A Girl Called Dusty : Dusty Springfield (#45)

Dusty Springfield | A Girl Called Dusty (April 1964)
Pop – 32:54

“I try to be as unsexy as possible.”

Growing up, it isn’t always obvious the importance of who you are listening to. When you’re young, your frame of reference is naturally limited – you have no cultural baggage and, unless an older, wiser music lover takes you by the hand to guide you through recent pop history, you have to assume that everything you hear is completely fresh. As a pre-teenager tuning into Top of the Pops, you assume that these bands have not only been around forever, but this is the music they have been creating all this time. It makes no difference if these are legends who have craved out a long and illustrious career – for a 12-year-old kid, this is the pinnacle of all they have created, simply by virtue of being the only thing on the radar.

A case in point for me was Dusty Springfield. Forget all the music she had recorded throughout the 1960s; the place she had carved for herself as a cultural icon. As far as I was concerned, back in the late 1980s, my entire knowledge of her was through the work of the Pet Shop Boys. True, it’s not a bad way to be introduced to a legend; the band even have work appearing later in this run-through of ‘Must Listen…’ albums. But her performance on What Have I Do Deserve This (one of PSB’s best tracks) actually gives a very warped impression of Springfield; she comes across as essentially a background singing disco diva. The truth is very different…

There are two distinct versions of Dusty Springfield. Firstly, there is the Dusty who would throw songs up the Hit Parade during the 1960s. These were throw-away numbers; songs like I Only Want To Be With You – her biggest hit – were nothing more than bubblegum pop. Admittedly, they were competently put together with Dusty giving a performance worthy of the songs themselves. But there was another side to the singer; in heart, she was really a soul singer – and there is no doubt on albums like A Girl Called Dusty and the later Dusty in Memphis (which we will get to in due course) that she was able her talent, easily standing alongside the star-studded geniuses of Motown and other American stables. It was just a shame that she was rarely given the chance to demonstrate her ability to a wider audience. A Girl Called Dusty shows us what we were missing as a result.

Things start off with Mama Said which, while not the strongest track, displays the power of Dusty’s voice. It isn’t a bad song, and there is a lightness that helps to draw you into the album. If the standard of songs were of this quality throughout, this would be filed under ‘close but no cigar’; good but never achieving brilliance. All that changes with the second song – You Don’t Own Me. Dusty puts her all into a song that could be seen as a cry not just for women’s rights but for those studio executives trying to restrict her musical output. Regardless of the multiple readings, this is an incredible song which shows off the true sound of Springfield. There is a bitterness and anger, but topped with a determination to her vocals which begins to show a rawness that singers like Sam Cooke revealed in their live numbers. From here, we find the wonderful Do-Re-Mi, a fun and sparkling number that Dusty seems to be having a whale of a time singing. There is an infectious quality to her style, matched by the piano solo on this number, that gets you wanting to dance along.

Musically, the next number could easily be sung by a Phil Spector band such as the Crystals; it says something that Dusty is able to emulate any style to fit the tune. While neither When the Lovelight Starts… and the following track, My Colouring Book, are not among my favourites, that isn’t to say they aren’t any good and Dusty continues to display her seemingly limitless talent. In fact, she puts her all into My Colouring Book, giving a sense of loss and hurt in her voice. Mockingbird also seems out of place here; much like the opening number, it’s a good song yet seems too light for Dusty’s voice and ability.

With her version of Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa, we are back on track. It is always something special when you hear a song which has been completely owned by another singer being performed by someone else and sounding better; it’s certainly the case here. Gene Pitney may have had the bigger hit with his take on this, but it is Dusty who gives a definitive version. You can sense the pain at making the decision to leave her lover for another man. Her brilliant performance of Anyone Who Had a Heart is equally powerful, displaying emotion in her voice that tells more than the words alone. While the tempo of Will You Love Me Tomorrow? is the faster speed, rather than superior slower version as performed by Carole King on Tapestry, it still manages to sound good. Rounding off the album is the light pop of Wishin’ and Hopin’ and the sexy Don’t You Know, a fantastic ending number that allows Dusty to let loose, screams and shouts included.

Artists are too often pigeon holed into a genre which they aren’t suited; A Girl Called Dusty shows what happens when they are given permission to push into a style they prefer. Dusty had the talent and voice of an incredible soul singer; while she was given more scope to explore this with Dusty in Memphis, her debut album revealed a passionate and gifted singer. It may not see her at her creative peak, but it nonetheless stands head and shoulders above most albums not just of 1964 but in the five decades since. A joyous treat and a must-listen album – a truly exceptional release.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Girl Called Dusty here:


Next time: The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones