Why diva Dusty would never back down from a dust-up
Twenty years after her death, she’s still one of our best-loved singers. But her insecurity and secret sexuality turned her into ‘Slugger’ Springfield
‘Buddy Rich called her a rude name, so she whacked him and sent his toupee flying’
WITH her flowing gowns, bouffant blonde hair and vulnerable ballads, Dusty Springfield had an aura of fragility – but she was so much tougher than she looked, as many macho men of the Sixties’ music scene discovered to their cost.
Dusty may have suffered anxiety attacks and was so insecure about her looks that she hid them under heavy make-up, but she was driven by a single-minded determination, and could literally fight her corner.
In 1966, she was playing a residency at New York’s Basin Street East nightclub with short-tempered jazz drummer Buddy Rich. There was a row about her demand for equal billing, during which Rich called her a rude name. So she whacked him round the head, sending his toupee flying.
At the end of the run, his impressed band presented her with a pair of boxing gloves, dedicated to “Slugger Springfield”.
It was such self-belief, along with masses of talent and a brilliant grasp of her craft, that made Dusty the world-class singer she was. In the Sixties, women vocalists were expected to defer to male record producers, but she questioned everything.
“She was a hard case,” the late, great arranger Ivor Raymonde told me. “Vera Lynn or Anne Shelton never spoke up. They just went into the studio, recorded and walked out. Dusty took a more personal interest; bad musicians would annoy her, the tempo had to be just so.
“I was absolutely knocked out when she decided to do my songs – but she was also an exacting artist.”
As a result, Dusty gained a reputation for being difficult, but it was that attention to detail that made her music so good.
The star also had an instinctive feel for soul music. And she lived it – she spent one summer, for instance, singing with Motown greats like Martha Reeves and the Supremes’ Mary Wilson at Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre in New York.
“She was one of us,” Mary told me “And she was an ambassador for Motown when we first came to the UK.”
In the same way that Amy Winehouse later fused soul and jazz, Dusty revolutionised the UK pop scene with girl group grit and gospel harmonies.
BUT while she clocked up hits such as I Only Want To Be With You and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, sparkling on Saturday night TV with regular shows on the BBC and ITV, she was leading a double life.
These days Dusty is something of a gay icon, but in the Sixties and Seventies she kept her sexuality secret, sometimes inventing boyfriends to fool journalists.
“Dusty was so high-profile she was pestered year after year,” recalls former lover, folk singer Julie Felix.
“You always had to be on your guard, and you had to lie. It was such a harsh pressure, like being in a vice. Dusty had strong moral concepts and believed in human rights, so it was hard for her not to be herself. But we were terrified of being seen as lesbian.
“My mother would say that a lesbian was worse than a serial killer.”
There was a great personal cost to pay for such secrecy, and Dusty didn’t always manage her feelings well.
“One day she had been drinking and taking [the sleeping tablet] Mandrax,” recalls Felix. The combination was bad. She got jealous and hit me. Violence is terrible, but in a strange way it proved she really cared about me.”
Dusty’s more usual ways of relieving the
pressure were throwing food and smashing crockery.This was a strategy she learned as a child when her fiery Irish mother Kay would hold all-night parties and end up hurling china at the wall, for fun.
Her manager in the Sixties, Vic Billings, recalled Dusty chucking her wigs around the dressing room. “Each one had a name – Lulu, Sandy, Cilla, Pet – they were called after the other British female stars,” he told me.
Music producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records was not impressed when he visited Dusty in the recording studio and she threw an ashtray at him.
“Her moods would go up and down. But sometimes she was lovely and considerate, the sweetest person on earth,” says Felix. “She had a lot of charisma. She was like a magnet – people wanted to be near her.”
The most effective way Dusty could manage her moods was through singing. Music gave her an emotional equilibrium, a place to channel her angst and confusion, and this is what made songs like I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself and The Look Of Love so powerful.
It was that poise and passion that also led to her recording in 1969 her classic soul album Dusty In Memphis, and her global hit Son Of A Preacher Man.
Feeling that she had reached the top of her game in Britain, Dusty wanted to develop her career over in the US.
“I didn’t want to get bored or be pinned down to the cabaret circuit,” she told me in 1987. “I could sense the rot setting in.”
But by moving to America, Dusty lost her support network, and she floundered in an industry that didn’t
‘Dusty was a hard case. Bad musicians would annoy her and the tempo had to be just so’
have a clue how to market a white woman singing soul like Aretha Franklin.
“Unfortunately going there was the worst day’s work that girl ever did,” says her close friend and assistant Pat Rhodes. “They had no idea what she was capable of.”
AS DUSTY drifted into obscurity, her mental health problems and struggles with addiction worsened. There were drinking parties that went on for days, and, as Dusty’s friend and backing singer PP Arnold recalls, “the Devil’s dandruff [cocaine] was rulin’.”
Dusty recorded a few albums that were well received by fans but unpromoted.
It wasn’t until the Pet Shop Boys coaxed her away from Los Angeles to duet with them on their 1987 hit What Have I Done To Deserve This? that her fortunes were turned around.
“Everyone was really glad for her. It was a great feeling as a writer to be part of her
resurgence,” says Allee Willis, who co-wrote the song. “Without doubt the lesbian issue was the icing on the cake of her ‘difficult reputation’.
“She wasn’t a controllable cutie doll. She had a bum rap.”
It is fitting, somehow, that the 1990 comeback album Dusty recorded with the Pet Shop Boys was called Reputation – a tongue-in-cheek comment on her pop career.
Dusty was a trailblazer hampered by prejudice against gays, a sexist industry and her own demons.
What makes her story inspiring is how she fought this to create a back catalogue of songs that have proved utterly timeless.
“It’s clear to see now how good she was,” says the singer Simon Bell, who cared for Dusty before she passed away from cancer, aged 59 in 1999.
“In her most troubled times she could be very self-destructive. She lost her battle with cancer, but in the end she won her battle against those psychological demons. “While she was ill we would sometimes watch her old shows on VHS. She seemed to be happy and at peace, and looked back with pride.”
What has endured is the voice of a survivor, someone who left a legacy of that struggle and transcendence in song. And that is why there is so much love for Dusty Springfield still.
●●Dusty: The Classic Biography Revised And Updated by Lucy
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