1960s Pop Diva Dusty Springfield Dies at 59
Born Mary Isabel O'Brien, Springfield first gained notoriety in the early 1960s with a folk-pop trio called The Springfields, with her brother Dion O'Brien (known as Tom Springfield) and their friend Tim Field. The group had a popular TV show and several hit records in the UK. Their first breakthrough in the US was the Top 20 hit "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," which became a pop standard.
Springfield broke from the trio to go solo after hearing "Tell Him" by the Exciters in a New York music store. She claimed to be "deeply influenced" by black singers of the early 1960s, especially Mavis Staples. "They shared a kind of strength I didn't hear on English radio," she said. One of her earliest influences was American jazz singer Peggy Lee, whom she heard on the radio as a convent schoolgirl. She said that her middle-class background was the biggest handicap she had to overcome in learning how to convey her emotions.
But convey she did. Combining Lee's sultriness with the brashness of Motown, Springfield had a string of hits for Philips Records in the mid-'60s. Although her first hit for the label was an infectious, up-tempo love song, "I Only Want to Be With You," the Philips era was marked by haunting, melancholy tunes such as "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," which sold over a million copies and went to #1 in Britain. She performed many of the works of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who also wrote for Dionne Warwick, to whom Springfield was often compared.
Her startling, outrageous look, with a huge blond beehive hairdo, pink lips, and cavernous dark eyes, influenced the fashions of the '60s. Her husky, intimate voice was beautifully recorded in "The Look of Love," featured in the soundtrack of the film Casino Royale. That song is the reason the soundtrack album is so widely sought: it's considered in audiophile circles to be among the very best recordings of all time. (The same recording appears on a Philips LP, PHS 600-256, titled for the lead track.)
Springfield left Philips in 1967 and signed with Atlantic, who took her to Memphis, where she recorded "Son of a Preacher Man." The country-soul song was a stylistic departure, but went to the top of the charts. The film Pulp Fiction helped the song find a new audience 26 years later. Dusty in Memphis, the album from the same period, went to only #99 on the Billboard album chart, but many pop-music connoisseurs believe it is one of the genre's masterpieces. A rhythm'n'blues effort, A Brand New Me, was released shortly thereafter, but it also enjoyed only moderate success.
Springfield recorded only intermittently after that, and for the most part dropped from public view after 1975. "Bits and Pieces," a song that reprised her '60s sound, was prominent in the soundtrack of 1979's cult film The Stuntman, starring Peter O'Toole and Barbara Hershey. Springfield enjoyed a resurgence in 1987 when Pet Shop Boys Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant produced her hit song "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" They also worked with her on "Nothing Has Been Proved," the theme song from the soundtrack of the 1989 film Scandal. Her voice remained full and strong throughout her career, which was marred in later years by a lack of good material. Overall, she produced a considerable body of work; the Compact Disc DataBase lists 34 CDs under her name.
Dusty Springfield lived variously in Los Angeles, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. During lulls in her career, she worked for animal rights. Last May, she signed a contract with Mercury Records worth millions in future royalties. Springfield received the Order of the British Empire in January, as her illness worsened, and was scheduled to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month. Her brother is her only survivor.