When the British Invasion hit America in the early 1960s, the roster of cover pop-rock bands was overwhelmingly similar— and overwhelmingly male. But amid those male-dominated groups emerged the glamorous Dusty Springfield, who soon proved she wasn’t just another fleeting one-hit-wonder. With an uncharacteristically soulful voice and unquestionable star quality, Springfield shone beyond the bounds of a cultural phenomenon and cemented herself as an icon.
As a child, she was raised by eclectic music-loving parents and soon found her own passion for music. Growing up a tomboy who played football in the streets with the boys, she was nicknamed “Dusty.” After a long-standing teenage struggle with identity, she finally embraced it. “If you’re sort of seventeen years old and you’re called Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, and you don’t like who you are, you’re going to find a mask or a front. And it worked very successfully,” Springfield later shared in an interview. “It was very hard maintaining it, but it was highly effective in its way.”
Beginning her career with the girl group, the Lana Sisters allowed her an opportunity to build on her stage presence, which she soon brought to the second group, The Springfields. Along with her brother Tom and their friend Tim Field, who Mike Hurst later replaced, Dusty continued to cultivate her star quality. After a successful television show and a string of hits, the band decided to split, and Dusty thought it time to finally show the world what she was made of as a solo act.
In the early years of her remarkably successful solo career, Dusty established herself as the swinging ’60s ‘it girl’. But as the decade was nearing its end and she attempted to transition into the ’70s, her career began to stall as her long-time battle with alcoholism, self-harm, and bipolar disorder, which had haunted most of her life, gathered pace. Moving to Los Angles in the late ’60s left her without the support of family and friends who had been staples of her life in London, so, by the early 1980s, Dusty was practically penniless and spent frequent spells in mental hospitals. But in the same way she’d established her willingness to evolve musically and support unconventional (at the time) sounds with her early support of Motown, it also played out in her ’80s revival with Pet Shop Boys.
Throughout her career, Springfield’s insecurities mixed with her musical perfectionism often caused problems with players in the chauvinistic record industry. Through all of the hardships, she never lost her ability to captive with a single performance from her sultry, powerful vocals.
Here are the six definitive songs of the soulful pop queen Dusty Springfield.
Dusty Springfield’s six definitive songs:
‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ (1962)
When The Springfields heard rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson’s 1956 song ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles,’ they knew it would help aid their rising folk-pop sound, something other British bands weren’t attempting at the time.
After coming out with two successful singles, ‘Breakaway’ and ‘Bambino,’ the song was released in the UK and was a flop. But when it hit America as their debut single in July of that year, it immediately became a success.
Springfield later stated about the group, “We were pseudo everything, and we knew it. We just jumped up and down a lot and were cheerful. There was a niche somewhere for cheerful people. We were terribly out of tune, and we just sang very fast and very cheerfully, and they gave us a TV series, would you believe!” But, despite Springfield’s rather self-deprecating view of the group, ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ became the first single by a British group to reach the American Billboard top 20.
‘I Only Want to Be With You’ (1964)
In November 1963, after leaving The Springfields to pursue a solo career, Springfield released her debut solo record, ‘I Only Want To Be With You.’ The song came after recording nine solo tracks, none of which satisfied the label as the right fit to launch her career. Jean Ryder, the ex-wife of songwriter Mike Hawker, paraphrases Philips A&R director Johnny Franz as saying, “Look, we need something which is going to put this girl into the charts because everybody is knocking her, everybody is saying she’ll never make it [solo] – have you got a song that’s a guaranteed hit?”
Written by Ivor Raymonde and Mike Hawker, the upbeat song was finally chosen as the first single because of Springfield’s desire to release something that people could dance to. Being a well-known perfectionist, something her old bandmate Mike Hurst would realise was a gene that both Springfield siblings contained; it took her 47 takes to record the song.
The song quickly reached global success with a number four spot in the UK charts, number 12 in the US, and also entered the Billboard chart at number 77, only the second artist of the British Invasion to do so after the Beatles.
‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ (1966)
When Springfield was in Italy to participate in the 1965 Sanremo Festival, she was moved to tears by Pino Donaggio and Jody Miller’s performance of ‘Io che non vivo (senza te)’ at the San Remo song contest. She then asked her friend Vicki Wickham, who produced the British TV show Ready Steady Go, to write some English lyrics for the song. With the help of Yardbirds manager Simon Napier-Bell, she did.
Although neither were songwriters, the two were dining out when Wickham mentioned to Napier-Bell that Springfield wanted lyrics to the song, and they jokingly said they’d do it. Napier Bell remembered, “We went back to [Wickham]’s flat and started working on it. We wanted to go to a trendy disco, so we had about an hour to write it. We wrote the chorus, and then we wrote the verse in a taxi to wherever we were going.”
Springfield turned the song into a masterpiece with her powerful vocals, and the song hit number one in the UK charts and number four in the US billboard hot 100, stayed in the number one position for two weeks — its timeless quality still rings true to this day.
‘The Look of Love’ (1967)
Written by famed composter Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the 1967 James Bond film Casino Royale, ‘The Look of Love’ was originally slated to be an instrumental. Springfield re-recorded the song the same year after the initial soundtrack release, but this time with an arrangement about half a minute shorter. Both renditions feature the same Bossanova-like tenor sax arrangements that accompany Springfield’s voice beautifully.
Bacharach revealed in an interview with Record Collector magazine, “I had Dusty sing that very sexy. Dusty was very open to suggestions. To listen to the vocal back with her, she’d have to go into a control room to hear it. She wanted to hear it alone. She was very tough on herself. But she did a great job.”
Springfield, often over-critical of her performances, once stated that she recorded the song at 10 a.m., which is why there are a lot of flat notes. But despite her self-criticism, the song received a Best Song nomination in the 1968 Academy Awards and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
‘Son of a Preacher Man’ (1968)
When ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins with Aretha Franklin in mind, but she turned it down because she thought it was disrespectful (although she later changed her mind and covered it in 1969). Atlantic Records producer and co-owner Jerry Wexler, who was helping Springfield record Dusty in Memphis at the time, heard the demo and thought it would be perfect for the album.
Although the album Dusty in Memphis failed commercially (later to become a critical success), ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ became an international hit, reaching number ten in the United States and number nine in the UK. “In retrospect, it’s a classic album and a beautiful piece of vocal work. ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ came off that as a huge hit, of course,” said Altham.
Dusty’s sultry version is the most popular, but it has been covered by many artists over the years, such as Elvis Presley, Foo Fighters, Bobbie Gentry, and Chet Atkins. The song even gained a resurgence in the late ’90s from its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic masterpiece, Pulp Fiction.
‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (1987)
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of English synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys had been lifelong Dusty Springfield fans. After pleading with Springfield’s management to schedule a collaboration, their wishes finally came true after the worldwide success of their debut album Please, which Springfield’s management then agreed to work with them.
Written three years previously by the duo, along with American songwriter Allee Willis, it simultaneously marked the revival of Springfield’s career and the Pet Shop Boys’ first-ever collaboration with another artist. Tennant and Lowe would go on to write and produce four songs for Springfield, ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’ being hits, which would appear on her 1990 album Reputation.
Springfield once reflected on her process, “I have a tendency for overkill to complicate matters because I don’t think my voice is enough, therefore I have to invent this kind of vocal decoration and acrobatics, and really, you can’t do that to a Pet Shop Boys song. They write songs that are meant to be sung rather plain.” But despite this self-deprecation, the Pet Shop boys thought of her performance as brilliant. Neil Tennant shared, “She gives it this incredible ‘I may be false, it may be true’ thing at the end [speaking of the melody]. It’s an incredible Dusty moment, and it really isn’t written in the song. She turns it into her, and it’s a thrilling moment.”