Classic Music Review: Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield

Dusty+In+Memphis+memphis

Click to buy the vinyl. The warmth compensates for the poor production and engineering decisions that sound even worse on the digital versions. Join with me in prayer that they release a version with less background noise so we can properly celebrate Dusty’s unique gifts.

Elton John spoke at Dusty Springfield’s posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and said, “”I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been.”

What a dick.

I’m not blind to racial differences and the cultural differences that have arisen from them, but really, shouldn’t music be a place where the color of your skin doesn’t fucking matter? There is no question that African-Americans invented jazz and blues music. There is no argument against the notion that white Europeans invented what we call classical music. Neither invention arose from the color of their skin but from cultures influenced by racial segregation. I would never think of calling Miles Davis a black trumpeter any more than I would think of calling Dave Brubeck a white piano player. Having read several Miles Davis bios, I am deeply aware of the pain and anger that burned itself into Miles’ soul that came from being a black man in a racist society; however, when he went to France in 1949, nobody gave a shit what color he was—they just wanted to hear him play. The problem is one of culture, not skin color, and to make it anything else is profoundly disrespectful to the artists and their music.

If I were to refer to Duke Ellington as the greatest black American composer, I would essentially be dissing him by implying, “Well, he was pretty good . . . for a black guy.” So, why dis Dusty because she had the misfortune of having a soulful voice emerge from a white body? I think Elton was trying to pander to African-Americans by implying, “Oh, but of course, she’s no Aretha Frankin or Diana Ross.” I repeat: what a dick. He probably feels loads of guilt for spending his entire life trying to sound like a black guy, but that’s his fucking problem. At least he can afford the therapy.

Look. Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and others proved conclusively that white guys could do blues. Benny Goodman, Brubeck and Bill Evans proved that white guys could do jazz. Charley Pride proved that black guys could do country, for fuck’s sake. Cultural oppression and racism remain realities today . . . but your race doesn’t determine your musical ability or interests . . . that’s in your spirit, not your skin.

Okay, I’m done. How about a review?

Let me begin by saying I have a great deal of respect and empathy for Dusty Springfield, in part for her musical talents and in part because of our shared bi-sexuality. My read of her history tells me she was more on the lesbian side of the continuum, where I’m more in the middle despite the current absence of a steady penis in my life. I fully understand that it was much harder for her to express or feel comfortable about her attraction to women during her era because homophobia was a sacred and universal cultural norm. You can see the effects in the emotional oscillation found in this snippet from an early 70’s interview in the LA Free Press (Source: Wikipedia):

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 shit. 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.

Even with uncertainty raging through her bloodstream, her work brims with sexual desire and the desire for real love. On the leather-and-lace continuum, Dusty is definitely more on the lace side, while I’m very happy on the leather end of the scale (unless it’s summer in Paris). You’re not going to hear the no-bullshit, let’s get down to business approach of a Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, for Dusty is softer and gentler, more prone to a tongue in your ear than grabbing a fistful of cock or tit, as the case may be.

As much as I admire her, Dusty in Memphis is a problematical album to review. In the first place, the title is somewhat misleading, for a couple of reasons. The liner notes state, in parentheses, “(Dusty Springfield’s final vocals recorded in New York),” not a particularly rousing endorsement of Memphis as the place to go if you want to capture a certain feel in your music. The second disappointment comes from a lack of familiarity with micro-genres. When most people think Memphis, they think of three words: Elvis, blues and rockabilly. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting to hear an album heavily influenced by Dusty’s experiences on Beale Street or something that sounds like it emanated from the Sun Records studio, you will be sorely disappointed. What the producers claim on the cover is that this album is Dusty’s “first recording with the Memphis Sound,” a micro-genre categorizing a slicker, funkier version of soul. You get hints of that in some of the arrangements, but if you’re expecting grooves like you hear in Otis Redding’s or Wilson Pickett’s Stax records, once again you will find yourself pretty much out of luck. This is more late-Stax in the style of Isaac Hayes, but just barely.

