Dusty Springfield was a pop icon of the Swinging Sixties and a star who blazed a trail for future female singers in the industry. The voice behind “Son of a Preacher Man” belongs to a woman who had her share of troubles throughout her life. Like many other talented artists of the era, Dusty had her so-called “demons.” From being diagnosed with bipolar disorder to dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, and living in the closet as a lesbian, she managed to keep it all under wraps… for a while.
The singer didn’t get to see her 60th birthday, but she experienced and accomplished more than many can say for themselves. The perfectionist, who even recorded songs in ladies’ washroom because the sound was better, forever changed the world for female singers. She became one of the most successful female British stars, with half-a-dozen singles in the Top 20. She also landed her spot in both the US Rock and Roll and UK Music Halls of Fame.
See why Dusty Springfield’s life is worth knowing about…
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien was born on April 16, 1939, in West Hampstead, as the second child to Gerard O’Brien and Catherine O’Brien, both of Irish descent. Her father, who was raised in British India, was a tax accountant and consultant. Her mother came from an Irish family of journalists. Dusty was raised in a very comfortable middle-class upbringing and went to a traditional all-girl school.
But her “simple life” was disturbed by some rather dysfunctional tendencies in her family. Her father was “overweight, bespectacled and balding,” and refused to do the accountancy exams because “he really wanted to be a concert pianist.” And he never did any gardening because “there could be snakes hiding in the undergrowth.” Meanwhile, Dusty’s mother was continuously drunk and spent most of her days watching movies.
Her father’s perfectionism and her mother’s frustrations would sometimes end in food-throwing incidents, but not the fun “food fight!” kind. The food-throwing carried on into her, and even her brother Tom’s, adult lives. Dusty said how her father would call her ‘stupid and ugly,’ which sadly result in her harming herself.
Although verbally and emotionally abusive, her father was a large part of her musical education. And while his perfectionism would drive her crazy, on the other hand, he was a natural music teacher. Dusty recalled how he would like to tap out rhythms on the back of her hand and urge her to guess what the song was. “The feelings of inadequacy followed me through my life,” Dusty later admitted.
Her safe place was listening to music, especially artists like Carmen Miranda, Doris Day, and Billie Holiday, who were known to have turned pain and a troubled life into art. The nuns at the convent wanted her to be a librarian. But Dusty was determined to rebel against her father, the nuns, and anyone who thought they knew what she should be better than her.
In an effort to rebel, she bleached her hair and basically turned herself into someone else. “I just suddenly decided, in one afternoon, to be this other person who was going to make it.” She immersed herself in jazz and the blues music, listening to artists like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller, and singers Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford.
If you’re wondering how a girl with the name Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien became Dusty Springfield, it’s because she was given the nickname “Dusty” in her teen years. She was “one of the boys” and liked to play soccer with the neighborhood boys in the street, who described her as a tomboy.
In those days, girls’ soccer was still in its infancy, and she didn’t have dreams of being a soccer player. She did, however, want to grow up to be a famous singer. When Dusty wasn’t kicking a ball around, she was reveling in her family’s record collection. By the age of 12, she recorded herself performing the Irving Berlin song “When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabama” at a local record shop.
After finishing high school, Dusty started to sing with her brother Tom in local folk clubs and at holiday camps. Then in 1958, Dusty responded to an advertisement in the local newspaper, The Stage, to join The Lana Sisters. The group was described as an “established sister act” with Iris ‘Riss’ Long and Lynne Abrams (who weren’t actual sisters).
To be part of the singing group, she had changed her name to Shan. She also had to “cut her hair, lost the glasses, experimented with makeup, fashion” to be one of the “sisters.” It was as a member of the pop trio that Dusty developed her vocal skills in harmonizing and microphone technique. She got to record, perform on TV, and play live shows in the UK and US Air Force bases in Europe.
In 1960, Dusty left The Lana Sisters to form a pop trio with her brother and Reshad Field. They called themselves The Springfields and were a mixture of pop and folk. Why Springfield? They chose their name one day when they were rehearsing in a field in the springtime and decided on taking the stage names of Dusty, Tim, and Tom Springfield.
