Dusty in Memphis

  Dusty In Memphis
  Original recording remastered

  4.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

In the 60s and early 70s there were a number of striking female vocalists who didn't make great L.P.s but piled up the hits on 45s, including the effervescent Petula Clark, sassy Nancy Sinatra, wholesome Karen Carpenter, hippie queen Melanie, and "Lady Soul," Aretha Franklin. My favs were Christine McVie (of Fleetwood Mac), Bobbie Gentry, Julie Driscoll, and Mary O'Brien, aka Dusty Springfield, the English songbird with the beehive hair, raccoon eye make up and glittering evening gowns.

McVie's whisper was a warm refuge for romantics; Gentry had a suggestive southern sensuality, a husky hum of a voice that could charm a hoodoo; and despite her detached demeanor and mod model looks, Driscoll was sheer power and soul, England's version of Aretha. Then there was Dusty Springfield - classy and hypnotic with an effortless smoldering sigh that made men's loins melt. (Yeah, I know. In later years Dusty confessed she liked girls more than boys. Just because you don't have a shot, that doesn't stop you from being attracted to someone!)

Dusty began her career as a member of The Springfields with her brother, Tom. The folk combo scored a hit with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" in 1962 before Dusty struck out on her own, scoring hits with "I Only Want to be With You" (1963), "Wishin' and Hopin' (1964), "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (1966) and "The Look of Love" (1967). Dusty's albums, however, mirrored the era - they were an uneven combination of hits, covers, embarrassing show tunes and smaltzy standards. Thanks to the emergence of FM radio (and primarily the popularity of The Beatles) the sales of long playing records became as important as single recordings, giving artists a 10-12 song platform for their personal thoughts. By 1969, it had been two years since Dusty's last transatlantic hit. Her career needed a boost, and she was yearning to make an album that reflected her love of rhythm and blues. 

Atlantic Records sent Dusty to Memphis to record with their crack production team of Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd. The Memphis Cats, who'd backed Elvis, Wilson Pickett, and King Curtis on their records (guitarist Reggie Young, keyboard player Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and bassist Tommy Cogbill), made up her well versed back up band.

From the outset, Dusty exhibited an unnatural case of the heebie jeebies and was unable to find tracks she wanted to record. She picked only two songs from the slew that Wexler offered her, John Hurley/Ronnie Wilkin's "Son of a Preacher Man" and the Barry Mann/ Cynthia Weil composition "Just A Little Lovin' (which eventually opened the album). She plowed through hundreds of demos for the rest of the album's material - a laborious process that frustrated Wexler. In the end Dusty's meticulous method was proved right (and it wouldn't prove to be the last time either). She picked songs by some of pop's most successful writers, including the hit making teams of Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritts, and Burt Bacharach/Hal David, plus a pair of songs by an unknown piano player named Randy Newman.

Perhaps the fact that Dusty had previously produced her own records was a factor in her apprehension. (Self production was an unheard notion for "girl" singers back then. Dusty refused recognition for her talents as a producer, saying it was in bad taste to toot her own horn.) Dusty wasn't used to being directed, yet was too shy to speak her mind. Years later, Wexler revealed he thought Dusty was nervous about intruding into an area she felt belonged exclusively to Aretha Franklin, and she was also intimidated to be working with The Memphis Cats. She was so panic-stricken by her surroundings that she froze at the mike. So Wexler pulled Dusty out of Memphis in the hope she wouldn't be haunted by the ghosts of Otis and the other immortal Atlantic and Stax artists. Despite the album's title, Dusty actually wound up recording her vocals in New York to a pre-recorded rhythm track, which caused another problem - she was used to recording live. Even after the album was dubbed a classic, Dusty remained humble about its critical success. Encountering Aretha in an elevator, she received an endorsing "Girllll!" from Lady Soul. But Dusty still felt Aretha's remake of "Son of a Preacher Man" was better than hers and used Aretha's arrangement in concert in stead of her own.

As I said, Dusty's head was in Memphis, but her body was in New York, but given the opening surge of strings in "Just A Little Lovin'" and Dusty's passionate entrance, you'd never know it. The orchestral accompaniment bounces along playfully with a touch of soul to remind you "Just a Little Lovin'" is supposed to be R & B. Drummer Gene Chrisman has that tight Roger Hawkins rap on his snare drumming that helps give the horn charts an energetic snap. Dusty's vocal is a tempting tease. Her phasing is unforced, polished, and the back up singers, The Sweet Inspirations, provide a melodious backdrop. (Time out for trivia: The Sweet Inspirations featured a singer named Cissy Houston -- yes, the mother of Whitney. The group backed up Elvis and Aretha, among others. They propped up Barbara Streisand on her only listenable tune, "Stoney End," and had a top twenty hit of their own with the hand-clapping "Sweet Inspiration" (what else?) in 1968.)

The album's second cut, "So Much Love" is more spiritual, a mix of gospel flirting with soul. Dusty tests her range with some sugary, heartbreaking high notes. When she sings, "I'm gonna love you for the rest of your days," it's the equivalent of watching the skies part and witnessing the sun burst through.