One reason you hear relatively little of Memphis in this album is simple: it’s one of the worst produced and engineered records I have ever heard. Dusty’s sensual and expressive vocals are consistently buried under an avalanche of cheesy string arrangements set to maximum volume. The engineers frequently bury the groove as well, so it often sounds like Dusty and the core band are fighting to be heard. The CD reissue does nothing to correct these obvious flaws; if anything, the reissue makes things worse by adding a cold dash of digital sound. What we really need is a Dusty in Memphis: Naked version similar to what the Abbey Road engineers did when they eradicated the cancer of Phil Spector’s production from Let It Be.

The album opens with “Just a Little Lovin’,” a Mann-Weill composition about sex in the morning. I wholeheartedly embrace the message that the world would be a better place if we got a little action before we started the day, as long as both parties first brush their teeth or keep a tin of mints on the nightstand. I used to love waking up next to a guy and finding a ready-made erection all nice and ready for me! I’d climb on top before he even knew what hit him and earn a beautiful smile in return. Ignore the ridiculous string arrangement and focus on Dusty’s delivery, alternating between slightly smoky and soaring but always full of soulful passion. Her phrasing is marvelous, emphasizing the right words at the right time through subtle changes in her voicing and pronunciation.

Sticking with established songwriters, Dusty goes with the Brill Building Goffin-King team for “So Much Love.” Sung at the top of her register, you never hear her straining; in fact, she seems to get an energy rush when she goes for the higher notes. Once again overcoming poor taste in musical arrangement and an engineer with an unsteady hand on the gain slider, Dusty gives a knockout performance that thrills me to the core every time I hear it. I’ve rarely heard a singer express the desire for love so completely. This is a very romantic song, suitable for vanilla sex foreplay.

We finally arrive in Memphis for the album’s hit song, “Son of a Preacher Man.” Opening with a soft funk groove, Dusty delivers a remarkably subtle performance in the first two verses as if she’s having a private conversation with a girlfriend about a life-changing spiritual experience. A great fuck will do that to you! Once she gets to the bridge, she becomes a bible-thumping preacher for the new religion of sweet, secretive sex. The arrangement is one of the better efforts on the album, and the The Sweet Inspirations give a first-class performance on the backing vocals. The exposition of Christian hypocrisy is an added bonus: the dirty little secret of the South isn’t really that much of a secret, but it’s nice to hear it celebrated instead of buried in hokum.

Randy Newman penned our next song, the slow ballad “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” The string arrangement on this song is particularly pompous (with a horrid touch of pizzicato) and buries Dusty alive for most of the track except for a brief stop-time moment at the end. It’s followed by another Goffin-King number, “Don’t Forget About Me.” This is an up-tempo number where the guitarist overdoes the counterpoint a bit and the horns come in a bit too loud, but Dusty comes through with a suitably strong vocal to pull this one out of the fire. You have to forgive the core band here; it’s one of the few times on the album where you actually get a chance to hear them, so their exuberance is understandable.

Dusty just can’t seem to get out of bed on this album, bless her soul. “Breakfast in Bed” is not another sex song, though (bummer!), but a comfort song. The music starts very quietly with a warm-laid back feel before the producers wreck the mood with strings and excessively loud horns. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that is most damaged by the ham-handed engineering team, and it’s very frustrating because in the din you can tell that Dusty found just the right feel for this piece. Damn! It’s followed by another Randy Newman number, “Just One Smile” where Dusty can be heard more clearly, much to the song’s benefit. It’s not a particularly great song, but Dusty sounds so deeply sincere in trying to save a relationship damaged by misunderstanding that it recalls the wisdom, “it’s the singer, not the song.”

There’s nothing she can do to save “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the most over-recorded piece of shit in the history of the human race and no, you don’t have to remind me that the music was composed by a Frenchman. Why this turkey was chosen for a Memphis Sound album is beyond me. It’s followed by the equally horrid and ill-fitting “In the Land of Make Believe,” which tells you how much I think of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This one opens with a sitar, one of the least Memphis-sounding instruments on the planet. Two very strange detours indeed.

We thankfully get back to something a bit more soulful with “No Easy Way Down.” This is a relatively weak Goffin-King number saved by Dusty’s performance, which is one of the clearest and strongest on the album. What’s amazing about this piece is how her vocal remains strong and in focus even as she alternates between voiced and near-voiceless phrasing, sometimes switching in mid-phrase. Although the subject matter is hardly romantic (the lyrics deal with failure in life and love), this is a great slow dance number. Forget the words and just let Dusty’s voice guide you with your body pressed ever so close to your lover.