Their intentions were to make an authentic US album, and traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to record “Folk Songs from the Hills.” The music that Dusty heard during her US visit, like Bert Berns’ song “Tell Him,” turned her style from folk and country to pop and rhythm and blues. The Springfields were called “Top British Vocal Group” in 1961 and 1962. But Dusty wanted to go solo…
Dusty left the band after their last concert in October of 1963. While Tom went on to write and produce songs for other artists and released his own solo material, Dusty also went out on her own, and she was making hits from the get-go. In November of that year, Dusty released her first solo single, “I Only Want to Be with You.” The song that was produced in a way similar to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” rose to No. 4 on the UK charts.
This song hit big in December before the wave of Beatlemania began. It stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks. The B-side “Once Upon a Time” was written by Dusty herself. But it was “I Only Want to Be with You” that was being played everywhere and sold over a million copies.
In April of 1964, Springfield released her debut album, “A Girl Called Dusty,” which mostly included remakes of her favorite songs, like “Mama Said” and “You Don’t Own Me.” Clearly, making the decision to go solo was the right one considering that she was making hit after hit and impressing fans and critics alike.
Although Dusty was writing some of her own songs, she admitted it wasn’t something she particularly liked. “I don’t really see myself as a songwriter. I don’t really like writing. I just don’t get any good ideas, and the ones I do get are pinched from other records. The only reason I write is for the money – oh, mercenary creature.” As it turns out, her self-deprecation was something Dusty’s fans adored about her.
Dusty Springfield introduced Motown music to a wider UK audience with her cover songs, and also by facilitating the first UK television appearances for The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, and Stevie Wonder on the ‘Ready Steady Go!’ show.
Dusty wanted to make sure that a new British audience would get to know about American soul singers who were still unknown in the UK. She knew that whenever she covered a song, on record or in concert, tons of her fans would investigate the singers to see who had written it or recorded it first. Just as the Rolling Stones lured us into the works of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Dusty raised the profile of many soul singers.
In December 1964, Springfield was touring South Africa with her group, The Echoes, which ended up being controversially terminated, leading to her being deported. Why? Because they had performed for an integrated audience near Cape Town, which was, at the time, against the government’s segregation policy.
Her contract had specifically excluded segregated performances, meaning she was one of the first British artists who dared to perform for an integrated audience. All in all, despite the tour cancelation, it was a good year for Dusty, who was voted Top Female British Artist of the Year by the NME. At times, Dusty Springfield was heard on US radio more than American singers.
She was becoming a real star, and with that comes media frenzy, and with the media comes many, many questions about your personal life…
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It looks like her father’s perfectionism rubbed off on Dusty, who became very fussy and strict with everything she did. She was a perfectionist in the studio. Despite producing many tracks, she didn’t always take credit for them. During vocal sessions, she would repeatedly record short phrases and single words.
When recording tracks, her headphones were typically set as high as possible – pretty much on the level of “on the threshold of pain.” By 1966, Dusty was making more hit records than any other artist, yet she was constantly striving for perfection. She was always late because it took her three hours to do her make-up. She even got a nose job.
Dusty spent a lot of her time in the US shooting in the woods in the South and encountering the self-claimed bass-player who “taught Elvis how to do karate.” But her life started to unravel at the very time she was experiencing her greatest success. While Dusty stretched the music business to its limit, she also stretched the limits of sanity in her misbehavior.
She may have been instantly recognizable with her blonde beehive, black eye make-up, and with all the glitz and glamor, but she was majorly insecure. Despite her star status, Dusty was inherently shy and rarely went to any of the popular parties and nightclubs of the ‘60s. She was deeply insecure about her appearance, having hated her knees and chin.
Even in the early days, Dusty had a strange sense of humor, not to mention a temper. “You couldn’t really be angry with her,” Riss Chantelle said. Dusty was often like a child, and Riss remembered Dusty papering the hallways in toilet paper, and then appearing on stage with the Lana Sisters with ripped trousers.
