Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis

Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Released March, 1969

It’s a little heartbreaking looking back on this album. While it is seen as a classic now, it didn’t give Dusty the hit record she was searching for at the time. Despite receiving great critical acclaim, it sold poorly, peaking at No.99 on the US album chart and it failed to make the Top 40 in the UK. Hoping to revitalise her career, she signed with Atlantic Records in 1968, whose president, Ahmet Ertegun, had the idea for her to make an album with The Memphis Cats, who had backed acts like Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Wilson Pickett. An inspiring notion, to take England’s reigning soul queen to the heart of American soul, and it should have been the perfect showcase for Dusty; she hadn’t scored a major hit on either side of the pond since 1966.

When Dusty began recording in Memphis the sessions proved challenging for her. Being both insecure and a perfectionist made it difficult for Dusty to commit to any of the songs that were offered to her, seeing each ‘yes’ as being set in stone. Jerry Wexler, one of the album’s producers, was surprised at her “gigantic inferiority complex”, given her tremendous talent. She was also not used to working with just a rhythm track or outside producers, having previously produced a lot of her songs herself. Feeling the pressure of performing in the same studios as so many soul greats, Dusty’s final vocals were actually recorded in New York.

This album includes songs written by some of the era’s most celebrated songwriters including Randy Newman, Hal David & Burt Bacharach and the husband-wife teams of Gerry Goffin & Carole King and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. The latter pair wrote the opening track ‘Just A Little Lovin” which sets the tone of the album wonderfully. Despite the presence of string and horn arrangements, and back-up vocals from The Sweet Inspirations, Dusty’s voice is never overwhelmed by the production and it’s one of my favourite songs on the record. Whether singing soft and low or soaring to the heights of her range, her vocal is the focus of the song, which it will remain for the whole album. Newman’s ‘I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore’ features haunting counter-melodies and an excellent production that matches Dusty’s emotional changes throughout the track. I’ve never been a fan of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’, which won the Academy Award for Best Song from the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Affair. However, Dusty smooths out the harsh corners that Noel Harrison’s version seemed to delight in prodding me with and I find it much more enjoyable. Other highlights for me include ‘So Much Love’, ‘Breakfast in Bed’ and ‘In the Land of Make Believe’.

The most successful single from this album, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, is also its pinnacle, hands down. Boasting an iconic guitar intro (there you go, Cypress Hill) and some of the best understated horn lines ever produced, the track is a true classic, with Dusty’s sultry vocal delivery being one of her career’s best. Tommy Cogbill’s fabulous bass runs, particularly during the song’s coda, make the song almost endlessly listenable. It was originally offered to Aretha Franklin who turned it down, but after hearing Dusty’s version she included it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”.

Despite ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ reaching the Top 10 in both the UK and the US, this album effectively ended Dusty’s career. Whether it was deemed unfashionable at the time by a fickle public, or ineffectively marketed, it only received its now legendary status over the course of decades of secondhand purchases and re-releases. Dusty wouldn’t experience another hit single until 1987, when the Pet Shop Boys invited her to sing on ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, which in hindsight seems unfathomable. How could an album of this quality freeze Dusty in time? It’s one of the music industry’s cruelest injustices.

FUN FACT: During the recording of this album, Dusty suggested that Atlantic Records sign the newly-formed Led Zeppelin. She knew the group’s bassist, John Paul Jones, as he had backed her in various concerts. The band were signed by the record company unseen, based on Dusty’s recommendation, for $200,000.

So, Dusty Springfield hey. I was really looking forward to this week. I had heard so much of this Dusty Springfield over the years and all I knew of her work was ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Bloody cracker of a song that. Whilst not charting that well upon release, the album has received much critical acclaim since, coming in at #89 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. “Dusty in Memphis” came about when Dusty headed to America to try and reinvent her career. Basically pop girl does soul. Remember how I said Chuck Berry was a black guy playing white guy’s music and thus created his own genre? Well basically Dusty Springfield was a white girl singing black music. So does it work? Well yes and no. I’m torn over this one. I really wanted to like it. And I do like it. Musically it is gorgeous and that really holds the album together. Dusty voice is, well, pretty. She knows her limitations and doesn’t try to belt out the songs the way Aretha Franklin would have. Her voice is husky and sensual but it doesn’t really offer more than that. For me there just wasn’t enough light and shade. Dusty has a great pop voice but just doesn’t have the strength in her voice to really belt it out the way soul music demands. The whole album just kind of meanders along. Like I said, it’s pretty. There a couple of strong tracks on here but it just wasn’t enough to get it over the line for me I’m afraid. “Dusty in Memphis” is nice background music, but emotionally I just didn’t connect to it the way I did to Aretha and other soul greats.

‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Thank God for this song. It really is the only song worth listening to. The WHOLE ALBUM. Apart from Preacher, and the possible exception of ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, almost all the songs are completely interchangeable. Please don’t misunderstand me; Dusty Springfield has a beautiful voice. Absolutely lovely. It’s very faint and breathy, but can get carried away if required. It’s just a shame that this album doesn’t really draw attention to it. Every single song is about love. Every single one. Of eleven tracks. It had me checking out Wikipedia to see if Dusty had had hundreds of failed relationships. Her and Etta James should’ve released an album together. “Dusty in Memphis” had some excellent dynamics through the course of the album. Many of the tracks started quite softly, with just an acoustic guitar and a bit of breathy Dusty, and build slowly right up till the last choruses, which often featured a big horn section. Then, oddly, the song just… stopped. It’s most notable in ‘Just a Little Lovin’’, but it happens more than once… Sure, this is Dusty Springfield’s album, but I think the real star is Tommy Cogbill. He was the bass player for this album, and was influential himself, with Jaco Pastorius siting him as an influence. His work is best heard in ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, but is not restricted to it. ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ is the definition of HSP, ‘The Land of Make Believe’ is sung so high it sets off dogs and ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ has annoying guitar that sounds like a mosquito. Dusty won’t be staying on my iPod. On my notes, the last song says “lost interest by this point. Every song is the damn same”. That about sums it up.

Wow, how is it possible that I have not heard this album before? What a cracker! I like this album better than Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ of the same era, and that’s a big call. What sold me was Dusty’s voice. It’s velvety smooth with occasional tinges of smokiness, completely seductive. ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ is undoubtedly the hero of the album; it’s bold, it’s bright and it’s god damn catchy. Just try and listen to this without moving. This song for me is what must have earned Springfield the title of the ‘White Queen of Soul’; for a long time, I thought that this song was actually recorded by Aretha Franklin (how embarrassing!). When I realised my faux-pas with ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, a Google search revealed that I was already a Dusty Springfield fan; I count many of her songs (albeit not on this album) on my favourites list. I’m pretty sure that Springfield didn’t write many, if any, of the songs on the album; at times I felt that she wasn’t emotionally invested in the lyrics. Having said that, Springfield’s delivery is nonetheless flawless, bold and seductive, and for the most part, it’s hard to tell that the vocal track was recorded separate to the rest and added later. My only qualm with this album was the sitar on ‘The Land of Make Believe’. I mean, why was this necessary? It’s like The Doors and that bloody organ all over again! Overall, the instrumentation is quite orchestral but non-fussy, helping Springfield’s vocal to remain the star. I know I will listen to this album forever, and it’s inspired me to seek out more Dusty. I’m heading overseas in about a week, and will definitely reserve this album for my sojourn in the UK.

Every week we’d like to hear your thoughts on the album. Just click on one of the links below, or leave a comment here to have your say.