Scottish Daily Mail

How Dusty told me the sex secret that could have ruined her

RAY CONNOLLY, who’s written a new film about one of our most talented yet tortured singers, recalls . . .

- by Ray Connolly

FORTY YEARS ago it was not done to inquire about a woman’s sexuality — especially not if that woman was a famous singer much loved by the great British public. Yet that was exactly what Dusty Springfiel­d mischievou­sly goaded me into asking during an interview with her in 1970.

As two lapsed Catholics, we’d been talking about guilt, mortal sin and going to confession as children. From there the conversati­on had led to sex and promiscuit­y, when Dusty suddenly said: ‘There’s something else you should ask me now. Go on, ask me. I know you’ve heard the rumours.’

She was right. I had heard the gossip that said she preferred girls to boys. So I hesitantly put the question, and she was off.

Never admitting that she was exclusivel­y lesbian, and hating the idea that she might be thought of as a ‘big butch lady’, she happily talked about not being upset that girls ran after her a lot. She was, she said, ‘perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy’.

‘Being a pop singer I shouldn’t even admit that I might think that way, but if the occasion (to swing either way) arose, I don’t see why I shouldn’t,’ she told me. There was more like this, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind that she was talking happily about a bisexual life. As we lived quite close to one another, I drove her home after the interview. ‘Do you realise,’ she laughed as I dropped her off, ‘that what I’ve just told you could put the final seal to my doom?’ But then she added: ‘I don’t know, though, I might attract a whole new audience.’

And with that, she got out of my car and went inside to join her American artist girlfriend, Norma Tanega, with whom she was then sharing her house.

Today, the sexuality of stars isn’t an issue. We regularly see photograph­s of actresses and women singers kissing each other, and we know of many who are openly in gay relationsh­ips. Back then, however, an admission of homosexual­ity, whether male or female, could, it was believed, kill a career in showbusine­ss.

Quite why Dusty chose to come out at that moment, I’ve never fully understood. Nor do I know why she chose me to make her romantic situation public.

She had, however, presented me with a dilemma. I was a huge Dusty fan and we’d got on brilliantl­y, but I knew that profession­ally she was playing with fire. Did I want to be responsibl­e for ruining her career? No, I didn’t.

At the same time, she was obviously keen to clear the air. So after consulting my editor at London’s Evening Standard, where I then worked, I decided to bury the sex discussion in the middle of the article. You had to read the piece to find the candid admissions.

I may have tried to be coy, but her admissions have been re-quoted whenever Dusty’s sex-life has been written about. They now appear in a new biography, Dusty: An Intimate Portrait Of A Musical Legend, by journalist Karen Bartlett.

ALThOUGh I later learned that Dusty’s manager had a fit when he saw my interview, Dusty had no regrets. She phoned the day the article was published, and left a message saying she was happy with the way I’d reported our conversati­on.

It had been a brave step to confront the fears and prejudices of the era, but that was Dusty — a real one-off. Supremely gifted and in some ways years ahead of her time, her maverick personalit­y is the reason biographie­s are still being written about her, why her friend Vicki Wickham is planning a West End musical celebratin­g Dusty’s hits and why I’ve spent much of the past three years writing and developing a Dusty Springfiel­d movie, with Universal Music as partners, and produced by Kris Thykier, husband of television presenter Claudia Winkleman.

For all Dusty’s easy charm, there were contradict­ions, too.

She could be self-destructiv­e and what has repeatedly emerged during my research is that she suffered from a profound lack of self-confidence and as her life became increasing­ly cursed with periods of darkest depression. It had all started so hopefully. When most of us first encountere­d Dusty on television at the beginning of the Sixties, singing with her brother Tom and a friend in the Springfiel­ds pop-folk trio, she seemed not to have a care in the world. An ex-convent schoolgirl from Ealing, West London, with an almost genteel accent, something quite rare in pop circles at the time, she personifie­d a happy-go-lucky wholesomen­ess. She liked to enjoy herself on tour, playing zany tricks off-stage and on other acts as they were performing.

Kenny Lynch, one of the earliest black British singers to have a successful pop career, once got a bucket of water poured over him as he sang Crying In The Rain.

There was time for romance, too. It was while she was with the Springfiel­ds that, as she told her friend singer Madeline Bell, she lost her virginity, aged 19, while appearing at a Butlin’s holiday camp.

But she also had a steely ambition. Unhappy with the style of songs her brother was writing for the Springfiel­ds, she dropped him at the peak of their fame, becoming an immediate solo success with the hits I Only Want To Be With You and Burt Bacharach’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.

By the mid-Sixties she was the golden girl of British song, loved and widely fancied for her giggling charm and the way she lit up Friday night television’s Ready Steady Go! with her blonde beehive, panda eyes and effervesce­nt love for life and music.

Then, out of nowhere, she found herself at the centre of an internatio­nal row. Going on a short tour of South Africa in 1964 under the impression that she would be allowed to sing to black and white audiences sitting together, she refused to sing at all when told black fans wouldn’t be allowed into her concerts.