She would do strange things, like send out for boxes of cutlery, which she would then smash against a wall. She would tip bags of flour over the band or punch bowls over her own head. Her pranks weren’t seen as funny to the others. They thought she went crazy. She would fling food in restaurants and throw her furniture into the swimming pool. It got to the point that she needed professional help…
In her early years as a singer, Dusty remained a practicing Catholic, even stopping the tour bus from going to Church or confession. As the ‘60s rolled on, though, Dusty started to lose her faith and began what would be a long struggle with alcoholism, self-harm, and a bipolar disorder diagnosis. By the ‘70s, she moved to California, which only made things worse.
Not only that, her career soon stalled, leaving her short on cash and without the support network that was so easily available to her back in London. By the early ‘80s, Dusty was near penniless and spent frequent periods in mental hospitals. At one point, she had suffered from a catatonic nervous breakdown and landed in a secure ward at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York. This is where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
As a ‘bachelor girl,’ which was the very phrase used by interviewers, Dusty was falling, and she had no one to fall back on. No partner nor family. She was fired from ‘The Talk of the Town.’ She was then asked to record a theme song for a James Bond movie, but she couldn’t “get it together,” and Carly Simon was brought in instead.
By 1985, Dusty had to resort to earning $500 per night lip-syncing to her old hits in West Hollywood gay bars. At some points, she was battered and bruised, with her front teeth knocked out in a girl fight. Again, she found herself admitted to a hospital. People close to her said that Dusty would scream a lot, and threaten to harm herself (which is actually typical of those with bipolar disorder). Dusty would sometimes run down the street, smashing car windows, and Billie Jean King would “arrive to calm things down.”
The pills and the vodka weren’t helping, either. Dusty’s drinking also opened the door to exploring new horizons… with women. The drinking was what gave Dusty the courage to explore sexually with women. In 1970, she used a magazine interview to reveal to the public that she was bisexual, or as she put it: “likely to be swayed by a girl as a boy.” In fact, she was more gay than bisexual. She never had any romantic relationships with men, but she was struggling to come to terms with her sexuality.
After giving interviews, she would often regret having given information that would lead to comments and speculation for the rest of her life. Dusty “wanted to be straight, and she wanted to be a good Catholic, and she wanted to be black,” according to Norma Tanega, who was one of her partners.
It’s important to remember that Dusty had operated at a time when “being gay was career poison.” So rather than being her true self, she fell to pieces. The industry was homophobic and sexist, and being a lesbian was considered awful and shocking. As unfortunate as that is, it was nonetheless the culture of the times.
As it turns out, even the newspapers didn’t want to know. Norma Tanega said how, “In those days, girls in her situation didn’t come out and talk about being gay or bisexual.” Being forced to live her personal life in secret meant she was suffering, and she acted out as a result. Hence the strange behavior, drugs, and alcohol.
Some of Dusty Springfield’s biographers and journalists speculated that the star had two personalities: there was the shy, quiet, Mary O’Brien, and then there was the public face of Dusty Springfield. According to a 2001 biography, “Dancing with Demons,” the confidence she exuded on vinyl “was a facade masking severe insecurities, addictions to drink and drugs, bouts of self-harm and fear of losing her career if exposed as a lesbian.”
Despite the rumors and the image that the media was setting for Dusty, Simon Bell, one of Springfield’s session singers, debated the twin personality claim. He said, “It’s very easy to decide there are two people, Mary and Dusty, but they were the one person. Dusty was most definitely Dusty right to the end.”
From 1966 to the early 1970s, Dusty lived with fellow singer Norma Tanega. In 1970, Dusty told the Evening Standard: “Many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it. I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Springfield became involved in a number of romantic relationships with women in both Canada and the US. They may have been kept hidden from the media, but not so much in the gay and lesbian community. From 1972 to 1978, Springfield had an on-again-off-again relationship with Faye Harris, an American photojournalist.
