In this article, I’m going to write about one of the best female vocalists to come out of the UK. She was dubbed the white queen of soul. Nowadays, any female vocalist with a modicum of talent is compared with this singer. These comparisons are ridiculous. Some third rate vocalist with a nasal whine can’t be compared to a true giant of the music industry. During this artist’s career, she produced some brilliant music, and the album this article about was a landmark album. It saw her travel to Mempis to work with a brilliant producer and some hugely talented musicians. The album is Dusty In Memphis, Dusty Springfield’s seminal album released in 1969.

Dusty Springfield was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, in West Hampstead, North London, in April 1939. She was brought up in a middle class family, that loved music. During her childhood she was exposed to a wide range of music. This included Count Basie, Rogers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. Dusty Springfield loved American jazz vocalists, including Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford. It was her ambition to sound like them. Little wonder that on leaving school she would become a singer, such was her love of music.

Her first job in music was as one of The Lana Sisters. They were already established as a group, and Dusty was recruited in 1958, as a new member. Whilst a member, she received a crash course in the music industry. She recorded with them, appeared on television and in concert. During her time with them, she learned to harmonize and how to use a microphone properly. She left The Lana Sisters in 1960.

Her next venture in music was when she formed a pop-folk trio The Springfields wth her brother Don, and Reshad Field, who would later be replaced by Mike Hurst. It was here that she adopted the stage name Dusty Springfield. The Springfields recorded an album Folk Songs From The Hills, in Nashville, Tennessee. They’d travelled to Nashville intending to record a genuine American album. It was during this trip that Dusty’s musical tastes changed. She started to love pop music that had its roots in rhythm and blues music. Although the group were reasonably successful, winning the New Musical Express’ Best Vocal Group award in 1961 and 1962 they split up in 1963. Their final single was Say I Won’t Be There, gave the group their first top five hit. The last concert they played was in October 1963. After that, the group split up.

Now a solo artist, success came quick to Dusty. Her first solo single I Only Want To Be With You, sold over one million copies, and she received a gold disc. Ivor Raymomde’s production on the single owed much to Phil Spector. Having said that, his arrangement was fantastic, featuring vocals that were double-tracked, a horn section and a string section. This single was a great start to her solo career.

Her first album A Girl Called Dusty, was released in 1964. It was an album featuring Dusty Springfield covering some of her favorite songs. This album featured her first collaboration with two hugely important songwriting partnerships, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The latter partnership were a huge influence on Dusty, and she recorded their songs throughout her career.

In 1965 Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty was released. The album sold quite well, and Dusty ended up the top selling female singer on her record label Philips Records. This album contained many show tunes, as well as some soul songs. 

She released Where Am I Going in 1967. The album wasn’t as successful as her previous two albums. It contained a wide variety of styles of music. Fans and critics liked the album, enjoying hearing her sing different styles of music. This album was followed up by Dusty…Definitely in 1968. It was the first album that Dusty co-produced with John Franz. The album was split into one side of the album with faster songs, the other with slower songs. On each side the mood is very different. 

1968 also saw Dusty sign a contract with Atlantic Records for the US. This was to have a huge impact on her career, and ended up with her heading to Memphis to record Dusty In Memphis with producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, and engineer Tom Dowd. Dusty in Memphis was an attempt to relaunch her career. After her first two successful albums, her career had stalled. By heading to Memphis, it was hoped that her credibility as an artist would receive a boost. She’d never recorded an album of rhythm and blues music before, this would be a first. However, she was joined in the studios with some of Memphis’ best musicians and backing singers. She would be backed by the Memphis Cats, a fantastic group of musicians, and backing vocalists the Sweet Inspirations. This was truly the creme de la creme of the Memphis music scene. Springfield was noted as a perfectionist, nothing less would suffice. This would prove a huge challenge for produced Jerry Wexler. Another problem was her insecurity, she was a hugely insecure artist, and this wasn’t helped by working with such talented musicians, singers and producers. However, the sessions were fruitful, and produced one of the greatest albums of all time. Dusty In Memphis is widely accepted as a musical masterpiece, and is to be found in any list of the greatest albums of all time. I will shortly tell you why this is such a seminal album.

As the 1970s’ started, Dusty was still a huge name in music. She released her second, and final album for Atlantic Records A Brand New Me in 1970. In the UK, the album was released as From Dusty…With Love. The album was recorded in Philadelphia, and was produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon. They also wrote many of the songs on the album. After this album, Gamble and Huff had huge success with many groups including The O’Jays, MFSB and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes. However, the album didn’t fare well. It only reached number thirty-five in the UK and one hundred and seven in the US. This was to be the start of the decline in her record sales and popularity.

