On March 31st, 1969, 50 years ago this weekend, Americans got their first chance to hear Dusty in Memphis, the new album by British singer Dusty Springfield and her first after signing with the powerful R&B-centric Atlantic Records. Although the early Sixties afforded her hits “I Only Want to Be With You,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” significant airplay stateside, her albums didn’t sell or chart well in the U.S. And, even though its title held the promise of the beautiful Brit with the seductively dusky voice landing on their home turf, Americans only bought enough copies of the LP to get it to Number 99 on the Billboard chart.
The album’s most enduring track, however, is likely responsible for the album’s current status as one of the greatest of all time. In a late 1969 Rolling Stone review, in which writer Greil Marcus proclaimed, “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.” Although he pegged “Don’t Forget About Me” as the record’s best cut, Marcus noted that with its funky intro and “almost dirty” vocal, “Son of a Preacher Man” was “as down-home as Dusty gets.”
Initially pitched to Aretha Franklin, who passed, “Son of a Preacher Man” would become the track most identified with Dusty in Memphis and with Springfield herself. Although Franklin would eventually record it, as did many other artists, each version that has been released owes a great debt to Springfield’s remarkable original, which reached an entirely new audience after it was heard in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
In country music, versions of the song have been minor hits for Peggy Little, Bobbi Lace and, in 2004, Sherrié Austin. Tanya Tucker included it on her self-titled 1975 LP, and others who cut it closer to its original release include Jan Howard, Skeeter Davis and Bobbie Gentry. In April 1996, Dolly Parton, between her albums Something Special and Treasures, appeared on the Tonight Show for an interview segment with host Jay Leno and a performance slot with a band that included backing vocalist Alison Krauss.
Parton’s Treasures was entirely devoted to songs by other artists whom she admired and didn’t contain any of her original material. As such, it’s thought that “Son of a Preacher Man” was being considered for — and even possibly recorded for — that album. However, no official recording of “Son of a Preacher Man” by Parton has ever been released. As the granddaughter of a Church of God preacher, Parton’s catalog does include songs inspired by him and by other men of the cloth, but this one, as it relates more to Parton’s flirtatious and free-spirited nature than religion, is a natural fit. During her 2011 Better Day Tour, she featured it in the set, playing a saxophone on the song as well.
Dusty Springfield died in 1999 at 59 after battling breast cancer. Eleven days later she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.