Oh, pop music! One minute, it pushes the envelope wide-wide open, then the next seals it up tight as can be! Such a force it is, for reinforcing cultural expectations, for undoing them! Just think: this pop star plays the virgin/whore; these boys rant misogynist raves while tarted up like streetwalkers/divas; and wow, these suckers sing with a mangled cockney, when their origins are tried and true to the U.S of A! What are we audiences — poor dears, amazed souls — to do? When the world is both explained and confused by our pop cultural icons, when we hate and love them for who we are or who we want to be, when the world they occupy/sanctify seems so different from what’s just beyond our homestead windows — what, oh what, will become of us?
‘Tis simple: we will find ways to explain what we don’t know through the familiar, temporarily allowing expectation to be overwritten by exception. Historically, the most notable cases have been along those lines where our stereotypes are firmest — categories of identity like race, gender, and sexual orientation. (The economic realities of celebrity most often undo themes of class, though, depending on the genre, either playing or holding the “sell out” card can be an advantage.) Examples, if you will: Marilyn Manson or Ziggy-era Bowie as gender aberrations; Living Colour, a heavy metal band peopled with braided black boys; George Michael or Lionel Richie singing straight love songs while buried deep in the closet.
Born in 1939 as Mary O’Brien in London, Dusty Springfeld was one of those quintessential artists who had this same topsy-turvy effect on stereotypes. Dubbed “The White Negress”, “the queen of blue-eyed soul”, and the like, Dusty’s 30-year-plus career made her one of the most emblematic artists described as “sounding black” — a blessing/curse also granted to Elvis Presley, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey the list goes on and on. For Dusty, as for many artists before and after her, a soulful sound that crossed racial boundaries was a key to chart success, even if the controversial stances that sometimes accompanied it — like refusing to play to segregated audience in South Africa 1964 — made her privy to criticism.
Dusty’s music also transcended and melded musical categories — from gospel to country, soul to folk — and this collection stands out as one of the most comprehensive to date, outside of the 1997 three-disc mega-collection, Anthology. Beyond canonical Dusty standards like “Wishin’ and Hopin'”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, and “I Only Want to Be With You”, this compilation includes a single from her first musical group, as well as later material that came out after she’d lost her commercial Midas touch.
Moving more or less in chronicle order, the album opens with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”, a 1962 release from The Springfields, Dusty’s first outfit, of which her brother Tom (Dion O’Brien) was also a member. The song is a sweet, twangy number — it sounds like the county fair or a hayride — and is harmonized male and female vocals. Stylistically, it is the most folksy number on the disc — though “Wishin’ and Hopin'” is slightly reminiscent with its down-home attitude. Next up are “I Only Want to Be With You” and “Stay Awhile”, two traditionally early ’60s numbers which were did well both in the UK and US. They showcase Dusty’s ability to croon with the best of ’60s female fatales, in the playfully pop style of “My Boyfriend’s Back” or “It’s My Party”.
More meaty are the tracks which show the tremendous power of Dusty’s pipes, like the 1965 love song “Oh No! Not My Baby”, the 1966 “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, and, of Pulp Fiction fame, “Son of a Preacher Man”. On slower numbers, her voice has the sheer brilliance of a gem: clear, bright, remarkably unflawed. She also sings with an emotion and theatrics that render it utterly believable — demonstrated in the wide range between her smoldering performance of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s song “The Look of Love” and her sassy take on “What’s It Gonna Be” (which immediately follows it on the disc).
Most surprising of all is Ultimate Collection‘s final track, the 1987 Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” where Dusty sings backup. It sticks out on the album, not only because of the wide rift between Dusty’s material and the quintessential late ’80s new wave piece, but also because Dusty plays such a peripheral (and some might say, even annoying) role in the song. But beyond this one question mark, Dusty Springfield: Ultimate Collection is an emphatic exclamation point, and a remarkable tribute to one of the most legendary female singers of the late 20th century.