A long-standing critical favourite but sadly neglected by the mass public from the early 70s until the end of the 80s, the career of the greatest white soul/pop singer the UK has ever produced was a turbulent one. Formerly referred to as 'the White Negress', Springfield began as a member of the cloying pop trio the Lana Sisters in the 50s, and moved with her brother Tom (Dion O'Brien, b. 2 July 1934, Hampstead, London, England), and Tim Field into the Springfields, one of Britain's top pop/folk acts of the early 60s. During the Merseybeat boom, she took a bold step by going solo. Her debut in late 1963 with 'I Only Want To Be With You' (the first ever song performed on the long-running UK television programme Top Of The Pops) removed any doubts the previously shy convent girl may have had; this jaunty, endearing song is now a classic of 60s pop. She joined the swinging London club scene and became a familiar icon for teenage girls, with her famous beehive blonde hairstyle and her dark 'panda' eye make-up. Over the next three years Springfield was constantly in the bestselling singles chart with a string of unforgettable hits, and consistently won the top female singer award in the UK, beating off stiff opposition from Lulu, Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw. During this time she campaigned unselfishly on behalf of the then little-known black American soul, R&B and Motown Records artists; her mature taste in music differentiated her from many of her contemporaries. Her commitment to black music carried over into her tour of South Africa in 1964, when she played in front of a mixed audience and was immediately deported.
Springfield's early albums were strong sellers, although they now appear to have been rushed works. Her own doubts about the finished product at the time, showed her up to be a fussy perfectionist. Three decades later it is clear that she was absolutely correct, they could have been perfected with more time, and her own high artistic standards would have been satisfied. Her pioneering choice of material by great songwriters such as Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Randy Newman and Carole King was exemplary. The orchestral arrangements by Ivor Raymonde and Johnny Franz, however, often drowned Springfield's voice, and her vocals sometimes appeared thin and strained owing to insensitive production. She made superb cover versions of classics such as 'Mockingbird', 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', 'Wishin' And Hopin", 'La Bamba', and 'Who Can I Turn To'. Her worldwide success came when her friend Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell added English words to the Italian hit 'lo Che Non Vivo (Senzate)', thereby creating 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me'. This million-selling opus became her sole UK chart-topper in 1966. At the end of a turbulent year she had an altercation with temperamental jazz drummer Buddy Rich, with whom she was scheduled to play at New York's prestigious Basin Street East club. The music press reported that she had pushed a pie in his face, but years later Springfield revealed the true story; the often outspoken Rich was allegedly resentful at not receiving top billing and caused difficulties when she asked to rehearse her show with the (his) band. Rich was heard to respond 'you fucking broad, who do you think you fucking are, bitch"'; Springfield retaliated by punching him in the face.
By the end of the following year (1967), she was becoming disillusioned with the showbusiness carousel on which she found herself trapped. She appeared out of step with the summer of love and its attendant psychedelic music. Her BBC television series attracted healthy viewing figures, but it was anathema to the sudden change in the pop scene. The comparatively progressive and prophetically titled Where Am I Going" attempted to redress this. Containing a jazzy, orchestrated version of Bobby Hebb's 'Sunny' and Jacques Brel's 'If You Go Away' (English lyrics by Rod McKuen), it was an artistic success but flopped commercially (or, in the words of biographer Lucy O'Brien, was 'released to stunning indifference'). The following year a similar fate awaited the excellent Dusty … Definitely. On this she surpassed herself with her choice of material, from the rolling 'Ain't No Sunshine Since You've Been Gone' to the aching emotion of Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Gonna Rain Today', but her continuing good choice of songs was no longer attracting fans.
