When Dusty Springfield, OBE, passed away in March 1999, in time-honored fashion, reissues and compilations of her work began to appear. Beautiful Soul might at first seem to be just another timely release by a cynical record company, but from a fan’s perspective, there’s a lot more to this album than a spot of post-mortem cashing-in.
Beautiful Soul features material recorded by Dusty Springfield in the early ‘70s for the American ABC/Dunhill label and it will no doubt please long-time devotees on two counts. For starters, it marks the first CD repackaging of her long-out-of-print 1973 gem Cameo. More importantly, though, Beautiful Soul brings together for the first time nine tracks recorded in 1974 that were to have been included on Longing, her unreleased follow-up to Cameo.
In 1972, the queen of so-called blue-eyed soul left her native London for Los Angeles. Although this enabled her to realize childhood dreams of living in California, there was also a pragmatic dimension to the move since it would permit her to concentrate on the US side of her career. Springfield had enjoyed enormous solo success in America since her 1964 hits with “I Only Want to Be with You” and Bacharach and David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, but by the end of the decade her status had begun to diminish.
With the benefit of hindsight, this decline in popularity seems supremely ironic. In 1969 Springfield had released Dusty in Memphis, an album that, arguably, still stands as the most accomplished fusion of pop and soul by a British female artist. In its own time, however, it didn’t make a significant impact on the charts and, following the commercial disappointment of the critically acclaimed A Brand New Me (1970), Springfield’s prospects at the start of a new decade did not seem promising.
Having signed to the ABC/Dunhill label, Springfield began recording Cameo in Los Angeles during the summer of 1972. The in-vogue duo Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter—who were also overseeing the post-Motown career of the Four Tops—produced the album and penned five of its twelve tracks. With its big orchestral pop-soul configurations of strings, horns, and female backing vocals, Cameo is very much of its time. Although that sound has certainly become hip again in a kitschy way and as fodder for pastiche trip-hop renderings, history hasn’t looked favorably on the kind of lushness that characterizes much of Cameo.
But while, for the most part, such arrangements haven’t traveled particularly well beyond the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, on Cameo Springfield’s unique vocal sensibility invests the proceedings with a measure of timelessness, in much the same way as Scott Walker’s inimitable vocal authority conferred eternal cool on his own exercises in symphonic pop.
In places, Lambert and Potter bring a more explicitly Motown feel to Cameo. This manifests itself most of all on the up-tempo Ashford and Simpson number “I Just Wanna Be There,” which could be a Jackson 5 song if you ignore Springfield’s vocals (which of course you can’t).
The album’s dual highlights are the plaintive “Who Gets Your Love” and a majestic version of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” that evokes the legendary sound of Dusty in Memphis. In both cases, amid the lush arrangements, Springfield’s voice emerges in all its husky sweet glory as the most affecting instrument of all.
Despite its positive critical reception, Cameo sold poorly. And although “Tupelo Honey” was the obvious candidate for a single, Dunhill released “Who Gets Your Love” and “Learn to Say Goodbye”, neither of which was a hit. Years later, Springfield herself commented that her lack of input regarding matters such as single selection was symptomatic of a larger lack of creative control that she experienced during the making of Cameo.
That loss of control also translated to Springfield’s personal life. She was feeling progressively alienated in Los Angeles and her dream of California was turning sour as she became increasingly mired in drugs, drink, and self-doubt. Sadly, the projected follow-up album, Longing, was never released. Although the cover art was completed, a catalogue number was assigned, and advertisements were run in Billboard in late 1974, the album was ultimately shelved. Popular accounts suggest it was nixed in equal measure by Dunhill, who were reticent to release it owing to the relative failure of its predecessor, and by Springfield’s inability to finish it, owing to her personal problems. (Subsequently, Springfield disappeared into the wilderness of the mid-‘70s, reappearing in 1978 with It Begins Again.)
The sessions for Longing began in New York in July 1974 with producer Brooks Arthur. Arthur was familiar with Springfield and her work, having been a studio engineer on her Philips sessions eight years earlier, and for this project he felt that more introspective singer-songwriter material would provide an ideal context for her talents to shine.
While the numbers recorded for Longing might not rank alongside Springfield’s truly memorable songs, they nevertheless attest to her unparalleled ability to inhabit others’ material and to inscribe it with emotional depth and complexity. Outstanding in that regard are her version of Chi Coltrane’s “Turn Me Around” and her beautifully dramatic rendition of Janis Ian’s “In the Winter”. Equally compelling are her treatments of Colin Blunstone’s “Exclusively for Me” and Barry Manilow’s “I Am Your Child.” (Manilow himself contributes piano to the track.)
Remarkably, while some of the tracks from the Longing sessions were in fact unfinished, that’s not immediately apparent. For example, it’s hard to tell that the vocals on the joyous rendering of “A Love Like Yours”—first recorded by Martha & the Vandellas, whom Springfield had championed in Britain a decade earlier—are from a rehearsal version.
Being a consummate perfectionist, Dusty Springfield would probably not have considered the songs gathered on Beautiful Soul as her greatest achievements. Certainly, Cameo and Longing don’t reach the dizzy heights of Dusty in Memphis, but to these mortal ears, much of this material sounds wonderful. This is especially true of the tracks from Longing, which, for the most part, are well worth the nearly 30-year wait.
(Note for the completists: Reworked versions of “A Love Like Yours” and “Turn Me Around” appeared on It Begins Again and “I Am Your Child” was included on the b-side of the 1977 single “Let Me Love You Once Before You Go”. The four-CD box-set, Simply Dusty (2000), featured “Exclusively for Me”, “Turn Me Around”, “In the Winter”, and “Home to Myself” from the Longing sessions.)