In 1981, she had a six-month fling with Carole Pope, the singer-musician of the rock band Rough Trade. These were during periods of psychological and professional instability, where Dusty’s involvement in these intimate relationships was influenced by addiction, and often resulted in personal injury. In 1982, she met an American actress, Teda Bracci, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The two didn’t wait long to move in together in 1983, and seven months later, they exchanged vows at a wedding ceremony. The thing is gay marriage at the time wasn’t legally recognized under California law. So she wasn’t “officially” married. The married couple had a “tempestuous” relationship, to say the least. One altercation, in particular, led to both of them being hospitalized.
Reportedly, Dusty was smashed in the mouth by Bracci, who was wielding a saucepan, and her teeth were knocked out, requiring plastic surgery. This was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back, because the two then separated, after two years together. Bracci later recalled how Dusty once kissed her on a balcony overlooking the Vatican; it was in defiance of her faith.
It was all a bit ironic, considering how at the time, there were many male stars wearing make-up and women’s clothes and felt comfortable about revealing that they were gay. But the same couldn’t be said for women. Dusty was terribly worried that such revelations would harm her career, a career she so desperately worked hard for. She was also worried that her being gay would scare off her family, friends, and fans.
But it came to the point that she started to be more open in interviews. Dusty explained to the Los Angeles Free Press: “I mean, people say that I’m gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I’m not anything. I’m just. People are people. I basically want to be straight. I go from men to women; I don’t give a sh*t. The catchphrase is: I can’t love a man. Now, that’s my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition. They frighten me.”
It may have been a relief to come clean about her feelings, but nonetheless, she found herself alone again. Norma left her when she found their relationship too difficult, and Dusty decided to live an isolated life in the United States, where she could avoid questions from pestering media.
Her music career was getting a beating, too. While Dusty was well established as a pop star around the world, her record sales were declining. On top of that, she was unsatisfied with her management and record company. Despite the occasional highlight, like recording the theme song for The Six Million Dollar Man, she was unhappy with where things were heading.
Her 1970 album titled ‘A Brand New Me’ was her sixth studio album, with songs written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. It sold well as did the singles from it, which makes it a bit confusing when you hear that her next album wasn’t released at all in the United States. Her next album called ‘See All Her Faces’ was Dusty’s first album to not include her name in its title.
An interesting choice of words for this title considering her bipolar diagnosis, but regardless of that, the album wasn’t well received. It was a collection of recordings from different times and studios, and it could be because of that that it wasn’t well-received. Many critics and fans have said that it sounds much better when you listen to one track at a time.
Nothing seemed related in that album, with so many different sounds and styles going on. It’s possible that it was seen as a bit too strange for an American audience. Her next album, Cameo, failed to make a splash on either side of the Atlantic. It turns out that it took many years for Dusty to find herself back in the spotlight.
Her 1979 album called ‘Living Without Your Love’ remains a fan favorite, but her tour that year led to an unexpected problem with a princess. She played a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and Princess Margaret was in attendance. But Dusty created a buzz during some of her onstage chat, albeit quite innocently. She made a rather inappropriate joke… in front of the royal family of all people.
Duty made a joke about the large number of gay people that she noticed at the concert, and said that she was glad royalty wasn’t “confined to the box.” Princess Margaret was personally insulted, and Dusty was absolutely mortified. She was later sent a typewritten message from the princess, which Dusty was made to sign and return.
Dusty’s recordings were becoming far and few between, but there was a whole new generation of musicians taking a very interesting look at the singer and her music. For one, Trevor Horn (from the Buggles, Yes, Dollar, ABC, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood) wrote a disco hit for her called Baby Blue.
Her next album titled ‘White Heat’ came out in 1982 and was influenced by punky, new wave styles. Dusty loved the new music that was making its way in, and she wanted to be a part of it. By 1987, a dream came true for Dusty when she sang with Pet Shop Boys on the track, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” The Pet Shop Boys were huge in the ‘80s.
In 1987, Dusty accepted an invitation from the Pet Shop Boys to make a duet with their lead singer, Neil Tennant. Tennant said that Dusty in Memphis was one of his favorite albums, and he lept at the opportunity to get Springfield’s vocals for their next single, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” She also appeared in the music video.
The single rose to No. 2 on both the US and UK charts. This collaboration was regarded as Dusty’s comeback in the late 1980s. But it almost didn’t happen because at that point, she was reluctant to perform anymore and endure any disappointment. But her recordings with The Pet Shop Boys propelled her back to the top of the charts. It was also during a time when she was working hard at her sobriety.
She also got to sing Richard Carpenter’s “Something In Your Eyes” on the Time album. It also hit the US charts in 12th place. Dusty’s career was anything but over. In 1989, “Nothing Has Been Proved” was another charting single. It was around this time that she had come back to live in Britain again. But by 1995, Dusty would make her last-ever recording.
By this point, Dusty had fallen ill. Turmoil has a way of manifesting itself. And while some may resort to suicide, Dusty’s came in the form of breast cancer. In 1994, while she was recording her album called ‘A Very Fine Love’ in Nashville, Springfield, she didn’t feel too well. When she went back to England a few months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She went through months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The treatments were working, and Dusty was told that the cancer was in remission. In 1995, she was in seemingly good health, and they started promoting the album, which was released that year. But by mid-1996, her cancer had returned.
By then, she was back in England, and she would spend her days watching Bonanza in German on satellite television, eating only cauliflower and ice cream. Her household items had to be cut up into pieces of identical size (likely a symptom of her bipolar disorder). After years of struggling with cancer, Dusty succumbed to her illness and died on March 2, 1999.
It was at her funeral that the world got to see just how much she was admired and appreciated by celebrities and fans alike.
Springfield’s funeral service included hundreds of fans and a number of people from the music business, including Elvis Costello, Lulu, and the Pet Shop Boys. The Catholic funeral took place at the church of St Mary the Virgin in Henley-on-Thames, where Dusty had chosen to live during her last years.
In her last-ever interview with the New York Times, Dusty said that she would be happy if her life took her back to Ireland somehow. In accordance with her wishes, she was cremated. While some of her ashes were buried at Henley, the rest were scattered by her brother, Tom Springfield, at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, which was Dusty’s favorite spot. Two weeks later, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the help of her friend Elton John. In his words: “I’m biased, but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been, every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”
Even after her death, Dusty Springfield was finding herself on charts. In 2008, she appeared at No. 35 on the Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Throughout her career, Dusty has been given a lot of names, like Best International Vocalist in 1966. Rolling Stone listed her album ‘Dusty in Memphis’ among the greatest albums of all time.
In 2001, she even received the Grammy Hall of Fame award. Before her death in March 1999, she was scheduled to go to Buckingham Palace to get her award as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, which was given for “services to popular music.” But due to the recurrence of her breast cancer, she was given permission for the medal to be collected earlier. In January of that year, Springfield was presented with the award in a hospital with a small group of friends and relatives.
Films and stage musicals have been made to commemorate Dusty Springfield’s life. In 2006, an Australian stage musical called “Dusty – The Original Pop Diva” received its world premiere in Melbourne. In 2008, Nicole Kidman was announced as the star and producer of a biopic of Dusty, but the movie was never made.
Another famous star that almost played the role of Dusty, this time for a TV movie, was Madonna. Then in 2012, a biographical jukebox musical called ‘Forever Dusty’ opened Off-Broadway in New York City. Kirsten Holly Smith starred as Springfield. Smith had also co-written the book that the musical was based on. By 2015, Springfield was named one of the 31 Icons of the 2015 LGBT History Month.
Although Dusty Springfield recorded classics like “The Look of Love, Goin’ Back” and “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten,” Dusty only had one number one hit, which was “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” That was the song she first heard sung in Italian at a San Remo song contest. The English lyrics had been hastily written by Dusty’s friend and manager, Vicki Wickham, as well as Simon Napier-Bell.
