#78 from gm
The Advocate * April 27, 1999
The secret life of Dusty Springfield
She gave herself completely to her music and to the women she loved. She was our diva. This is her story.
Dusty Springfield loved maps. She liked to curl up in bed with an atlas and could follow a road map with a navigator's elan. "She was a good person to be lost with," her longtime friend and manager Vicki Wickham has said. Perhaps the certainty of maps, with their solid boundaries and clearly marked destinations, comforted a woman who had to carve her own path through the pop-music jungle for nearly 40 years. The fact that she loved women only made the road more dangerous. In the music world of the 1960s — let alone that of the '70s and '80s — there were no k.d. langs, Janis Ians, or Melissa Etheridges.
Potent proof of how hard it was to live a gay life during Dusty's heyday is the fact that although several of her female lovers talked to us for this article, only one allowed herself to be named. Those who loved Dusty grew up, as she did, in a world where it was too risky to be honest about one's sexuality. Nevertheless, they feel it's important now that she be remembered fully, as the woman she was and not just the woman we saw. Dusty Springfield took risks at every turn — in the naked emotion of her singing, in her insistence on exploring a vast landscape of musical styles, and in her decision to speak openly about being bisexual long before it was chic. When she died of breast cancer on March 2 at age 59, the world lost an artistic and social pioneer as well as one of its most beloved voices. "As a child listening to the radio, I was taken by surprise when a sexy, husky woman's voice came out," Melissa Etheridge tells The Advocate. "`Son of a Preacher Man' is one of the steamiest, coolest songs ever sung by a woman. She will be missed." Janis Ian felt an even closer connection. "Dusty recorded my song `In the Winter,' and from that moment on I felt I'd never be able to do the piece justice again," she recalls. "Dusty killed when she sang. There aren't many singers you would beg to do your material, but Dusty was one of them. It's one of the prouder moments in my life, hearing her sing my song."
Born Irish Catholic on April 16, 1939, in north London's Hampstead, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien was the convent-educated child of an accountant, Gerard, and his wife, Kay. Her father loved piano music, from Beethoven to Jelly Roll Morton, and would quiz Mary and her older brother, Dion, on matters melodious. "What was that tune I just played? . . . What song am I tapping out on the back of your hand?" By age 11, Mary had done her first amateur recording, showing already impressive pipes as she belted out Irving Berlin's "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam." A year after high school, in 1961, she found her first big success with the Springfields, a group her brother formed. Mary and Dion became Dusty and Tom. Their folkish started making hits on both sides of the Atlantic. "We were pseudo-everything, and we knew it," said Dusty. "We just sang very fast and very cheerfully."
On the strength of their American hit "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," the Springfields were invited to record in Nashville. On that trip Dusty also visited New York City and, passing by Colony Records on Broadway (next to the famous Brill Building), she heard the Exciters singing the lyric "I know something about love," from "Tell Him." "It got me by the throat," Dusty remembered. It helped convince her to go solo in the fall of 1963 and follow her real bliss — American R&B. To accompany her new sound, she adopted a bouffant blond (her natural color was reddish), kohl-lidded look — a synthesis of British mod, French Vogue, R&B diva, Kim Novak, and drag queen. Her high-camp style, complete with awkward but endearing gestures and dance steps, still sends shivers down gay and lesbian spines. First there's the drag contingent. "I worship Dusty," New York drag empress Lady Bunny says breathily. True, Dusty was not quite like other drag icons. Most drag queens maintain that they learned to dress from glamorous women. Dusty, on the other hand, said she learned to dress from drag queens. Blond, bewigged Bunny is a case in point. People think she copied Dusty's look, but Bunny demurs. "I thought I was copying Sharon Tate," she says, laughing. "It just came out like Dusty." For other gay men Dusty's appeal goes much deeper. "I think anybody who dismisses Dusty as camp has missed the entire point," says Earl Marona Jr., a New York marketing consultant and major Dusty fan who has combed the Continent for hard-to-find releases to complete his CD and vinyl collection. "Her voice is so authentic, so unbelievably honest and real. And then on top of that she layered on all this delicious artifice, all this glamour and drama. Sure, gay men enjoy the '60s glamour, but they're responding to something that's much more real and authentic underneath."
Dusty's authenticity was an instant hit with her first single, the timelessly infectious "I Only Want to Be With You," and over the next seven years graced British and American charts with such songs as "Wishin' and Hopin'," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and "The Look of Love." Five times named England's top female singer, she had her own TV show as well. Dusty was a definitive interpreter of the great American songwriters of the day — Randy Newman, Goffin and King, Bacharach and David — and onstage and on vinyl she amazingly mixed girl-power pop with big-band jazz, Italian ballads, bossa nova, and, most stunningly, renditions of R&B gems. British singer Cliff Richard rather perjoratively dubbed her "the white Negress" but missed the essence of her homage to that music.
Indeed, it was Dusty who introduced Motown to England, hosting a seminal Ready, Steady, Go! special that featured the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes — and Martha and the Vandellas, whom Dusty got to know in 1964, when she traveled to New York to do a mostly Motown holiday show at the Brooklyn Fox theater. The girl singers from opposite sides of the pond formed a joyful camaraderie that included swapping professional services. "The Vandellas ... did the backup for Marvin Gaye from the wings," recalls Dusty in Bravo Profiles: Dusty Springfield, which airs repeatedly on the cable network. "On the first show [at 10 A.M.] there was always one who'd overslept, who wasn't there. So I got to be the third Vandella, and that, to this day, is the biggest thrill of my life." "She carved a subtle, uncompromising niche for herself and for blue-eyed soul artists that followed merely by exposing her passion, intelligence, and empathy in her craft and respectfully submitting her contribution in the midst of the brilliant black musical gods that loomed about her," noted Greg Lyle-Newton, program director of Seattle classic-soul station KSRB-AM. "That took guts." It took even more guts to perform in South Africa in December 1964, a time when apartheid kept most artists away. Dusty, however, used a legal loophole to play before mixed audiences — she refused to play before segregated ones. After a show in Cape Town, the racist government made her leave the country.
As Dusty began to know world politics firsthand, she also began to know something about love. Her two great passions mixed: The women she loved were often musicians whose talent she admired. She had a relationship with an African-American soul singer with whom she worked in England and in 1966 began a five-year cohabitation with an American folk-rock singer who met Dusty while touring in England. Springfield's unwillingness to compromise her love life — even as she tried to keep it private was as radical at the time as her political gestures. This was, after all, pre-Stonewall, pre-feminism, and pre-glam rock. According to a former lover (who remained a dear friend), Dusty wasn't conflicted by her sexuality per se but by the public response to it. "I'm sure she didn't think about it at all until it was a constant question [from the British press]," says Dusty's onetime love. "She was looking for the same thing we're all looking for — warmth, acceptance, total unconditional love. She had the capacity to love deeply. Watch the TV shows, listen to her songs. She was really just a lover of the world, and she wanted love back."
Unfailingly honest in her singing, Dusty probably wanted to be as honest about her life, so in 1970, career be damned, she gave a notorious interview to Ray Connolly in London's Evening Standard. "She purposely pushed me into giving her the chance to `come out,'" Connolly wrote in the March 4 Daily Mail after Springfield's passing. "She was very brave, possibly foolhardy . . . I suspect she was actually relieved to have finally confronted the gossip." Said Dusty to Connolly back then: "There's one thing that's always annoyed me, and I'm going to get into something nasty here. But I've got to say it because so many people say it to my face. A lot of people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learned to accept it . . . Girls run after me a lot, and it doesn't upset me. It upsets me when people insinuate things that aren't true. I couldn't stand to be thought to be a big butch lady. But I know I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way, and I don't see why I shouldn't.... Being a pop star, I shouldn't even admit that I might think that way."
Three years later she gave an even more wrenching explanation of her sexuality in a soul-baring interview-cum-therapy session with Chris Van Ness of the Los Angeles Free Press: "I mean, people say that I'm gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I'm not anything. I'm just ... People are people.... I basically want to be straight.... I go from men to women; I don't give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can't love a man. Now, that's my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition.... They frighten me." People who knew Dusty say she was gay, but she obviously detested both the label and the stigma. One might surmise that her ambition was not necessarily to love a man but to be accepted for — or at least left alone about — loving women. Not that she let her private conflicts get in the way of her wild streak and her open love affair with her gay fans. In his March 4 obituary in Britain's tabloid The Mirror, Anton Antonowicz recalled that years ago Dusty received a stern rebuke from the royal family after a charity performance before Princess Margaret. "The place was packed with Dusty's gay following. `It's nice to see the royalty isn't confined to the box,' she told the assembled queens. Margaret wasn't amused" and "turned her back on Dusty at the after-show party. Then she sent her a letter containing a typewritten apology for insulting the queen, which Dusty had to sign and return."
