Supposedly, the first song Mary O’Brien ever recorded, age 12, was “When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam’”, an old Irving Berlin composition. She sang it in one of those booths where you could record yourself, and took it home to West Hampstead for her mum and dad, where they listened to her sing with an affectation of a southern drawl.
Which is to say that, by the time Mary was in her late 20s, a successful, if wracked with conflictions pop singer known as Dusty, and undertook an experiment to transplant herself to Memphis and see what would happen if her breathy, sensual, impassioned vocals were backed by the muscle of the Atlantic Records house band, produced by Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, she’d already been fascinated by, if not obsessed with, the American South for well over half her lifetime.
Warren Zanes’ excellent 33 & 1/3 book (the first in the series) on this album is less about the music or the singer than it is the mythology – cultural, social, anthropological – that compels a certain type of person to look for authenticity – that most intangible, vague, and magnetic quality (I have some pairs of pants from Marks & Spencer which are adorned with the word ‘authentic’ across the waistband, as if some other, lesser pants exist which are ‘inauthentic’) – and specifically those people, like Dusty, or Alan Lomax, the musical anthropologist who collated a songbook of American ‘primitive’ music, who go looking for the ‘authentic’ determinedly in the American South.
Either Mary O’Brien was a fantastic actress of the method school, or the idea of Dusty Springfield was as virulent as a consumptive disease, because ‘Dusty’, invented as… more than a pseudonym or a mask… more even than a persona… as an alternative way for the former, a shy girl from the west of London, to manage to live in the accelerating modern and post-modern world that she was born into, eventually obliterated Mary, leaving barely a trace of the girl that was beneath a never-removed disguise of mascara.
Riddled with insecurities and taboo desires, Mary-as-Dusty / Dusty-as-Mary was a perfectionist in search of the ultimate performance every time she stepped into the recording booth to cut a vocal track. She was, apparently, the only person involved in the experiment that was Dusty In Memphis (and those involved do all refer to it as an experiment if you read up on it) who doubted that it could work, despite dismissing 80 out of 80 songs offered to her by Wexler at the start of the process. (Later she asked to be given more songs to choose from, and he offered her 20 of those original 80 once again, and she loved them all instantly.)
Wexler, Mardin, and Dowd had an outstanding pedigree selecting and arranging songs and producing albums for artists. For Dusty In Memphis they collected tunes by the greatest American writers of popular song – Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Randy Newman – and created something which, at the time, seemed like a radical hybridisation of ‘white’ pop music and ‘black’ rhythm and blues. We’re so used to cross-pollination amongst genres now that the idea seems quaint. You’ll recognise “Son Of A Preacher Man” no doubt, a cover of “The Windmills Of Your Mind”, and “No Easy Way Down”, and perhaps “Breakfast In Bed”, but, despite enormous critical affection, Dusty In Memphis was seen as something of a commercial failure, only registering one bona fide hit single and not selling anywhere near as many copies as was hoped.
Used to performing over meticulously completed arrangements, working in Memphis with Wexler, Mardin, and Dowd cast Dusty into the role of co-creator as well as interpreter, as arrangements were created from the song upwards with her involved at every stage; she was effectively a fourth producer of the record, as well as its singer, helping to match the songs’ DNA to her vision, rather than paint her emotions over the top. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly given her fastidious perfectionism and near-crippling self-doubt, her vocals were recorded separately, in New York.
Dusty In Memphis gave poor Mary-as-Dusty chance to finally inhabit, however briefly and falsely, the mythological American South, its traditions preserved in aspic and its sexuality unfettered and free, the polar opposite of Mary-as-Dusty’s own self, a perpetual act of transformation and deception. It gave the rest of us an amazing record of outstanding songs, loaded with emotion, with stories and situations to project ourselves into and bask in the reflected glow of their illusory authenticity.
Like so many records I’ve played at our club, I bought this while I was a student. I bought it because I wanted the hit, and had a vague inclination that the album itself was held in high esteem by the kind of people who use words like ‘esteem’ in relation to pop records. They’re not wrong. I can’t claim to feel the same connection to the mythology of the American South as Dusty, or Jerry Wexler, or Alan Lomax, or Warren Zanes, to feel its sense of otherness and integrity and sensuality as an oasis from the speed and falsity of what Jamerson might call “later-period consumer capitalism”. But I do feel a stomach-punch and head-rush of emotion when I listen to it.
(Interestingly, one of my favourite songs on Dusty In Memphis isn’t on Dusty In Memphis; the version I have is the 1995 CD release, with appends 3 additional tunes recorded at the sessions, the last of which is “What Do You Do When Love Dies?”, which remained unreleased until it emerged as a b-side some years later. An observation on walking city streets alone that you used to walk hand-in-hand, at one point Dusty wails “somebody help me / I’m losing my mind” and you can hear her soul break into pieces.)
Tom Listened: An acknowledged classic and a record that more than lived up to its billing – Dusty makes it all sound so effortless (although, from the sound of Nick’s account, this couldn’t be further from the truth) and, crucially, gives the listener a glimpse into her soul in a way that so many ‘accomplished’ female vocalists – Mariah, Whitney, Celine to name but three – do not (at least as far as I am concerned).
Mark Eitzel’s version of No Easy Way Down has long been one of my favourite songs and the fact that Dusty’s version sounded quite different yet similarly awesome is testament to the quality of this album – it’s rare for me to hear a song I love in an alternative form to the one I am used to and not react negatively…in this case I got goose bumps but in a good way!
Rob listened: Yep, terrific. As I grew up, Dusty Springfield was, somehow, attached in my mind to the light entertainment roster, before her cameo appearance with the Pet Shop Boys (‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ was Dusty’s biggest US hit). I knew she was revered, but only after her death did I realise the hinterland. Clearly Springfield was no cabaret belter. Still, this was a first listen for me, and quite wonderful, combining the sweep and majesty of Bacharach and Barry with the Southern grit and heat I’ve loved since Lee Hazlewood reached me via Tindersticks. Wonderful stuff, and now up at the top of my ‘must have’ list.
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