Dusty Springfield was one of the UK’s most successful girl singers of the 1960s with a repertoire ranging from rousing pop to emotional soul ballads. Known for her elaborate wigs and panda-eyed make up, she became something of a camp icon, but is arguably one of the best singers Britain has ever produced.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary O’Brien on 16 April 1939 in West Hampstead, London, and raised in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. She was given the nickname Dusty as a child.
In 1958 she joined The Lana Sisters, who released several singles over the next couple of years.
She left the group in 1960 to form folk trio The Springfields with her brother Dion (who renamed himself Tom Springfield) and Tim Field. For this, she adopted the name Dusty Springfield. (Without Dusty, The Lana Sisters would later morph into The Chantelles.)
The Springfields went on to score several UK hits, including 1961’s Breakaway and Bambino and 1962’s Island of dreams. They also enjoyed success in the US with Silver threads and golden needles.
However, on a stopover in New York City during a trip to Nashville to record an album, Dusty first heard The Exciters’ Tell him.
She became captivated by the sound of American soul – prompting an overwhelming desire to change musical direction, which led her to quit the group in autumn 1963.
Her first solo release, I only want to be with you, issued in November 1963, couldn’t have been more different to the material she’d recorded with The Springfields. A brash corker of a song, it stormed up in the UK charts, reaching number four. The singer also showed off her songwriting skills by penning the B-side, Once upon a time.
The not dissimilar Stay awhile, written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde, the same team behind for her first solo hit, was quickly issued as the follow up, reaching number 13 in the UK.
At the time Cilla Black was enjoying a number one hit with a tune by American songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dusty opt to raid their back catalogue for her third single – covering a little-known tune which had been recorded originally by Tommy Hunt. The result was the emotional I just don’t know what to do with myself, which soared to number three in the UK charts in the summer of 1964 and set the standard for much of her later material.
Dusty’s debut LP, A girl called Dusty, also demonstrated the singer’s love of American music. From Lesley Gore’s You don’t own me to The Shirelles’ Mama said, the album was packed with choice cover versions. (Dusty’s love of US soul also led her to help break the Motown label in Britain. She encouraged Rediffusion to record a special edition of their flagship music programme, Ready, steady, go!, which she hosted.)
By this time, the singer had become known in the rest of Europe, appearing in Italy’s San Remo song festival and releasing a number of singles in French, German and Italian.
Although she didn’t enjoy the success in mainland Europe of some of her contemporaries – notably Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark – many of her hits were covered by continental singers in their native tongues. (See our Dusty tribute special for more information.)
In the UK, Dusty’s next 45 was Losing you, a track her brother Tom had written with Clive Westlake. Another big ballad, it made the UK top ten in the autumn of that year.
When the follow up, Your hurtin’ kinda love, barely scraped into the top 40 in February 1965, Dusty quickly bounced back with the strident In the middle of nowhere. The song was one that she had heard in New York on a trip to snaffle a sure-fire comeback. Her instincts proved correct and she was rewarded with another top ten success.
Not wanting to stick with just one sound, she cut the lushly orchestrated Some of your lovin’, written by US songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, as her follow up. Issued in September 1965, it is considered one of her best recordings, and it gave the singer another top ten hit.
Figuring that her fans would feel it was time for an upbeat single, Dusty issued Little by little, in January 1966. It was an obvious attempt to repeat the swingalong sound of In the middle of nowhere and had been written by the same writers. If the intention was to keep Dusty in the public eye, it worked – and gave her another top 20 hit to boot.
Ever the perfectionist, Dusty was never a big fan of the song, so when it came to choosing a follow up, she knew something special was needed.
She remembered the San Remo song festival she’d taken part in a year earlier. There, she’d fallen in love with Io che non vivo (senza te), which had been written and performed by Pino Donaggio. She had taken the song back home with her but had done nothing with it. With new lyrics – reportedly written on the way to the studio in a taxi, though this is now denied – it became You don’t have to say you love me. Issued in April 1966, the song gave Dusty her only UK chart topper single and is now deemed a classic.
Following it up proved a challenge – though the exquisite Goin’ back more than held its own and gave the singer another top-ten success upon its release that summer. (Interestingly, Dusty was pursuing her songwriting at this time, and penned the melody of the single’s B-side, I’m gonna leave you.)
In August, Dusty began presenting her own TV series, entitled Dusty, which ran for two seasons and helped to keep her in the public eye. Fronting it was quite a move for the former convent girl – without the wigs and dresses, she was terribly shy and suffered great insecurity. That she was hiding her lesbianism from the record-buying public only added to her woes.
Back on the singles front, the dramatic Italian-esque All I see is you, written by Clive Westlake, and the rousing I’ll try anything added another couple of hits to the singer’s tally.
However, her next two 45s gave the singer cause for concern.
First, Give me time, another dramatic Italian cover, missed the top 20. (Why the superior The look of love from the film Casino royale was consigned to the B-side is anybody’s guess.)
Then, the danceable What’s it gonna be – a take on a little-known number by US singer Susan Barratt – failed to make the top 40 altogether. (It would later become a favourite on Britain’s northern soul scene, however.)
An album, the aptly titled Where am I going?, served to underline the singer’s sense of floundering.
Somewhat panic stricken, Dusty was desperate to find a song that would give her another big hit. Songwriter Clive Westlake came to the rescue with I close my eyes and count to ten. Kiki Dee, who often provided backing vocals for Dusty, had been lined up to cut the track, but Dusty rang Westlake to insist he save it for her instead. It returned her to the charts, making number four in July 1968, and has proved her one of her best-loved hits. (Incidentally, the B-side, No stranger am I, was written by Dusty’s then lover Norma Tanega.)
Sadly, Westlake couldn’t repeat the goods with the follow up, the second-rate I will come to you.
Looking for a change of direction, Dusty set off to Memphis, Tennessee, to record an album. However, the singer felt so intimidated by the musicians in Tennessee that her master vocals were, in fact, recorded later in New York. Nevertheless, the first single from the album which was the terrific Son-of-a preacher man, which gave her a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Surprisingly, the album, Dusty in Memphis – though now considered a classic – wasn’t a success at the time, and record company Philips issued no further singles from it in Britain.
Instead, Am I the same girl was released the following year, but interest in the singer had waned and it failed to make the top 40.
It proved a rather unfitting end to the decade for Dusty.
She went on to release a string of singles and albums in the 1970s, none of which met with any great success. It wasn’t until she teamed up with electronic duo the Pet Shop Boys in 1987 that she enjoyed a chart comeback. What have I done to deserve this went to number two in the UK and US and proved a big hit in much of mainland Europe. It led to a clutch of further hit singles, including Nothing has been proved (the theme to the film Scandal) and In private, and several albums.
In 1994, Dusty was diagnosed with breast cancer. She eventually died from the disease on 2 March 1999.