Biography of Dusty Springfield, British Soul Singer
Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien; April 16, 1939 – March 2, 1999) was the foremost female British blue-eyed soul singer of her generation. She traveled to the U.S. for the landmark album Dusty in Memphis. She is a member of both the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame.
Fast Facts: Dusty Springfield
- Full Name: Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien
- Known As: Dusty Springfield
- Occupation: Singer
- Born: April 16, 1939 in Enfield, England
- Died: March 2, 1999 in Henley-on-Thames, England
- Top Songs: “Son of a Preacher Man,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “I Only Want to Be With You”
- Famous Quote: “I wouldn’t know how to handle serenity if someone handed it to me on a plate.”
Early Life and Career
Born to a music-loving family in Enfield, England, Dusty Springfield attended a Catholic girls’ school. Her father, Gerard O’Brien, was an accountant raised in British India, and her mother, Catherine O’Brien, grew up in an Irish family in Tralee, Ireland. Her older brother, Dionysius, later became known as Tom Springfield.
Young Mary O’Brien earned the nickname “Dusty” due to her reputation as a tomboy who liked to play football with boys in her neighborhood. She recorded herself singing for the first time at age 12. She sang the Irving Berlin song “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam” at a local record store.
In her late teen years, Dusty Springfield performed in folk clubs with her brother Tom. In 1958, she auditioned to be part of the group the Lana Sisters. (They were not actual sisters.) The trio toured throughout England and appeared on national TV shows. Springfield’s experience with live performances and experimentation with fashion and makeup influenced her future turn as a solo pop star.
After leaving the Lana Sisters in 1960, Springfield formed the folk-pop trio The Springfields with her brother Tom and Reshad Feild. They performed under the stage names Dusty, Tom, and Tim Springfield. The group found success on the national pop charts: their single “Island of Dreams” was an international hit and peaked at #5 on the U.K. pop singles chart, and they climbed to #20 in the U.S. with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”—the highest position a British group had ever reached on the U.S. charts at that time. The trio traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to record an authentic American folk album Folk Songs from the Hills.
Solo Artist and Pop Star
Eager to choose her own artistic direction, Dusty Springfield decided to leave The Springfields in late 1963 and embark on a solo career. Released in November 1963, Dusty’s first single, “I Only Want to Be With You,” hit stores just three weeks after The Springfields performed their farewell concert. Using a production style similar to the Phil Spector Wall of Sound technique, the song was a smash hit that surpassed the success of the former trio. The song reached #4 on the U.K. pop singles chart and #12 in the U.S.
Springfield’s first top 10 hit in the U.S. came in 1964 with her recording of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” By the end of the year, she earned recognition as one of the bestselling female recording artists in the world.
At the 1965 San Remo Italian Song Festival, Dusty Springfield competed but failed to make the final. However, she heard the song “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” performed live and said that it moved her to tears, even though she didn’t understand any of the words. A year later, she recorded and released an English-language version of the song titled “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” It was a #1 smash in the U.K. and a top 10 pop hit around the world including in the U.S.
In the mid-1960s, Springfield played a crucial role in introducing the Motown Sound to the U.K. She helped engineer the first U.K. television performances by The Temptations, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder on the hit show Ready, Steady, Go! in 1965. Throughout her career, American R&B music influenced Springfield’s sound. Aretha Franklin was one of her top musical heroes.
Dusty in Memphis
By the late 1960s, Springfield’s commercial success began to fade. She tried a contemporary jazz-influenced sound with marginally popular results. Echoing her trip with The Springfields early in the decade, she traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in the U.S. to record an R&B album. She signed a contract with Atlantic Records, the label home to Aretha Franklin among many other top American R&B artists.
The result of Springfield’s trip was the album Dusty in Memphis. She worked with legendary producers Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd, and Jerry Wexler. Among the musicians who appear on the recording are the backup singing group Sweet Inspirations and backing studio band the Memphis Cats. During the recording sessions, Springfield suggested that the Atlantic Records executives sign the newly formed British rock group Led Zeppelin. Based largely on her recommendation, the group received an unprecedented $200,000 signing bonus.
The first release from the Dusty in Memphis sessions was the single “Son of a Preacher Man” released in late 1968. It soon became one of Springfield’s signature songs, reaching the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the album itself failed to sell well. It peaked at #99 on the U.S. album chart and failed to chart in the U.K.
The reputation of Dusty in Memphis has grown tremendously since its 1969 release. In fact, the album is now recognized as Springfield’s finest moment and a pop music landmark. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001 and recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 100 albums of all time.
In the 1970s and 1980s, alcohol and drug addiction took a toll on Springfield’s career. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized multiple times for self-harm incidents. However, she continued to record and release albums. While her commercial success was minimal, she continued to experiment with her sound, releasing music influenced by new wave music in the early 1980s.
In 1987, Dusty agreed to appear as a guest vocalist on the song “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys. It was a huge worldwide hit, reaching #2 on the pop charts in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Springfield experienced a brief resurgence in U.S. popularity after “What Have I Done to Deserve This.” Her 1990 album Reputation was the first to reach the U.K. top 20 since the early 1970s. Critics lauded it as some of her finest work.
Death and Legacy
In 1994, Dusty Springfield became sick and received breast cancer diagnosis while recording her final album, A Very Fine Love. After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, doctors declared the cancer in remission. Springfield released the album in 1995. In mid-1996, the cancer returned, and she died on March 2, 1999.
Springfield was one of the first British pop artists to find significant success on the U.S. pop charts, preceding the Beatles by a few months in the early 1960s. Critics agree that Springfield’s voice was a unique instrument. Heavily influenced by American R&B, it had a trademark sense of vulnerability and longing. She blazed a new trail for female pop stars by constantly stretching the boundaries of her music and taking control of her own artistic direction.