The meetings with one’s childhood idols are always the most satisfying, and back in 1967 Dusty was the first pop star I’d ever seen. By 1995, although she was funny, warm and sharp, she was dealing with illness. Sad to say, she died less than four years later. This interview appeared in the July ’95 issue of MOJO.
Lately these have been the best of times and the worst of times to be Dusty Springfield. Her reputation has probably never been higher. The CD compilation Goin’ Back reminds everyone what a fantastic catalogue of hits she has had, and it sells like crazy. A while ago a courier turned up on her doorstep and to her surprise presented her with a platinum record for Son Of A Preacher Man, as used on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction soundtrack. “I was so thrilled,” she smiles. “I’d put it up if it matched my colour scheme.”
And she has made a new album, the first of her new deal with Columbia Records. When the company got a new MD, she says proudly, his first phone call was to her manager, asking if Dusty would sign.
On the other hand, she has been terribly ill, with cancer. “I’m all right now,” she says. “Definitely in remission.” Recording the album, she found herself getting tired quickly, and did not know why. Later last year she was diagnosed. Doing this interview she looked extremely well, and talked energetically for two hours. She only stopped when hauled away for a ‘phoner’ with America. But it’s unclear whether she’ll perform again. Perhaps she will. That would be great.
Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, London Irish, had her first hits with her brother’s trio The Springfields. He’d changed his name, Dion O’Brien, to Tom Springfield and she became Dusty. Island Of Dreams, which Tom wrote, remains a pearl of early British pop. She went solo in 1963 and commenced a brilliant succession of singles – In The Middle Of Nowhere, Some Of Your Lovin’, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me are just a few – characterised by grand arrangements and a vocal range that ran from husky softness to full-on drama queen spectacular. Her choice of songwriters, including Goffin/King, Bacharach/David and the young Randy Newman, was perfect.
Plus, beneath the hair and mascara, the famed Lady Penelope look, she was very hip. Son Of A Preacher Man came out of her soulful Dusty In Memphis sessions with Jerry Wexler. With her friend (and now manager) Vicki Wickham, who worked on Ready Steady Go!, she’d helped bring Motown to the UK audience. It was on her recommendation that Wexler signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic. There’s a wonderful black-and-white fragment of her singing Mockingbird on TV with Jimi Hendrix. Such a pedigree inspired the Pet Shop Boys to re-launch her fortunes with the 1987 smash What Have I Done To Deserve This?
But she had a parallel reputation for being Our Lady Of The Perpetual Tantrum. “Difficult’ was the verdict of many who worked with her. Her studio perfectionism is legendary, likewise the sharpness of her tongue. Her sexual ambiguity made her something of a gay icon – she has “the high class hard girl looks of Lily Savage” runs a recent write-up in Gay News – and her wayward life in LA in the 1970s and early ’80s pushed her even further away from MOR respectability.
Her new album, A Very Fine Love, may yet see her back in the mainstream. Made in Nashville, its style is ‘adult contemporary’ rather than country, and the first single Wherever I Would Be is a Diane Warren song performed with Darryl Hall. Nashville took her full circle, since she’d made a record there with The Springfields more than 30 years earlier. “But my instinct was not to stay,” she remembers. “I’d either be enormously rich or I’d have blown my brains out by now. I understood I would not be comfortable there because they don’t like women who fought their own case too hard. I was a very combative person and I couldn’t have won in there.”
Two moments of that trip were to permanently alter her course. One occurred in her Nashville hotel room when the radio played Dionne Warwick singing Don’t Make Me Over: “I had to sit down on the bed, fast, because I thought, Pop music’s never going to be the same again. I want to do that! And I knew I couldn’t do it in Nashville.” The other had happened in New York, en route to Nashville: “It was Tell Him, by The Exciters. I was standing outside the Colony Record Store on Broadway about 2 in the morning, hearing that voice, ‘I know – something – about love’ and going Wow! How do I do this? I knew it could work if I could adapt them in some way.
“And it worked because there was a space for me, and for all the early people. All of a sudden it opened up. I don’t know if the planets were lined up right or what. There was this musical void that we all fell into, without any calculation.” She and Tom dissolved The Springfields, and he helped launch The Seekers, producing them and writing hits such as I’ll Never Find Another You, Georgy Girl and A World Of Our Own. “My brother and I knew that if we were to have other careers then now was the time. He did very well. He’s far brighter than his songs would suggest. He had the wit to realise that he was writing very commercial songs. He’s capable of being cynical enough to do it and not believe in it, whereas I needed the emotional sense of believing in it.
“He doesn’t do a lot now and he’s as happy as I am, we’re both very restless souls, and there’s another motel down the road. That’s a family attitude. There’s no need in him to prove himself and, wonderfully, that’s been removed from me too,”
At 55, there’s a magnificence about Dusty, the brave, faded diva. She will not surrender yet. Except for her humour and shrewd self-awareness, she is comparable to Norma Desmond, the tragic heroine of Sunset Boulevard. She’s still big: it’s records that got smaller.
Tell me about touring in the ’60s. You were the first pop star I ever saw. You were in a children’s pantomime at the Liverpool Empire.
“Ah, the good old Empire. Georgie Best asked me out at the Liverpool Empire! I would never do pantomime unless I could be a guest and not be involved, and I got away with it. I just did my act, curtain up and curtain down and good night. It was a slog to do it for 10 nights or whatever. That’s why I never did summer seasons. I have the attention span of a gnat.
“We had to do one-nighters everywhere. I have no super major nostalgia for it. We’re all nostalgic about what we listened to, but if you were actually doing it, being the singer, travelling, getting on the bus outside Madame Tussaud’s at 8 in the morning with your beehive done perfectly… And there weren’t any motorways, nothing was open after the show. It wasn’t that much fun to tell you the truth! Ha ha! I don’t mean to debunk it, but…”
When you look at the old TV clips, can you identify with the woman you see?
“A lot of my life has no real clarity. But I look at those clips and I remember the circumstances very clearly. Was I happy or not happy? If I don’t identify with the person, it’s because I invented her in the first place. She was an invention, but my own invention. I was my own Svengali.”
Is it true you produced your own records?
“Yes, in reality. The magic of my situation with Johnny Franz [her recording manager at Philips] was that he allowed me the freedom to follow my enthusiasm. He’d sit in the control room while I’d go out and scowl at the musicians. It was very difficult for them because they’d never heard this stuff before. I’m asking somebody with a stand-up bass to play Motown bass-lines, and it was a shock. The ones who thought I was a cow I didn’t work with again. The ones who wanted to learn with me, they had the greatest time. Johnny had played piano for Anne Shelton, and had perfect pitch. Bless his heart, he’d sit there and read Popular Mechanics. But he had good ears, he’d suddenly look up from Popular Mechanics and go, E flat!
“I never took the producer’s credit for two reasons. For one, he deserved it and I was grateful. And then there was the calculating part of me that that thought it looked too slick for me to produce and sing. Because women didn’t do that. And there remains in the British audience, though less so, that attitude of ‘Don’t get too slick on us. Don’t be too smart or we won’t love you.’ And I wanted to be loved.
“Men have been good to me. But I shouldn’t feel they’ve been good to me. They should have just bloody well listened. But in those days it was quite something to listen to a woman who had a musical mind. You sang the song. You sang it fast and cheaply. And they might take you out for a meal. I worked with some bastards, and some nice guys who saw that I knew what I was doing. A few of them went away and said what a cow I was, having made a great deal of money off me. And those are the people I don’t want in my life. I don’t want to sit at their dinner tables.
“That’s true to this day. I’m having my kitchen done and there’s a real idiot who fitted it, and it was two or three millimetres off. I don’t know how to put cupboards in, but I knew this was off. And the whole time there was this humouring of the little lady: There there, what does she know? I had to call a male friend and have him come down and say it was two or three millimetres off. Then it was: Oh! Course it is, guv!
