Dusty Springfield is dead, and with her goes a voice that was perhaps too gorgeous for one woman to own. It was never just that the voice was an incredible instrument, but the intelligence and tenderness that she brought to her phrasing. Technically great singing voices are common, but great singers are not. There are all these skinny little chicks on TV lately who for want of a better term are called divas. I think this means that they have lousy attitudes and dig Barry Manilow. Not one of them has ever made me shiver the way Dusty could, three or four times in a song, and without ever sinking to the crowd-pleasing holler that these dames substitute for soul.
Dusty’s trouble was that she was the consummate interpreter, and without material of the proper caliber, her own work suffered. The finest songwriters of the land should have felt morally bound to give her first crack at every great song they wrote. For a while in the sixties she had her pick from all the richest veins, and the things she did on record were stunning. Maybe it’s just that they didn’t write songs good enough for her to sing anymore. That’s almost a sadder thought than the fact that she’s not here to sing them.
The way Dusty breathed could fit a song in a way I’ve never heard in another singer. Her soft intakes of air somehow were made in character, so that you became absolutely convinced that every story was a real one. The saddened losers she inhabits on the great Dusty in Memphis album – a record that everyone should own, all right? – are like old friends at the wrong end of the telephone line. Their tragedies are inevitable ones, and Dusty wears her suffering like a crown.
Her singles of the mid-sixties were great pop, but she relied on a mixed bag of European writers and her records often had a distinctly foreign air. It was only when she went to Memphis and recorded an album of material by great American writers like Goffin-King, Randy Newman, Mann-Weill and Bacharach-David that she really was able to soar. What did this cotton-candy tressed British lass know about soul? Jesus, everything. So self-conscious that she couldn’t stand to sing without full orchestration in her headphones, so shy that she had to hide behind the most elaborate confections of eyelash and beehive ever unfurled, when she opened her mouth Dusty had the voice of a Human Being, with every strata of her emotional life revealed within the timbre of her sound. Was it real, or exquisite artifice? Who can know? Who would care?
When a great singer dies, only her and our silence can express the loss. But there’s joy, too, in the knowledge that the recordings survive. For most of history a voice died with the singer. This ephemeral fact may have made music more urgent, more moving. But these last few generations’ singers remain, on wire, on magnetic tape, in digital hash and out into the ether. Dusty Springfield continues to hold our hearts gently in the cup of her hands, and to whisper hope and heartache deep inside, making it look easy, making it sound agonizingly real.
Goodbye Dusty. Godspeed.