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Accidental Heroes

Dusty Springfield
By Martin Kelner on Jan 16, 2001 - 1:11:00 PM

Article dated: Tuesday 16 January 2001
Dusty Springfield
We first saw her in a gingham dress, like something out of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, full-bosomed with a pinched-in waist, her improbable hair back-combed to within an inch of its life and perched upon her head like a blonde walnut whip.

Who could have guessed that this Barbie Doll, singing trouble-free country songs with her brother Tom in1962 in a terminally cheerful combo (definitely a combo, not a group) called The Springfields, would become the great tragic heroine of pop music?

Forget Marianne Faithfull. Anyone can take drugs and sleep with Mick Jagger, and she never made a decent record anyway until fags and booze and middle age had made her voice a little more interesting. Stifle a yawn as you rehearse the Janis Joplin story. Sex and drugs and rock 'n roll and an early death. We've seen it in the movies. But Dusty. Ah Dusty. Now that would make a movie.

We start in the present day with our heroine living semi-reclusively in England's leafy Home Counties. Requests for interviews are mostly turned down. Occasionally a snapper with a telephoto lens tries to catch her going out to empty the rubbish. It's sort of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. It wasn't Dusty that got small, it was the records.

Now flash back to the beginning, and a mystery unfolds. How did a middle-class girl born in Hampstead become one of the greatest voices in the history of soul music? Great white soul singers are not exactly abundant, nor are Hampstead-born soul singers. Both categories you could count on the fingers of one finger.

But Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, born in 1939 to a rather stern father, an income tax consultant, and what Dusty describes as a "pure innocent Irish Catholic" mother, somehow transcended the sub-country music that could be considered a young red-headed Irish girl's spiritual home, went solo, and by the late 1960s, had Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin's producer, itching to record with her.

Dusty in Memphis, the album Wexler and Dusty recorded, was described by the New York Times as "pop music's holy grail". It is one of the most famous pop albums of all time, more heard of than heard, although the hit single it yielded, Son of a Preacher Man, revived most recently in Pulp Fiction, never pales. The single was final confirmation, if needed, that the girl had not only disappeared from Hampstead but every trace of Hampstead had gone from the girl.

Dusty was always more interesting than her records, though. In the mid-sixties, music critic Simon Frith noted, "Dusty was the object of an oddly furtive adolescent interest. Her image, like her hair, was brittle; the crack in her voice suggested a crack in her star masquerade. Her songs hinted at unspoken, desperate truths about sexuality that weren't there for discussion by little boys."

The sex thing, of course. Dusty has said she is as capable of "being swayed by a girl as a boy," which clearly did little to stem the endless prurient speculation which drove Dusty from Britain in the early seventies. She settled in California, and for a decade and a half - the wilderness years - rattled about in a big house with a big swimming pool, drinking, taking uppers and downers, doing the American supper club circuit, and releasing mostly unworthy records.

Until the story takes another glorious twist in 1987, when long-time fan Neil Tennant, smart fellow, brings Dusty home to record with the Pet Shop Boys. Miraculously, the voice is still intact, "husky and breathy," says Tennant, "with an intensity and desperation that's fantastically sensual." In the midst of Dusty's glorious late flowering, though, breast cancer is diagnosed, a blight she is determined to defeat.

If anyone can, Dusty can. In 1964 - 1964, mind you, when blonde pop stars were for amusement only - Dusty was placed under arrest in her hotel in South Africa because she refused to perform for segregated audiences. She always has had a reputation for being "difficult", arising mainly from her unerring views on what makes a good pop record, views she was never slow to make known to producers in her scanalously male dominated industry.

Difficult. Sure she's difficult. If you want simple, make a film about Kylie Minogue.

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