In 1968, as Britain was swamped by the progressive music revolution, the uncomfortable split between what was underground and hip, and what was pop and unhip, became prominent. Springfield, well aware that she could be doomed to the variety club chicken-in-a-basket circuit in the UK, departed for Memphis, Tennessee, one of the music capitals of the world, and immediately succeeded in recording a stunning album and her finest work, Dusty In Memphis. The expert production team of Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin were the first people to recognize that her natural soul voice should be placed at the fore, rather than competing with full and overpowering string arrangements. The album remains a classic and one of the finest records of the 60s. The single 'Son Of A Preacher Man' became a major hit, but the album failed in the UK and only reached a derisory number 99 in the US chart. Following this bitter blow, Springfield retreated and maintained a lower profile, although her second album for Atlantic Records, A Brand New Me, was a moderate success. Released in the UK as From Dusty With Love, the Thom Bell/Kenny Gamble-credited production boosted her waning popularity in her homeland, where she still resided, although she spent much of her time in the USA. Cameo, from 1973, exuded class and featured a superlative cover version of Van Morrison's 'Tupelo Honey', but sold little and yielded no hit singles. Springfield had, by this time, disappeared from the charts, and following a veiled admission in an interview with Ray Coleman for London's Evening Standard in 1975 that she was bisexual, moved to Los Angeles. For the next few years she recorded sporadically, preferring to spend her time with friends such as Billie Jean King and to campaign for animal rights (she was an obsessive cat lover). Additionally, she succumbed to pills and alcohol abuse, and even attempted suicide.
Following the release of the inappropriately titled It Begins Again some five years after her previous release, she was propelled towards a comeback, which failed, although the album did garner respectable sales. Notable tracks were the Carole Bayer Sager gem 'I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love', and a Barry Manilow song, 'Sandra', featuring a lyric that addressed chillingly similar events to her own life. The follow-up, Living Without Your Love, was poorly received; it contained an indifferent version of the Miracles' 'You Really Got A Hold On Me'. 'Baby Blue' became a minor hit in 1979 but the comeback was over. Springfield went to ground again, even although one unsuccessful single in 1980, 'Your Love Still Brings Me To My Knees', remains an undiscovered nugget. In the early 80s she relocated to Toronto and resurfaced in 1982 with the energetic, disco-influenced White Heat. Featuring ex-Hookfoot guitarist Caleb Quaye and Nathan East (bass), it was her best album during these musically barren years, yet it failed to gain a release outside the USA. Two years later she duetted with Spencer Davis on Judy Clay and William Bell's 'Private Number', which, although an excellent choice of song, merely served to highlight Davis' limited vocal range. A further attempt to put her in the public eye was orchestrated by club owner Peter Stringfellow in 1985. He contracted her to his record label. After one single, 'Just Like Butterflies', she fluttered out of sight again. Her phoenix-like return towards the end of the 80s was due entirely to Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, who persuaded her to duet with them on their hit single 'What Have I Done To Deserve This"' in 1987. They then wrote the theme for the film Scandal, which Springfield took into the bestsellers; 'Nothing Has Been Proved' was an ideal song, the lyrics cleverly documenting an era that she knew only too well. She followed this with another of their compositions, 'In Private', which, although a lesser song lyrically, became a bigger hit. The subsequent album, Reputation, became her most successful for over 20 years. In the early 90s she moved back from America and for a time resided in the Netherlands with her beloved cats. Having returned to the UK, in 1994 she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. This delayed the release and promotion of her long-awaited new album with Columbia Records. A Very Fine Love arrived in the wake of the single 'Wherever Would I Be'; this Diane Warren big production ballad featured a duet with Daryl Hall. The rest of the album proved that Springfield retained a singing voice that could chill the spine and warm the heart, and with the aid of modern recording techniques she could make any song sound good.
Springfield was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999, too late and too ill to attend. She was also awarded an OBE in the 1999 New Year Honours list, but barely four weeks after receiving the honour at a private gathering in the Royal Marsden Hospital she finally succumbed to cancer. Her greatest asset, in addition to her voice, was her devilish sense of humour and her remarkable ability to recognize a good songwriter; her choice of material over the years was consistently good. A diva who was able to cross over into every gender genre, adored by gays and straights. No female singer has ever commanded such love and respect. 'Unique' can be bestowed upon her with confidence. She was easily the best female vocalist Britain has ever produced, and unlikely to be bettered.
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