A few months ago I walked into the Rolling Stone office and palely inquired if the journal might possibly be interested in a review of the then-new Dusty Springfield album. Blank stares and a few snickers. Today, Jackie De Shannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” is one of the day’s events on AM radio and I still dig Dusty in Memphis.
Dusty started out with a nice little rocker called “I Only Want to Dance With You,” her first hit, riding in on the heels of Beatle boots in 1964, and then scored with, some of us anyway, a monster, “Wishin’ and Hopin.'” As opposed to Leslie Gore’s great single, “You Don’t Own Me,” Dusty’s song was the ultimate anti-Women’s Liberation ballad: “Wear your hair, just for him …” We used to turn it up loud on double-dates. Dusty had this way with words, a soft, sensual box (voice) that allowed her to combine syllables until they turned into pure cream. “AnIvrything’inboutH’greeeaaate true love is …” And then a couple of years later she hit the top with “The Look of Love” and seemed destined to join that crowd of big-bosomed, low-necked lady singers that play what Lenny Bruce called “the class rooms” and always encore with “Born Free.”
It didn’t happen, and Dusty in Memphis is the reason why. This album was constructed with the help of some of the best musicians in Memphis and with the use of superb material written by, among others, Jerry Goffin & Carol King, Randy Newman, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Now Dusty is not a soul singer, and she makes no effort to “sound black” — rather she is singing songs that ordinarily would have been offered by their writers to black vocalists. Most of the songs, then, have a great deal of depth while presenting extremely direct and simple statements about love. Unlike Aretha, who takes possession of whatever she does, Dusty sings around her material, creating music that’s evocative rather than overwhelming. Listening to this album will not change your life, but it’ll add to it.
There are three hits on this LP, and they are representative of the rest of it. “Son of a Preacher Man” is as down-home as Dusty gets; it has an intro that’s funky, a vocal that’s almost dirty. The bass gives the song presence and Dusty doesn’t have to strain to carry it off. No one has topped her version of this yet and no one’s likely to. “Don’t Forget About Me” is to my ears the best cut here — it opens with a counterpoint between bass and vibrating guitar that’s tremendously exciting, and then Dusty enters, her voice almost like another instrument. The song picks up Gene Chrisman’s woodblock and the Sweet Inspirations and it’s a fast race home. Piano cues Reggie Young’s sizzling guitar (and it’s a crime that Atlantic mixed Young down from the version used on the single) toward the end, and it’s his show from then on. Better musicianship is not to be found, and I include Dusty as one of those musicians.
Finally, there’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” a slick song that served as the soundtrack for the slickest movie of recent years, The Thomas Crown Affair. The rest of the album falls somewhere in between this cut and the other hits, but not to be missed are superb versions of “No Easy Way Down,” “So Much Love,” and “Just a Little Lovin.'”
Most white female singers in today’s music are still searching for music they can call their own. Dusty is not searching — she just shows up, and she, and we, are better for it.