By the time she gave the Van Ness interview, Springfield had left England and moved to Los Angeles. Her career had shifted westward after she recorded her 1969 masterpiece in Tennessee (Dusty in Memphis, with its hit single, "Son of a Preacher Man") and its soulful follow-up in Philadelphia (A Brand New Me). But while living in Los Angeles she seemed to misplace her atlas, maps, and all sense of personal geography. America had seemed like a dream to her, but it bred nightmares too. "It was very, very good to me and very, very bad to me," she would later say. Much of her muddling in the '70s was probably caused simply by the reality of being a woman in the music industry of that time. No longer a "girl" and a song interpreter rather than a writer, she was dependent on managers and producers to come up with the right setting and material for her. In England she'd pretty much produced herself — "She heard everything," praises her former lover — but her work was uncredited. Female producers were still a rare breed, and the perfectionism that was praised in men branded an intelligent, opinionated woman like Dusty "difficult." The albums she put out during the '70s all have sterling moments, but she was now slotted in an "adult contemporary" box that couldn't contain her talent.
Perhaps because she was denied an outlet creatively, perhaps because her lifelong fears and inadequacies were catching up with her, Dusty began seriously to abuse drugs and alcohol. Soon she found herself caught in an alcoholic haze that's still all too familiar to gays and lesbians torn between the closet and the need to live their own true lives. "When I knew Dusty, unfortunately, she was a mess," says a lesbian business owner in Los Angeles who had a brief affair with her. "She was a very fragile, brilliant, special person — the sweetest, nicest person you could ever know. But she was also the most insecure person who ever lived. She was drinking, using, and slitting her wrists. She was so vulnerable." Like many a single lesbian in the '70s, she seems to have had lots of lovers — a fact Springfield herself copped to in a 1978 interview with The Advocate. "I had never, from the age of 16, been out to dinner with anyone," she confessed. "I thought you just went to bed with people." For a while she developed an interest in the women's tennis tour and perhaps in a tennis player — although Rosie Casals, with whom she's been linked, was quoted in the March 7 Mail on Sunday as saying they were "extremely close friends, but not lovers." Dusty even married one of her lovers, a flamboyant singer-actress, in the late '70s at a backyard wedding in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley. The "best lady" that day remembers that Dusty wore a formal wedding gown (the other bride wore a pants outfit with a gold vest and long tie) and ran around complimenting people. "Oh, everyone is so dashing," she'd say in her heart-melting English lilt. Dusty was trying to stay sober at the time, so those who wanted to drink would surreptitiously retrieve a bottle of Jack Daniels that hung from a rope outside the bathroom window. "Everything seemed happy and peaceful that day," says the best lady. Unfortunately, the partnership turned sour and even threatening. In later years Dusty, candid as always, would admit to having been in an abusive relationship.
In 1981 Springfield relocated for six months to Toronto, home of a new love, singer-songwriter Carole Pope. Pope and Kevan Staples were the cornerstones of the Toronto band Rough Trade, whose music was "humorous and sexual and stark, with an R&B influence," according to Pope. At the time, they were managed by Vicki Wickham, a friend of Dusty's since 1963 and her manager from 1985 until the end, and it was she who set up Pope with Springfield while Dusty was performing in New York City. "I went backstage to see her, and we just started talking in stupid English accents," recalls Pope. It was a perfect way to connect with Springfield, a basically shy person who nonetheless had a sparkling, self-deprecating sense of humor and loved to put on "goonish" voices a la Peter Sellers or Monty Python. "I remember thinking, She's totally not my type. She's so over-the-top in what she's wearing, but she's so charming," says Pope. "The other big reason I was attracted to Dusty was because my mother had died two years before, and she was also a blond Englishwoman. It wasn't obvious then, but it sure is now." Their first real date was in Montreal, where Dusty was performing, and their second was a trip to London and Amsterdam, where Dusty was doing a TV show. "It was surreal," says Pope of the jet-set romance. "I realized what a diva she was [frequently late, overly concerned with her appearance in public] and how out of control she was, but for some reason I was mesmerized."
