Before the rising genre of psychedelia became the sine qua non of the 1960s music industry, there was soul music. One such talent was a female singer in her classic peroxide blonde bouffant, adorned in evening gowns and with an enchanting voice, making her mark on the music world as one of the distinct figures of the swinging sixties. The musician, with top hits like ‘I Only Want to Be with You’, ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, was none other than the iconic Dusty Springfield.
The 1960s was a time when Springfield was both at a low point in her career as well as a high. It was a time when she struggled to find confidence in herself, and with her tours and concerts being only half-full, she felt deflated. Her performing career in the UK was limited to workingmen’s club, cabarets, and hotels — not the kind of places your name goes up in lights for.
On top of that, with the progressive music revolution gaining force, underground music was swiftly becoming the very latest fashion of the music scene, pushing the popular genres to the back burner and ensuring that it was rock ‘n’ roll sizzling away. Springfield was caught on the cusp of this transition, with her music under the threat of dying out.
When her career in the UK was floundering, Springfield decided to travel to the world’s capital of soul music — Memphis, Tennessee in the United States — in hopes of getting her career back on track. 1969 was also the time when Springfield released her fifth studio album Dusty in Memphis, which, although did not earn critical acclaim or much commercial success, was still one of her best works to date.
‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was probably the most famous track on Springfield’s album Dusty in Memphis. With her sultry vocals, gospel overtones and striking instrumentals, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ made it to the top of the charts and is remembered as one of the most beautifully-produced songs of all time. In spite of this, and all the effort Springfield put into the making of the album, Dusty in Memphis did not fare well commercially. This was a setback for Springfield and she never quite recovered. Her later works saw a significant lack of enthusiasm whereafter she slowly started to fade out from the public eye.
Nevertheless, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was an all-time hit amongst her die-hard fans and the general audience alike. Interestingly, this song was originally written for her idol Aretha Franklin, with whom she shared the record label in the US. It was under the direction of Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s producer, that Springfield was able to get herself signed by the Atlantic Records in the US. ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins keeping Franklin, was the daughter of a preacher, in mind.
The track is about a girl who met the local preacher’s son and became infatuated with, as young lovers tend to do. The song points to how Billy, the preacher’s son, would sweet talk with her and be intimate with her. Hurley and Wilkins originally proposed the song to Franklin, but she found it disrespectful. Subsequently, the song was passed on to Springfield by the producers, and she worked her magic on it, making it one of the crowning glories in her career.
The perfectionist that she was, Springfield, was not content with the recording that she did at the American Sound Studio in Memphis. She re-recorded her vocals at the Atlantic Studio in New York. The instrumental track recorded back in Memphis was mixed with the vocals, and that was how Dusty in Memphis came into being. It is also probably the perfectionist streak in her that made Springfield over-critical about her works, and a lack of commercial appreciation dampened her spirits even more.
It is quite a loss, considering how distinct and unique Dusty Springfield’s contribution to the field of soul music was. She was truly a remarkable musician in her own right.
Listen to ‘Son of a Preacher’ by Dusty Springfield, below.