Counterbalance No. 103: Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’

Dusty Springfield
Dusty in Memphis

Klinger: Well, here’s a pleasant little surprise for us, Mendelsohn. I’d be willing to bet that when average music fans are asked to consider the most important artists of all time, Dusty Springfield isn’t a name that’s likely to leap to mind. And yet here we are just out of the Great List’s top 100 and here comes her 1969 excursion into soul music, Dusty in Memphis. Of course, most sentient humans are familiar with the album’s primary hit, “Son of a Preacher Man”, but this is also an album that runs deep with great music. At that time, Memphis was pretty near the center of the universe, from the geniuses at Stax to Willie Mitchell over at Hi Records to American Sound Studios, where this album was recorded under the guidance of the masterminds Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd (when you see these three names on the liner notes, it’s generally a very good sign).

Dusty in Memphis is also a masterclass in songwriting, featuring contributions from the likes of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a pre-solo career, way-pre-cartoon music Randy Newman. And it’s all anchored by the understated beauty of Dusty Springfield’s voice, which in and of itself makes this far and away the sexiest album we’re covered to date. No fooling, Mendelsohn, I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a more seductive album thus far in the canon. Your thoughts?

Mendelsohn: Yes, we have finally completed the devil’s trifecta of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I do find it strange that it took us this long to get to the sex part. And Dusty in Memphis is one hell of a sexy album. Looking back over the list I was going to immediately point out Marvin Gaye, but What’s Going On really was more about social change than getting it on. Springfield, on the other hand, is all about the carnal knowledge, which is, well, A-OK in my book. Don’t let me mislead you, I have enjoyed these past couple of weeks with Dusty. She and I get along great, but at the end of the day, I find this record to be a little vanilla. Springfield is so even-keeled, so measured, that despite her sexy material and sensual voice I still feel like this album lacks a certain passion. Where’s the climax, Klinger?

Klinger: I think you’re responsible for your own climax here, Mendelsohn. And actually I’m a little surprised that this album didn’t move you more than it did. Remember those weird detours into trip-hop we kept making during the first 100? Where all of a sudden the music would turn as dry as a martini, and everything came across all swanky and sybaritic and kept looking me over with that cool appraising stare? The roots of that stuff are all right here. You even hear little organ stabs here and there that could have been sampled by Massive Attack or Portishead. Really, too, as we look over the current musical landscape, Dusty in Memphis sets the template for all the Adeles and Duffys and Rumers that are all over the place these days.

And besides, Mendelsohn, it’s not all sexy fun time on this album. I’ve been hitting repeat just about every time I listen to “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore”, one of Randy Newman’s beautifully skewed takes on relationships. It’s so refreshing to hear a pop song about denial and resignation, and it’s a reminder to me that Newman was one of the great songwriters even before he started penning his own curdled ballads about racists and misanthropes (and certainly before he became the go-to guy for singing monsters). But that reflects the level of taste that’s at work all throughout Dusty in Memphis.

Mendelsohn: I like your point about this album being a precursor to trip-hop. When we talked about Portishead, I had asked you to view Dummy through the lens of a soul album. So I guess turnabout is fair play. I came into this record expecting some harder-hitting soul. And maybe that is unfair on my part, expecting something more along the lines of soul from the likes of Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding. With Dusty, the soul is in there but it is tempered by the lush string arrangements that seem to fill every possible space and act as more of a compliment to her sensual singing then they do to set her voice off by itself. I always find myself wanting to turn this record up to get more of her voice, but that just serves to making the backing music even louder, effectively drowning her out. The songs that really work for me, “Just a Little Lovin'”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, and “I Don’t Really Want To Hear It Anymore”, are the songs with a little space that let Springfield’s voice rise above the music—not that the crack musicians that were backing Ms. Dusty don’t deserve full recognition for their excellent work.

Artistic merit and masterclass song writing aside, let’s get to the million dollar question. Is this record here because Springfield took a little bit of a gamble, stepped outside her comfort zone, and recorded a “soul” record? Or am I missing something?

Klinger: Well, it seems to me that this is one of those curious pop paradoxes—or “popadoxes”, as they are generally called. Prior to her move over to Atlantic, Dusty had recorded several albums on the Phillips label, where she’d established herself as a solid pop performer with hits like “I Only Want to Be with You” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”. While she was making those records, though, she was also having a go at Marvin Gaye and Mitty Collier tunes, so her R&B bona fides were coming along quite nicely. It helped, I think, that her arrangements on those tracks had a decidedly British feel, so her voice ended up sounding even bigger in the process.

Upon arriving at American Sound Studios, though, legend has it that Dusty found herself pretty intimidated in the presence of people who were actually friends with Aretha Franklin. So her actual vocals were recorded after the fact in New York City. To my ears, her more restrained approach could be a function of her apprehension. Either way, though, it sets such a distinctive (and not to belabor a point, but seductive) tone that the critics couldn’t help but take notice. That’s been the case since the album first came out in 1969, too.

Mendelsohn: Popadox. That’s gold, Klinger. Trademark that right now, get yourself an infomercial, and sell, sell, sell.

I would still like to hear Dusty’s voice rise above on more occasions, but if the seductive, restrained approach was what set this album apart, who am I to argue? I would like to point out though, that this is one of the rare instances where the main artist had very little to do with the actual creation of this record. All Dusty did was show up and sing, and as you pointed out, she really didn’t do too much of that since she had to re-record the vocals at a later date. She didn’t even have a hand in producing the album, something she had done on her previous albums. For this record, she’s essentially a hired hitter, a paint-by-numbers artist. Granted, she has an awesome brush technique, but still, she didn’t do much else. A true popadox indeed.

Klinger: Well, I don’t think I’d want to be the one to get in the way of guys like Wexler and Dowd when they’re doing their thing. And more to the point I think it’s important to consider that, whether she wrote anything or produced anything or played any instruments, being a singer on the caliber of Dusty Springfield is a rare talent in and of itself. It’s a little like saying that Cecil Fielder wasn’t a great player because all he ever did was hit a crap-ton of home runs—and I’m not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth Cecil Fielder. And regardless of your earlier assessment, vanilla can still be bursting with flavor.

So what’s holding you back, Mendelsohn? Is it the more “adult contemporary” sounds that are somewhat more prevalent on side two? I mean, I know “The Windmills of Your Mind” is the kind of thing that could just as easily appear on an album by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme or Jack Jones, but it’s not without its charms in a kind of swingin’ bachelor pad sort of way. Come on, man, just let go! Pour yourself a martini and luxuriate in the sophisticated soul sounds.

Mendelsohn: All right, make mine a double. And if I wake up with a hangover, I’ll be sure to keep this record near my bed. Nothing cures a hangover like “Just a Little Lovin'”, early in the morning.