Between 1972 and 1995 Dusty would only record seven further albums, one of which Longing, recorded in 1974, was never released at the time. During that time, her record sales declines, although some albums were reasonably well received by critics. During this period, her personal life was scrutinized by the press and media, and she headed to the US, where she lived quietly, away from the spotlight. She made comebacks, and was still popular in concert. However, she never recovered her midas touch as a solo artist. In 1987 she collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys on their sing What Have I Done To Deserve This? This introduced her to a new generation of fans. Dusty Springfield died of cancer in March 1999. Since her death, she has become something of an icon, her music is more popular than ever, and many people are revisiting the music of Dusty Springfield, an artist who recorded some wonderful music.

Having told you about Dusty Springfield’s career, I will now tell you why Dusty In Memphis is such a wonderful album. Dusty In Memphis opens with Just A Little Lovin’. Strings sweep, lushly, as the track begins, as Dusty sings. Her voice is clear, she articulates the lyrics beautifully. She carries the song so well, her voice quiet and low one minute, the next soaring and high. Behind her the Memphis Cats play, quietly, never threatening to overpower her vocal. It’s as if they recognize they’re playing their part in making history. Their performance is understated, perfect, allowing Dusty to shine, which she does, producing probably, the definitive version of this song.

Like many of the songs on this album, So Much Love is written by the two of the greatest songwriters of the time. Gerry Goffin and Carol King wrote So Much Love, a song perfect for Dusty to record. Her rendition of the song is magical. From the strings at the start, to Dusty’s heartfelt and dramatic reading of the song, to the Sweet Inspirations masterful backing vocals, the song is truly a thing of beauty. The lyrics are tinged with sadness, Dusty puts her heart and soul into the song. She sings it like she means it. Her voice soars, accompanied by the backing singers, who have beautiful voices, voices that are the perfect accompaniment to Dusty. It’s easily one if album’s highlights.

Son of A Preacher Man is the next song on the album. It’s a song that much has been written about. Deservedly so. It’s two and a half minutes of soulful pop perfection, easily the greatest song on the album, and the greatest song Dusty ever recorded. Written by John Hurly and Ronnie Wilkins, its a song that has attained legendary status, in musical history. You only need to hear the song once to hear why. Drums and guitar start the track. The drums are the perfect backdrop, the heartbeat of the song. When Dusty recorded the song, little did she know her performance would go down in history. Her performance is brilliant, her voice strong and confident. As the song starts, she sings quietly and  softly, as the song progresses, her voice gets stronger, bigger and fuller. Once she sings louder, she has to some really high notes, not once, never, does she strain to reach the high notes. Her performance belays her insecurity and lack of confidence. Wexler and Mardin’s arrangement is amazing, and played a huge part in making this song the success it is. It features a brass section, the Memphis Cats and the Sweet Inspirations. All are at the top of their game. They really brought their A game to the studio the day the recorded this song Forty-two years later, Son of A Preacher Man still sounds as good as the day Dusty recorded the song.

After creating pop history, it would seem that anything else would be an anti climax. Quite the opposite, I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore is another great song. This time it was written by Randy Newman. The song builds up to a big dramatic sound. When the track starts, you’re unaware of what’s about to happen. Gradually the song builds. From when Dusty sings accompanied by a string section the mood is sedentary, she sings the lyrics with feeling, her delivery heartfelt. As the song progresses, the backing singers enter, a wall of sound hits you. Dusty sings loudly, joining in to help create this soulful crescendo. After this, the tempo drops, and gradually, builds up again, to recreate this dramatic sound. It’s a very different sound to Son of A Preacher Man, but is one that shows a different side of Dusty.

Don’t Forget About Me is the second Goffin and King song on the album. The arrangement on this track is much different, not as dramatic as I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore. Dusty is accompanied by a brass section and the Memphis Cats. The brass section play wonderfully, the Memphis Cats, happy to take a back seat. The stars of the show are the Sweet Inspirations. Their backing vocals are masterful, they interact beautifully with Dusty, accompanying and complimenting her performance, their voices sweet and soulful. On this track, Dusty was lucky to have so many wonderful musicians and singers accompanying her, as they all played their part in making this slice of soulful pop music.

One of the best known tracks on Dusty In Memphis, is Breakfast In Bed. The songs has a very subdued start, a guitar playing gently, a cymbal tapped quietly, and Dusty’s vocal is almost whispered. Very gradually, the sound builds, grow bigger, bigger and louder. Likewise, Dusty vocal gets louder and stronger. She varies her vocal. One minute quiet, the next louder and stronger, then, suddenly, she almost speaks the vocal. This adds to the drama. All the while, the band play, joined by strings and a brass section. Wexler and Mardin’s arrangement is perfect, they deserve huge credit for their production on this track. The big question is, would this song be as good without their skills as producers?