When you mention Dusty Springfield, the first song that comes to mind is "Son of a Preacher Man," a steamy, gritty slice of soul that would melt Lucifer's loveless heart. It's the penultimate example of Dusty's suggestive phrasing: "Billy Ray was a preacher's son, and when his daddy would visit he'd come along. When they gathered 'round and started talkin', that's when Billy would take me walkin'. Back through the back yard we'd go walkin', then he'd look into my eyes, lord knows to my surprise..." Backed by The Sweet Inspiration's self-assured testifying, Bobby Emmons' sweaty electric piano, Dowd/Mardin's swampy horn entries and Chrisman's pinpoint percussion, "Son of a Preacher Man" is a wanton, drool-inspiring come hither earful of erotica that'll bring any horndog to his knees.  

Dusty's favorite song on the album was "I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore," by the then unknown Randy Newman. (It's mine too.) Like "Son of a Preacher Man" this is Bobby Gentry territory, a song about growing up barefoot, brokenhearted, and irresistible to the opposite sex. Bathed in Dusty's sultry smoked hickory range, the heart-on-my-sleeve imagery is an adult panorama about love gone bad : "Ain't it sad, said the woman down the hall, that when a nice girl falls in love...Ain't it too bad that she had to fall for someone who doesn't care for her at all." The forlorn reed and string arrangement brings to mind the loneliness of Tony Joe White's "Watching the Trains Go By" or his anthemic "Rainy Night in Georgia." Dusty liked "I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore" so much she took a flier on one of Newman's other hard luck hummer, "Just One Smile."

"Just One Smile" begins with Young softly stroking his acoustic and Dusty singing in such a fragile, breathy tone that it sounds as if her voice - and her heart - are about to give way. Then she lets loose with a compelling, heady chorus "Just one smile, pain's forgiven, just one kiss, now the hurt's all gone. Just one smile, to make my life worth living, a little dream to build my world upon."

With Tommy Cogbill nudging his bass and guitarist Reggie Young slipping in licks like a happy hummingbird, "Don't Forget About Me" is upbeat. The Sweet Inspirations push Dusty during the chorus and Chrisman continues to tap on his snare as if he's rapping out a message of love. Young's light touch on guitar also matches Dusty's cry-on-my-shoulder vibrato in "Breakfast in Bed," a languid ballad with tantalizing horns.

Dusty's choked up tone remains its own unique instrument. She repeats the about-to-crack trick with her voice in "In the Land of Make Believe." Working against a Ravel-inspired string arrangement, she whispers impossibly delicate and deceptively lengthy notes while managing to sound as lustful as she did for her version of Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love." Young adds an exotic sitar solo as melodic and mysterious as the instrumental break in The Boxtops "Cry Like a Baby."

Dusty may have a fragile delivery, but she uses it like a home run hitter - she never gets cheated when she takes a swing. Witness "No Easy Way Down," in which she effortlessly enunciates nearly every syllable as her voice descends and rises. In "I Can't Make it Alone," she fills her lungs with ache, regret and desperation creating one of the album's most affecting songs. Hard to believe, given Dusty's level of anguish, but "I Can't Make it Alone" was recorded with the heartache level turned up to eleven by the Vanilla Fudge. Lead singer and organist Mark Stein had a mammoth capacity for wringing every ounce of emotion out of a song, and his group's rendition is every bit as tear-stained as Dusty's.

Wexler convinced Dusty to record Michel Legrand's "Windmills of Your Mind," the type of stilted, overwrought movie theme style filler she'd used as filler in the past. The tip off that it was a stiff should have been the Hungarian dulcimer in the arrangement. "Windmills" sticks out from the rest of the album like an oozing sore and is as much an R&B tune as "Helter Skelter" is a ballad. Dusty was hesitant to record it. She should have stuck by her intuition and told Wexler he was out of his mind.

Rhino re-issued "Dusty in Memphis" on CD in 1992 with three bonus tracks: "What Do You Love," an outtake from the "Dusty in Memphis" sessions, Goffin/King's "That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)," which was retitled in reverse and became a big hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Tony Joe White's "Willie & Laura Mae Jones." White's autobiographical tale of his poor black neighbors in Louisiana was tailor made for Dusty's velvety delivery and was a hearty follow up to "Son of a Preacher Man."  In 1999 Rhino re-released the CD in a deluxe edition with 14 bonus tracks including songs produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, purveyors of the "Philadelphia Sound," as well as unissued songs helmed by Jeff Barry, a pop producer with the Midas touch who had guided Neil Diamond, The Monkees, The Archies, and Andy Kim. (The '99 version of the album is the one most readily available through the standard channels, including Amazon and CD Universe.)

Timing is everything. Dusty released her masterpiece amidst the height of hippydom, when art rockers like Yes, Traffic and Emerson, Lake and Palmer dominated the airwaves. "Dusty in Memphis" only reached # 99 in America and didn't even chart in her native England. But she could take consolation that "Son of a Preacher Man" - which had been turned down by Aretha Franklin - hit #10 on the singles charts.

Dusty's life after "Memphis" was a bit star crossed. She battled alcoholism, the decent of disco, sagging sales and her own sexuality. Her cameo on The Pet Shop Boy's "What am I Gonna Do?" (a #2 hit in 1987), reminded listeners of her vocal charms and earned her some long overdue recognition. Springfield went from Dusty to dust on March 2, 1999, succumbing to cancer ten days before she was scheduled to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But "Dusty in Memphis" is a vivid reminder of her talent. Girllll!



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