Despite days of cajoling by the South African authoritie­s, she wouldn’t give in to bullying. As a result, her visa was revoked and she was escorted to the airport and put on a plane out of the country.

To take on the repressive South

African Government on a matter of principle was a brave stand, and one which went down badly with some other, mainly older, British acts who had been prepared to adhere to that country’s apartheid rules. They felt she’d spoiled it for them.

To many of her own generation, however, Dusty had been heroic. She was also venerated for her championin­g of the black Motown stars of the day. She loved black R’n’B music and so when in 1968 she was invited to record in Memphis, the home of soul, in the studios where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding worked, she was exultant.

Things in Memphis didn’t go well, however. Whether the laryngitis that plagued her career was the real cause, or, as she claimed, she really was intimidate­d to be recording where Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding sang, I don’t know, but the sessions were difficult.

Producer Jerry Wexler later told me that she drove him almost to distractio­n with her perfection­ism.

She only wanted to record one line of a song at a time and in the end the album, Dusty In Memphis, had to be finished in New York. It’s now considered a classic, especially the hit song Son Of A Preacher Man, but at the time it was a commercial flop.

For the first time, Dusty’s career had suffered a real setback. More worrying, the psychologi­cal cracks were starting to widen.

By the late-Sixties she was secretly beginning to self-harm, taking a razor to her arms. She would try to make a joke about the scars, saying that she’d never liked short sleeves anyway, but behind the sunny mask lay deeper problems.

She believed that a new start could be her salvation. She’d always been in love with the idea of America, from the days when her mother had taken her to see Hollywood musicals when she was a little girl, and a few months after my interview with her she abandoned London and went to live in Los Angeles.

She wanted a much bigger stage, she said, and believed she could become very big in America. She had the voice for it, without doubt.

But it didn’t work out. Having left behind in Britain the team and friends who had helped her rise to the top, she soon found herself unable to find the songs that would give her new hits.

Before long she began, like many a fading star in Hollywood, to slip into alcoholism, turning up unrecognis­ed at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in the suburbs of Los Angeles without the beehive hair and black eyes and under her real name Mary O’Brien. The self-harming grew much worse, too.

Soon her girlfriend at that time, an intelligen­t journalist called Sue Cameron, would be calling ambulances on a regular basis as Dusty began to gabble about seeing demons that were telling her to do bad things.

One one occasion she had to be put in a strait-jacket. On another, she may have tried to commit suicide.

When I spoke to the medical journalist Maggie Vandershoo­t, she explained that Dusty possibly suffered from an undiagnose­d bipolar disorder and that the hallucinat­ions may have been brought on by the medication she was prescribed for depression by various doctors.

Whether this was the case I’ve no way of telling, but, whatever the r easons, Dusty’s self- harming wasn’t limited to her flesh. Splitting with Sue Cameron, she fell in — as she later admitted — with bad company. As her consumptio­n of alcohol, cocaine and other drugs spiralled, inevitably her beautiful voice was damaged.

Surrounded by leeches, she found her savings were spent supporting these hangers- on. Her expensive house had to be sold and at one time she was even prepared to mime along to one of her old hits for ready cash in a Los Angeles gay bar. Her once beautiful voice was shot to pieces.

She would later joke that she’d never been quite on Skid Row, but she wasn’t that far from it. After several periods in rehab, however, she was determined to fight back.

She’d always been brave and undertook to banish alcohol and drugs from her life.

SHe returned to england in the late-eighties and found herself at the top of the charts again when her collaborat­ion with the Pet Shop Boys produced What Have I Done To Deserve This?. Around this time she gave an interview to another journalist explaining that she’d enjoyed sex with both men and women. But in middle-age she was increasing­ly happy to live the single life. ‘ No drugs, no alcohol and no sex,’ she would say.

An avid reader, she was content with her books and her cats in her large rented house near Henley-on-Thames, quietly amused that she had become the gay icon she’d jokingly prophesied she would at our interview all those years earlier.

Then, in 1995, while making a new album she discovered that she had breast cancer. Increasing­ly confined to her home, she was cared for by one of her former backing singers, Simon Bell. One night in 1999 they watched a special video that the BBC had sent her of programmes she’d made for them in her 1960s prime.

‘She enjoyed it,’ Simon Bell remembers. ‘When it was finished, she fell asleep and died the following day having never woken up again.’

Had she made a mistake in coming out to me in 1970? I don’t think so. Attitudes were changing rapidly. As with her stand against apartheid, and her championin­g of black music, she was simply ahead of the rest of showbusine­ss.

We’ll never know the reasons behind Dusty’s psychologi­cal problems and addictions. And it’s difficult in these more tolerant times to understand the anguish she would have gone through having to hide her sexuality from fans, some of whom might not have understood and may have turned against her if they had known.

Whatever mistakes she may have made, she was a brave and gifted woman with a unique voice.

That is why we still hear her records in TV commercial­s, why there is a new Dusty biography on sale and why I’ve been inspired to write a film about the beehive-blonde former convent girl with the best voice in the business.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Brave: Dusty Springfiel­d
Brave: Dusty Springfiel­d

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom