A girl called Dusty

Two new musicals are shining the spotlight on Dusty Springfield, nearly 20 years after the singer’s death

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As a diehard fan, Simon Bell chased Dusty Springfield’s taxi through the streets of his native Glasgow in 1964 to get her to autograph his wrist. Fourteen years later, he’d regularly work with her as a backing vocalist and the pair became inseparable. He looked after her when she was terminally ill with cancer and held her hand when she passed away in 1999. It’s an extraordinary story, he says. “It’s like a cross between My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool,” laughs the 69-year-old singer.

“She was the first artist to oppose apartheid and responsible for introducing Motown to the UK.”

But then it befits the unusual life of his idol. Fearing she was destined to become a dowdy librarian, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien transformed herself into Dusty Springfield and became a totem of the 1960s – first alongside her brother in The Springfields, then as a solo artist, when she enjoyed a succession of hits including You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me and Son Of A Preacher Man, while her 1969 album Dusty In Memphis remains her critical apogee. Regularly hailed as Britain’s best ever vocalist, the Home Counties girl who sung like a Motown soul siren influenced Adele and the late Amy Winehouse.

Along the way, there were food fights, crockery smashing, descents into drink and drug fuelled destruction and a spell of homelessness – before she regained everything with a late-career resurgence, kickstarted in the 1980s by an appearance on What Have I Done To Deserve This? by lifelong fans the Pet Shop Boys.

Nearly 20 years after she passed away, Springfield still casts a huge, beehive-shaped shadow over pop culture. Two musicals – Son Of A Preacher Man (in which her greatest hits serve a love story unrelated to the artist) and the autobiographical Dusty, which covers her life from her first solo hit aged 24 with I Only Want To Be With You right to the end – are shining a spotlight on her treasure trove of tracks, but she’s increasingly receiving kudos for her trailblazing.

“Of course, everybody knows her voice, but she’s finally being recognised as a pioneering woman who never set out to be pioneering,” says Bell. “She was pioneering by default. She was the first artist to oppose apartheid, she was responsible for introducing Motown to the UK, she produced her own material and took charge in the studio – which is something women didn’t do then – in a time when her contemporaries like Cilla Black and Petula Clark were happy to turn up, sing and have no creative input.”

In the era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Karen Bartlett, author of Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of A Music Legend, feels the world is only just starting to catch up with her.

“More than ever before, she’s being appreciated as a woman ahead of her time. Her trailblazing sexuality, her being a strong and independent woman, her views on racism means she’s actually more relevant now than she was then. Her moment is now rather than in the past.”

Dusty is written by playwright Jonathan Harvey, but it isn’t the scribe’s first musical, 2001’s Closer To Heaven was his collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys.

“I did ask them all the time what Dusty was like,” he remembers. “Neil Tennant tells a story about when they were recording Nothing Has Been Proved, the theme for the film Scandal. Dusty arrived with her cigarette and Diet Coke. The opening line is ‘Mandy’s in the papers.’ And she goes ‘Mandy… Thank you!’ and leaves the room, because she did one word at a time. She was such a perfectionist. Neil looked down and there were 600 little words in the lyrics and thought: This is going to be a nightmare.”

Harvey believes this painstaking attention to detail is down to the age-old cliché: the pop star adored by millions yet unable to love herself. “She didn’t think she was good enough. If she heard herself singing, she’d go: ‘I was flat as a pancake.’ She thought other people could do it better. When Aretha Franklin recorded Son Of A Preacher Man, she did a slightly different rhythm and Dusty went: ‘Oh God, I’ve been so stupid, why didn’t I think of that?’”

He feels her stockpile of insecurities is due to her unconventional childhood and her often drunk mother. “It was this crazy, unloving family set-up where they would all sit down and throw food at each other over dinner,” says Bartlett.

This bizarre habit continued throughout her life. When she was stressed, she’d nip to Woolworth’s and buy a dinner set, consoling herself with the sound of it smashing. “She did throw a telephone at me once – a big old one made out of Bakelite,” says Bell. “Fortunately it missed me!”

But her reputation for being difficult is, argues Bell, a misogynistic misconception. “Difficult is just what they call a woman who’s trying to get things done as well as possible. They wouldn’t say that about a man. Dusty caused herself more stress and difficulty than she ever caused anybody else around her.”

Beginning with 1964’s A Girl Called Dusty, she produced her early Philips solo albums herself “while [listed producer] Johnny Franz read the Racing Times”, says Bell, yet refused to take credit, fearing the public might be threatened by a female assuming such a role. In thrall to Motown, she instructed the musicians to imitate the American style of playing. She laughed off notes from musicians saying ‘Hey Dusty, let us know when you’re ready to lose your virginity’, standing her ground in the face of resistance.