Just One Smile is a song with some surprises in store. It’s a sad song, one with lovely lyrics, which Dusty delivers beautifully. The song starts quietly, just a guitar accompanies Dusty. You think this is going to be a song with a minimalist arrangement. Wrong. Strings sweep in, understated, beautiful, providing a glorious backdrop for her vocal. Then the song builds, as it does, it’s as if Dusty grows in confidence. Her voice clear from the start, grows, gets stronger, she sings powerfully, articulating the lyrics with passion, giving a wonderful performance of this song.

The next song, The Windmills of Your Mind, was originally sung by Noel Harrison, and was from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Here, it’s a case of you’ve heard the rest, now here the best. The song sweeps smoothly along, an arrangement featuring strings, a lovely acoustic guitar solo, played sparingly throughout the track, and a fuller arrangement in the latter part of the track. From a meandering beginning, where Dusty is accompanied merely by a gently strummed acoustic guitar and a cymbal tapped gently. Then strings enter, the tempo increases, however, throughout the sound is sumptuous. It envelops you, your caught up in sweetness of the music, swept along, caught in its thrall. Your taken on a magical, musical journey, one where its all peaks, no troughs. Beautiful.

Another brilliant songwriting partnership, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, wrote the next song, In The Land of Make Believe. Straight away, the sound is understated. This allows Dusty and some beautiful lyrics to take centrestage. The arrangement is perfect for the song. A guitar plays, Dusty sings, her vocal at its most gentle, with a lovely soothing tone. Behind her strings play, quietly, highlighting her vocal, which is among the best on the album.

The great thing about Dusty In Memphis, is that great songs follow one after the other. No Easy Way Down is just the latest in a long line of great tracks. Like, I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore, this song sees the Sweet Inspirations provide some wonderful backing vocals, which transform the song, from a great pop song, to a lovely soulful song. A piano plays, as the song starts. Dusty is accompanied by strings, sweeping along. The Sweet Inspirations backing vocals are like musical punctuation, highlighting parts of the song, breaking up the flow, and helping add to the song’s impact. This works well, and is highly effective. Throughout the track, Dusty sings the song perfectly. It’s like a master at work, her delivery smooth, thoughtful and full of passion. No Easy Way Down has always been one of my favorite tracks on the album, and when you hear it, it’ll become one of your favorites, too.

Dusty In Memphis closes with I Can’t Make It Alone. This is the fourth Goffin and King composition on the album. Like No Easy Way Down, also a Goffin and King song, it starts with a piano playing, Dusty singing and strings playing. Her rendition of the song is heartfelt, full of emotion, so much so, it’s as if she has experienced the hurt mentioned in the song. There’s a rawness in her emotion, it seems personal to her. It’s a perfect way to close the album, the Memphis Cats play confidently, and the Sweet Inspirations have reserved an emotion laden performance for this song. Quite simply, it was a masterstroke to finish the album with this song.

Much has been written about Dusty In Memphis since its release. It’s one of the few albums that everyone in the music industry agrees is a true classic. When you listen to the album, it’s laden with fantastic songs. These songs were written by the great and the good of songwriting, and include Goffin and King, Bacharach and David and Barry Mann and Cythia Weil. Add to that, songs like Son of A Preacher Man and Breakfast In Bed and you can see that this album was brimming with quality songs. The use of Wexler and Mardin as producers, and Tom Dowd as engineer brought some of the most experienced and highly skilled technicians to the session. They were able to bring in the Memphis Cats and the Sweet Inspirations to help record the album. These musicians and singers were hugely talented, and vastly experienced. All of these people contributed to making the album the success it is. However, the most important person was Dusty Springfield. She was a hugely talented artist, who was at a crossroads in her career. This was her comeback album, after two albums that hadn’t sold well. Although Dusty In Memphis sold well, it should have been a much bigger hit, it should have relaunched Dusty’s career, making her a much bigger star than she had ever been. Sadly that wasn’t the case. After this album, her career stalled, her records didn’t sell as well. She removed herself from the limelight, and lead a quieter life. When she returned to the music industry, musical tastes had changed, she tried to adapt, but never quite succeeded. The irony of the situation, is that since her death, her music is more popular than it has ever been. Dusty is a highly respected musical figure, loved by many and sadly missed. She is loved by both musicians and fans alike, and her standing has never been higher. Should you never have heard this album, you really must buy it, as it’s not just the highpoint in Dusty’s career, but also one of the greatest albums of all time. When you do, you will love every minute of every song, on what is, a beautiful album. Standout Tracks: Just A Little Lovin’, Son of A Preacher Man, Breakfast In Bed and No Easy Way Down.


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