There are few more beloved singers than Dusty Springfield and her 50 year old iconic ‘Dusty In Memphis’ LP is her most treasured recording.
It wasn’t always that way though. Indeed, recording the album was a fraught and stress ridden process for the singer and it was met with a commercial apathy that almost torpedoed her career. Instead, the album has slowly grown to become appreciated as a soul classic and the sound of one of our greatest performers at the top of her game.
At the end of the 60s there was an appetite for Dusty to do something a bit different. The pop world had changed and short, snappy singles and, ‘big ballady things’ as Dusty herself described her speciality, were out and the long playing artistic statement were in. Her label, Atlantic records, wanted Dusty to take a risk and launch herself into the looming rock era with a harder, tougher R&B and soul record that would re-establish her as the UK’s equivalent to Aretha.
Dusty herself was nervous about the project. “Like most people, perhaps, I associated Memphis with one kind of sound, a hard R&B sound. That’s not the thing i can do, and I’d rather leave it to those who can,” she says in Stanley Booth’s original edition. Fortunately, Dusty was convinced and, working alongside the very best in studio musicians in the musical hotbed of Memphis, including esteemed jazz guitarist Tommy Coghill along with strings arranged by legendary producer Arif Mardin, they crafted the ultimate blue eyed soul record.
The songs are provided by a who’s who of classic pop songwriters from Goffin and King, Bacharach and David to Randy Newman. They were all chosen to perfectly accentuate and complement Dusty’s performance.
The album is characterised by its perfect pitch. Nothing is out of place and the musicians and Dusty work together in harmony. Well, at least it sounds that way on record. In reality the sessions were blighted by fights and arguments, with the singer and the musicians eventually working completely separately with Dusty recording her vocals on top of their rhythm tracks.
None of that takes away from the magic of the recordings though. Each track is supremely layered and tenderly constructed to bring Dusty’s voice to a soaring crescendo like on the opening two stunning string filled heart stoppers, ‘Just A Little Lovin’ and ‘So Much Love’.
Much of the album’s enduring legacy has been burnished by its most famous single. Dusty’s reading of ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ was the album’s only real hit and has gone on to be rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest singles in history. Dusty’s voice drips with attitude and class while the band cook up a storm behind her. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Elsewhere, you hear here rocking out on ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ before reaching a deeply emotional gospel climax on ‘No Easy Way Down’. Dusty was a unique singer and the qualities she brought to the Memphis recordings mark it out as a singular record. She would never resort to just belting a song out. Her considered approach coalesced with the craftsmanship of the musicians wonderfully.
The album was a significant step forward for Dusty Springfield musically but ended up as a commercial step back, only just scraping in at number 99 on the US billboard chart. It’s been reported that it was decades before Dusty could even bear to listen to it.
Time though, has worked wonders for both Dusty and the album’s legacy. It represents a monument for her willingness to take risks despite her own anxieties and fears. It set a template for a whole new soul era and stands as Dusty Springfield’s greatest moment.
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Words: Martyn Young
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