“I’ve had very few fights with artists. I’ve had a few with club managers over, say, an out-of-tune piano. That ignorance, and lack of concern for the patrons of the club and the act would make me angry. I’ve had a few right old punch-ups. But the run-ins I’ve had with artists were always with groups, the pack instinct. They didn’t like the fact that I’d had a bit more applause, and they would be disparaging. Together they had that courage but if one of them passed me in the corridor he’d look down, embarrassed.”
“I actually don’t remember. There were so many, of various sizes, shapes and attractiveness. They all blur in my mind.”
Were you a hell raiser off the stage?
“Not in the early days. I would just sing the songs, try to find something to eat and go back to the hotel, though in those days they were probably boarding houses, or digs. I was a quiet person and still am, and a very private one. I never hung out – except there was a time in the Swinging ’60s when I was a real party animal. I don’t think that was the real me, it was just something that I thought I ought to do.”
What’s the story of your bust-up in South Africa, when you refused to play to segregated audiences?
“It was complex for me because I was also an idiot. I had convictions but I was also politically naïve. I found some people to agree with me including a promoter in South Africa, who found this loophole, which was that I could play live shows in a cinema. I didn’t know it was a loophole. At first it seemed too easy, all of a sudden I had a contract, and there was a clause that I could play to integrated audiences. It was academic anyway, black people didn’t have a clue who I was, a lot of people didn’t. By the time I got there, the South African government were waiting under the wing of the plane, thinking, A-ha, here comes a right one.
“I’d embarrassed them, and you didn’t embarrass the apartheid regime. Bit I didn’t know this, so I go floundering in, feeling quite righteous. And they tried to make me sign papers right there right under the plane wing. No! I’m not going to sign your bloody papers. There were some liberal papers and they sprang to my defence, and all this mayhem let loose. I played one concert in Johannesburg and I think there were three Asians there. What made me furious was they went around counting them. They put myself and the band under some form of hotel arrest. It was very nice, they kept sending up tomato sandwiches.
“I didn’t understand any of it, and I realised afterwards that I had made everything worse. Because that loophole had been useful. Now they closed it and I was their means to do it. So I was not a happy woman when I got back here. I’d put my foot in it.
“And then to have certain persons, who wanted to work in South Africa under any conditions, say Oh, she did it for the publicity… I was very hurt. Gordon, of Peter & Gordon, he came up with that line. That really brought it home to me how people get things wrong about me. Their understanding is so much the opposite of what happened that it never ceases to amaze me.”
You’ve always been credited with good taste in picking songs and songwriters. But you say you’re not interested in lyrics?
“If it’s not a ballad then it’s got to have enormous power, or an odd pattern. If it’s a ballad, it has to take me by the scruff of the neck. Which is how I found You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, when I heard it in Italian. My Italian is not good, but I’m deeply impressed when an audience stands up to applaud the instrumental, which they did in San Remo. That’s how I recognise songs. It’s not exactly difficult. It’s as if someone’s run a train through your stomach! It’s quite blatantly clear when something works.
“As a singer I work on my emotions anyway, which makes me very uneven, they dip and fall, dip and fall, dip and fall, which produces this nightmare. But because there is no consistency it also gives me the emotions to recognise something that’s going to work.”
In ’68 you made the Dusty In Memphis album with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. But Jerry Wexler describes it as a very tense experience, with your vocals eventually being added in New York. How do you remember that album?
“I hated it at first. I hated it because I couldn’t be Aretha Franklin. If only people like Jerry Wexler could realise what a deflating thing it is to say, Otis Redding stood there. Or, That’s where Aretha sang. Whatever you do, it’s not going to be good enough. Added to the natural critic in me, it was a paralysing experience. I was someone who had come from thundering drums and Phil Spector, and I didn’t understand sparseness. I wanted to fill every space. I didn’t understand that the sparseness gave it an atmosphere. When I got free of that I finally liked it, but it took me a long time. I wouldn’t play it for a year.
