, and succumbed to the disease in March 1999 at the age of 59. Poignantly, Tennant said in his eulogy at her funeral that when Springfield sang, he knew he was “in the presence of greatness”. Listening to Reputation’s glittering highlights – and even its less stellar moments, when Springfield elevates the material – it’s difficult to disagree.

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