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Book review: Dusty Springfield

dusty springfield bookIf your knowledge of Dusty Springfield extends only to her biggest hit singles, this new biography from Karen Bartlett – Dusty – An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend – which is rich with information on some of her most significant personal relationships, is likely come as a revelation, says David Hudson...

Dusty Springfield is now widely heralded as one of the UK's finest female singers, and was certainly one of the most popular entertainers of the 60s. She was also a lesbian at a time when the world "would never let her be honest about who she really was." This, combined with a crippling perfectionism and lack of belief in her own abilities would greatly contribute towards many of the problems that she faced in her personal and professional life.

Born Mary O'Brien shortly before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Dusty and her older brother Tom were brought up in relative middle-class comfort in Ealing, west London, where she attended a convent school. She first found success with Tom in pop-folk trio, The Springfields, before striking out on her own in 1963 with her first solo hit single, 'I Only Want To Be With You'.

Unlike other girl singers of the time, Dusty oversaw her career from the very beginning. "I was my own Svengali", she said, adopting her iconic image of towering beehive hair-do and heavy make-up ("I couldn't stand to be thought of as a big, butch lady," she later commented when explaining her style).
Dusty's strength lay in her unmistakeable voice and knowing song choices. She sang about longing, heartbreak and frustrated desire. Unsurprisingly, she gained a devoted following of gay and lesbian fans – as well as a cultivating a wider audience through several TV series in the late 60s.

However, as the decade came to a close, she struggled to evolve her career. Regarded by audiences as a 60s relic, she moved from the UK to the US at the beginning of the 70s: a relocation that those close to her now regard as her undoing. Directionless, unable to repeat her earlier success, and living life in the closet, Dusty increasingly turned to alcohol and drugs for comfort – leading to long-term problems and frequently erratic and diva-ish behaviour.
It made her often difficult to live with – as testified here by her most long-term partner, Sue Cameron, who was with her for much of the 70s and remained a close friend until her death.

Springfield managed to miss out on many opportunities, some due to problems with record labels or simple bad timing, some due to her own increasing unreliability. Cameron says that Elton John originally intended for Dusty to sing 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' with him, but gave up when she wavered and instead offered it to Kiki Dee: one of Springfield's former backing singers. She missed the chance to record 'Killing Me Softly' (later a huge hit for Roberta Flack), and – incredibly – turned down 'Nobody Does It Better' for The Spy Who Loved Me – which both became huge, worldwide hits.
As the 80s approached, her problems only intensified, culminating in bouts of self-harming, suicide attempts and a spell in 1985 in secure psychiatric hospital, Bellevue, in New York. A friend says that Springfield took her straitjacket home as a somewhat macabre reminder of where she had been.

Thank goodness then for Pet Shop Boys, who successfully re-invigorated her career and interest in her back catalogue when they invited her to duet on their massive 1987 hit, 'What Have I Done To Deserve This': rescuing her from miming in West Hollywood gay bars at $500 a pop. She relocated back to the UK but was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 90s. She died, aged 59, in 1995.

Bartlett's book is perhaps not as in-depth or detailed as some biographies of other 1960s legends, and interviews with some key players are absent (some of whom may now be dead), but she still manages to paint a vivid portrait of a tortured soul. Catholic guilt, internalised homophobia and poor self-esteem, combined with mental health problems, addiction and the pressures of fame, wreaked havoc on Springfield.
Reading Dusty – An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend, one is only amazed that Springfield managed to actually return from the brink of the abyss to enjoy some late 80s success. Tragically, it's hard to escape the feeling that only in her untimely death did she find the comfort, peace and self-acceptance that had eluded her for much of her life.

Dusty – An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend by Karen Bartlett is out now via Robson Press.

Posted: 14 July 2014


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