During the course of their relationship, Dusty was preparing her eclectic and sometimes overtly sexual White Heat album. Pope and Staples contributed two cuts, most prominently the boozy, Kurt Weill-styled "Soft Core." But by the time Dusty returned to Los Angeles to record White Heat, she and Pope were breaking up. It had been a tumultuous affair, with Springfield still drinking (and Pope joining in), but there had been lots of laughs and wonderful moments as well. "I will tell you one of my most intimate memories of Dusty," says Pope. "I got her to sing to me in bed, and that was like — my God — ecstasy. I remember making her sing `Breakfast in Bed.'" White Heat went nowhere, chartwise, and wasn't even released in Great Britain. Over the next few years Springfield wondered if she'd even record again. Then the gay-identified-but-not-yet-out Pet Shop Boys called and asked Dusty to sing with them on "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Not only did Nell Tennant and Chris Lowe adore Dusty's voice, but they also innately understood how to showcase it. The record soared to number 2 on both sides of the Atlantic and restarted Springfield's career. Tennant and Lowe also contributed several songs to Springfield's next album, Reputation, which was well-received in Europe but wasn't released in the States. Song titles such as "Nothing Has Been Proved" and "Born This Way" along with lyrics such as "Who cares what they're whispering, whispering, whispering" ("Reputation") and "What you're gonna say in private / What you're gonna do in public" ("In Private") were perfectly attuned to the secret side of Dusty's life.
By that time Springfield had finally found steady sobriety. She'd also found a male she could truly love — her cat Nicholas (she'd become quite the rescuer of strays in Los Angeles). She loved him and female feline Malaysia so much, in fact, that when she moved back to Europe in 1990, she first spent time in Amsterdam rather than kennel her pets to meet British quarantine requirements. When Malaysia later was killed by a car, Dusty dedicated Reputation to her, writing, "May the great litter box in the sky have room for us all." Dusty's final album, the Nashville-recorded A Very Fine Love, reflects a wiser, more grounded woman at midlife. Sadly, just as she finished recording it in 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and its release was delayed while she underwent treatment. When Dusty finally was able to promote it in England in 1995 — confident that she had beaten the disease — she seemed comfortable with her music, her appearance, and her choices. "It used to be said of me, `Oh, she needs to be a star,'" she told Scotland on Sunday in June 1995. "Well, once I did. But although I still need to exercise my creativity, it's no longer a case of needing to be loved, hoping to be adored, being desperate to hear that applause. If I never heard it again, I think I'd still be fine."
Meanwhile, magically, Dusty's star was rising again. Hip young directors had begun to spike their films with her classic vocals. To her surprise and delight, Pulp Fiction, the monster 1994 hit in which Uma Thurman sniffed coke to "Son of a Preacher Man," earned Dusty her first platinum record. It must have seemed like a good omen — a glimpse of a bright future in which, fully recovered in mind and body, she would share her gift with a new generation of fans. Instead, the cancer returned in 1996 and settled in her bones. Once describing herself to Carole Pope as being as sturdy as a Shetland Pony, Dusty figured again that, with her Irish gumption, she could beat it. "Once she knew it was going to be a horrific fight, she fought harder," said her longtime friend Sue Cameron. "She never gave up because she loved life so much. Until two weeks before her death, she was still regaling nurses and doctors with her sense of humor."
In her final months the honors, belated but still heart-stirring, even to a practiced cynic like Springfield, began to pour in. "Dusty was unbelievably delighted by all the honors," says Cameron. She received her Order of the British Empire award in her hospital room, brought to her in a Fortnum & Mason bag from the palace by Wickham. "We had a few people in to watch her get it — nurses, doctors, and people she knew," Wickham told The Guardian. "She was in great spirits and thrilled to bits." Dusty couldn't quite hang in there for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however; she died just 13 days before she was inducted into its ranks at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria. Elton John gave her induction speech, and Melissa Etheridge sang a sultry version of "Son of a Preacher Man" — a proudly out-of-the-closet lesbian singing about "the only boy who could ever teach me" in honor of a woman who was required by convention to sing covertly about her real-life loves.
At her funeral in Henley-on-Thames, England, the last of her many destinations, her casket was brought to the church by a horse-drawn carriage as she had requested, and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" was playing as it was carried into St. Mary the Virgin Church. Eulogies were read by Lulu, Elvis Costello, Nona Hendryx, and Neil Tennant, who said, "I think Dusty would have been amazed and moved to learn how much she means to people." "It was so intense," says Carole Pope, who was one of an estimated 300 mourners in the church. "The whole town was out in the street crying. It was a Princess Di kind of thing. If only she'd known how loved she was, 'cause she never quite knew that." Afterward Mary O'Brien/Dusty Springfield would be cremated, and her ashes spread in a beloved place in Ireland. No more maps would be needed. She would be home.