“She’d always say: ‘Those guys say I’m a bitch but I’ve made them a lot of money,’” says Bartlett. “In those days, studio technicians were all middle-aged men who wore lab coats. Female singers were simply happy for the opportunity to be a ‘girl singer’ – Dusty challenged the status quo.”

But by the time Bell worked with her in the 1970s, she had had proved herself and had “nothing but support from musicians,” he remembers.

Dusty shattered taboos around sexuality. When David Bowie came out as bisexual in 1972, it was treated as pop’s gay ground zero – yet Dusty, a lesbian, had already done it two years earlier, hinting in an interview “I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as a boy,” without anyone batting an (overly-kohl’d) eyelid. Her manager had been adamant that coming out as a lesbian would ruin her career.

“It wasn’t until the gay rights movement started that people picked up on that aspect of her life,” says Bartlett. “She was at the point of thinking of going to America and didn’t want to live a lie. She always regretted it because all anybody asked her in the UK press was whether she was bisexual.

“Even now, I still think there’s a lot of deep-seated homophobia directed at Dusty. In my opinion, that’s why there’s never been a film or TV series made
about her.”

Bell notes: “You kept quiet about even having straight sex in those days. And of course she grew up Catholic and had all that guilt attached to it. I actually think if she’d just fully come out as gay and gotten over it, she’d have been much happier. But she could only go so far.”

She had always been a gay icon, part of a lineage of troubled women with powerful voices that started with Judy Garland. “With Dusty, there was all that drama,” says Bell. “She was overly-dressed with too many hairpieces and too much eye-makeup. She always said she was like a drag queen – and was inspired by them for her looks.”

When it came to race, Dusty was seismic. An early champion of Motown – she even named her dog after it – she used her TV clout to introduce the UK to the likes of The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. When she was slung out of South Africa in 1964 for refusing to play segregated venues, she provoked questions in Parliament and faced a backlash from other pop stars who feared she was damaging their earning power – with the exception of The Beatles, who applauded her. “She always said she wasn’t political,” says Bartlett. “She never got involved in the other big causes of the 1960s like the student protests or Vietnam demonstrations. She just had very clear ideas about what was morally right and wrong as a human being.”

Decamping to the US in 1972 for what friends brand her “dark days” almost broke her. “The more negative stuff took a hold because she got bored,” says Bell. “Once she’d done everything in the 1960s, there was nowhere left for her career to go. Going to America was a mistake because she was away from the people who cared about her – and it allowed her too much free time. That’s when she became really unhappy.”

Ravaged by drink and drugs, she ended up broke – having never been financially proficient – homeless, staying with friends and reliant on food stamps.

“It affected her a lot because she tried very hard for it not to become common knowledge,” says Bell. “She found out who her real friends were and had wonderful support at her lowest ebb from people who ran support missions for women in difficult situations. That stayed with her for the rest of her life and helped her cope with the things she faced in her final illness.

“She recognised the ridiculousness of lots of things she did and could laugh about it – but you had to wait until she laughed first.” She even quipped about her darkest moments. When asked her favourite colour in an interview, she responded “vodka” and would often show off her straitjacket – a memento from her stay at a psychiatric hospital following one a suicide attempt.

Harvey says: “When the Pet Shop Boys found her, she was close to sleeping on park benches. What’s great about Dusty is she got it all back. She became an international star again. That’s what drew me to the story originally.”

If Dusty owned the 1960s, tracks like What Have I Done To Deserve This? and In Private gave her a new lease on the 1980s. “That’s the irony – that she got ill just at the point when she was massive again.”

When cancer struck and Bell cared for her, he took a crackly VHS compilation of her TV performances into the Royal Marsden Hospital in London where she was being treated. Having been so paralysingly self-critical, she finally saw the talent that was clear to everyone else.

“She had her glasses on, which were like Cinemascope screens and, in that moment, I could see in her face that she knew how good she was,” remembers Bell. “The nurses were teenagers from Australia and had no idea who she was, yet started to recognise some of her famous songs. She died the next day and it’s a comforting thought that one of her last experiences was being so proud of the work she did. She was Britain’s greatest ever pop star – and there’ll never be anyone like her.”

Dusty tours the UK until 28 July, visiting Sheffield Lyceum, Newcastle Theatre Royal and the Lowry, Salford (dustyspringfieldmusical.com). 

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