Dusty in Memphis ends with yet another Goffin-King song (that makes three), “I Can’t Make It Alone,” where the theme of seeking forgiveness is too reminiscent of the theme of “Just One Smile” to make it stand out. Not having listened to this album for a long time, I was kind of hoping for something more funky and less maudlin to end an album allegedly flavored with the so-called Memphis Sound.

Dusty in Memphis has been consistently overrated by the critics, some of whom were no doubt motivated by a weird desire to find a white female soul singer who could measure up to the great female voices on Motown and Atlantic. Dusty ranks right up there with the best of them, but that doesn’t give the critics permission to ignore the botched recording or the syrupy arrangements that dampen the groove on over half the tracks. It’s frustrating because there was really no excuse or the poor recording: Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, released a year before on the same Atlantic label with the same Jerry Wexler as lead producer, featured some beautiful and complementary string arrangements that did not overwhelm the singer or the band. Give me a stripped-down version where it’s just Dusty, The Sweet Inspirations and the funk combo paired with an engineer without a hearing disability and I would probably rate the album much higher. Dusty Springfield was a great singer and she deserved higher quality support than she received in either Memphis or New York.

4 responses

  1. Many thanks for your on the mark comments.
    My view is that Dusty Springfield was caught in the crossroads
    Of a particular cultural moment , circa 1963- 1968 , Beatles , civil rights ,Vietman
    And trapped by the pop conventions of the time.

    A vocalist of wide range , Springfield pivoted between soul and pop,
    The pop of Bert Bacharach in particular, with the song The look of Love in
    The James Bond movie Casino Royale .

    There is the curiosity of Springfield on YouTube singing the Bacharach song
    24 hours from Tulsa ….with all it’s odd rhythms and phrasing .
    The song is forever associated with the late Gene Pitney whose raspy plaintive
    wail suited it.

    If one watches that youtube one is aware of Springfield’s greater range
    …one listens to her open up and take on the song, and take it out of
    It’s pop anchoring…. And reimagined with no gown , no orchestra , in a roadhouse or juke joint
    ….a soul version if you will.

    Elton John’s comments only marginalized Springfield , making her a sidebar
    To a vibrant time and place in music and popular culture.

    One hopes there is a master tape to the songs that can
    Present Dusty Springfield in the best light.

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  2. […] Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis […]

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  3. Back from London, where coincidentally I got myself some Dusty gems, among others.
    Along with Roy Orbison, the most skilled singer ever to me, with the ability to thrill you with just a few words.
    I have no problem with the mastering here, I have the US Atlantic pressing and it sounds wonderful.
    No complaints on the production either, but there’s a half of the tracks I don’t want to hear anymore.
    It’s just average material that is saved by Dusty but sounds weak next to the gold around it : “Son of a preacher man”, “Breafast in bed”, “I can’t make it alone” and most importantly “So much love”, my favorite on the album, what a thrill!
    A good album but not my favorite, it has to be “Where am I going?”, plus it has some “pop Dusty” this one lacks.

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  4. Good review and refreshing in that it pricks the cliched “one of the greatest albums ever” bubble which has gotten rather tiresome. Dusty was certainly one of the greatest singers EVER but her albums are all rather patchy despite having some terrific moments. She was more a singles act and a good compilation of those is essential… like such compilations by Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.

    Tom Dowd said years later that Dusty did go to Memphis but was utterly terrified to the degree she insisted dubbing her parts on later elsewhere, so that decision was Dusty’s alone… a disappointment to all in Memphis since they loved her voice and were excited by the prospect of working with it. A pity since the album suffers for it and yet another reminder of how terribly insecure Dusty really was.

    Now… the male/female thing. Dusty herself highlighted the hypocrisy involved. In Britain, she was in total control in the studio to the degree she was effectively the producer so she fought for the best from everyone. So did Scott Walker, but it pissed Dusty off that Scott was heralded as a genius and master in control, whereas Dusty was dismissed as being “difficult” in the studio for demanding the same kind of standards Walker aspired to. I get the feeling that was partly the reason behind this “Memphis” saga.

    Still… I was devastated when she died and I treasure most of her 45’s – “Going Back” destroys me everytime I listen to it… very few singers can make me cry, but Dusty could!

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