“Son Of A Preacher Man was just not good enough. Aretha had been offered it but didn’t record it until after I had, and to this day I listen to her phrasing and go, Goddamit! That’s the way I should have done it: ‘The only one, WHO could ever reach me’ instead of ‘the only one who could EV-er reach me’. Now, if I do it onstage I’ll cop her phrasing! It was a matter of ego, too: if I can’t be as good as Aretha then I’m not gonna do it at all.
“I wasn’t used to singing to a sparse rhythm track. To this day I prefer to sing last, after the strings have been written, because I get moved by a string line or an oboe solo and it will bring things out of me. I was the opposite of the normal thing which is to say, The singer’s the important thing, let’s surround her.”
By the 1970s you sort of fell away from the mainstream. There was heavy rock on the one side, or teeny pop and MOR on the other, and you were neither.
“I just plodded on making rather unsuccessful pop records in the States. Then I didn’t do it any more because I hated it. Every time I made a record the company got bought by another company, and there was a new budget that I wasn’t part of. I thought, If you’re going to buy this place out, giving my entire promotional budget to Yoko Ono, then I’m sorry, I don’t see the point. I’ll go and prune the roses. I’m not going to care so much that I destroy myself. I went with management that saw me as a ‘shan-toozie’ as Variety would have it and I did the nightclub circuit. I pulled it off sometimes but I was uncomfortable with it because it was… Vikki Carr. I didn’t have the stamina to do one night in Long Island, then the next you’re in Des Moines. Hats off to Engelbert if he wants to do it, fine, and he will always be well off. But I am a maverick and will probably never be terribly well off. I get bored too fast.
Is England your home again now?
“I would say so. Only Britain could produce Absolutely Fabulous. I haven’t forgotten how I missed England. For now, this is where I am, but my restlessness will take me somewhere else. I don’t know where. My life seems to take me where I’m meant to be, sometimes for disastrous episodes, but all of it is necessary. If it took me to Ireland I would be very happy.”
Because your family was Irish?
“Yes. Irishness is a state of mind rather than a geographic thing. I’m not English. My name is O’Brien and I’m glad it is. I’ve got nothing against the English and I’m glad I was born here. But I’m glad my mother came from Kerry and I’m glad my name is Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien and I can weep at Riverdance on TV, and it makes me laugh. As Ireland comes to life, there is such a vibrancy to the music, there is so much to draw on in their culture. I somehow think it’s Ireland’s time. But as my brother says, They’ll be late.”
Dusty in Dublin? That might make a good album one day. There is another old black-and-white clip of Dusty, singing My Lagan Love and it’s beautiful. But for now she’ll see how the Nashville record goes. Its style is, like herself, rather mellower than before.
“All the things that have happened in my life are meant to happen. Having done the Rent-a-Diva bit, and having had some success with the Pet Shop Boys thing, there was no more mileage in it. I’m not a dance act. I felt if I was to do music again I’d have to be where I felt comfortable and I was allowed to be less of a diva. Where it wasn’t necessary for me to sound as if I was about to explode if I changed key one more time.
“If all this went terribly wrong, then bugger off, it’s no big deal. I dislike the music business because it’s about manipulation of people’s needs and hopes. Luckily I see past all that. They just don’t know that about me. I am the age I am and I’ve learned a lot. I wouldn’t make a bloody record unless I were enthusiastic, because it’s a lot of hard work, especially if you’re not feeling very well
“I’m still testing my own stamina and enthusiasm. If I get over-tired I think, Bugger it. While I’m doing it I’m thoroughly engrossed and I enjoy it. It’s when I get home and there’s nothing in the fridge I go, Bloody hell, I haven’t even been to the supermarket! What am I doing? I used to get caught up in everything, and I think I’ve grown out of that. Now I’m determined to have a good time.”
Time up, she gives me a big hug. Lastly she confides her present philosophy, directed at the music industry in particular, and probably at the world in general. “Oh, you know, it’s just… Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”
POST-SCRIPT… I went to that 1967 Dusty show with my friend Ronnie, who tells the story wonderfully well in his Sense Of Place blog here.