According to Napier-Bell, “There, standing on the staircase at Philips studio, singing into the stairwell, Dusty gave her greatest ever performance; perfection from first breath to last, as great as anything by Aretha Franklin or Sinatra or Pavarotti. Great singers can take mundane lyrics and fill them with their own meaning.”
Dusty’s most classic album, which was also her fan’s favorite, was Dusty in Memphis from 1969. It was also considered to be her finest contribution to music. Yet it was a troubled album, as Dusty had been partying hard, which resulted in her unable to perform at the studio in Memphis.
She said she was “too intimidated” to sing in the same place that Aretha Franklin had sung some of her biggest hits. Dusty had to later record her vocals in New York. Surprisingly the album wasn’t a commercial success despite having the incredible classic hit, ‘Son of a Preacher Man.’ That song, by the way, was given a revival in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino used it in his cult classic film ‘Pulp Fiction.’ The film’s soundtrack reached No. 21 on the Billboard 200. Tarantino has been quoted as saying that he probably wouldn’t have filmed the scene if he wouldn’t have been able to use the song.
In November of 1963, Dusty had released her first solo record, “I Only Want to Be with You,” which was written by Ivor Raymonde and Mike Hawker for Hawker’s wife, Jean Ryder. Dusty was inspired by the success of the “The Twist” and “Dancing in the Street,” and so she wanted her first single to be a song that people would dance to.
She had already rejected ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ and ‘Wishin and Hopin’. Jean Ryder went on to work as a backup singer for Dusty for a lot of her early recordings and performances. Ryder remembered her as shy and insecure, and it was her musical perfectionism that brought her into conflict with male session musicians and the chauvinistic record industry.
Simon Napier-Bell, the singer’s friend, wrote about his late dear friend in The Observer. He started out by saying, “People said Dusty sounded black, but really she didn’t. She sounded only like herself.” For instance, Bette Midler said her voice was “haunting and husky, full of secrets and promises.” He spoke of her group with her brother, and how ‘the secret was to sing loud and fast,’ as she had explained.
For Dusty, ‘It was extremely important to be cheerful.’ Their tours of Britain included all the usual excesses of being on the road, which caused Dusty, who was at the time a devout Catholic, to keep the others waiting in the van while she attended church and confession.
According to Napier-Bell, Dusty invented a character that the public loved: “the magical voice, a face from Vogue, and a giggly girl-next-door speaking voice.” On TV, the public saw only the good-natured part of her; “they never saw the depression, the temper, her gay love life, or the way she would gauge her enjoyment of an evening by how manic it had been.”
Dusty was in love with American soul music, but Napier-Bell felt that she was at her best when her affinity for soul music was blended with European pop. Dusty has even been quoted as saying, “There is a great sadness in my voice. Even I can get quite touched by it if the song is right.”
And I’ll leave it at that…
Dusty Springfield’s style earned her the nickname “Queen of Mods” with her panda eyes, teased beehive blonde hair, and short sparkly dresses. She was one of the big style icons of the last century, which is ironic considering how insecure she was about her looks. She was a rebel and had her own personal way of doing things.
In the ’50s, she was infatuated with glamorous women like Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot. She saw them with the heavy eyeliner and mascara all done up. In the end, she blended right in with them. Today, we can see many young starlets who, in turn, try to emulate stars like Dusty, Madonna, and the late Amy Winehouse, among others.
The Art-Deco-style home that was once belonged to Dusty Springfield was recently up for sale. The five-story apartment on Aubrey Walk in the posh Holland Park neighborhood was asking £11.5 million. It spans 7,200 square feet, with seven bedrooms and two patios. It even has a 35-foot-long indoor swimming pool, a sauna, a gym, and a party room.
“As the former home of legendary singer, Dusty Springfield, it brings together a sense of history and cultural importance with the architectural merits of a home created to reflect Art Deco design principles,” the lucky real estate agent said of the property. The singer lived in the home between 1968 and 1972, according to a plaque laid on the front of the house.