Happy 50th Anniversary to Dusty Springfield’s fifth studio album Dusty in Memphis, originally released March 31, 1969.
There are rare occasions when an album’s greatness is not fully realized by the general public until many years or even decades after its initial release. Dusty Springfield’s classic LP Dusty in Memphis falls into this category. Her fifth studio album and first recorded for Atlantic Records, Dusty in Memphis came along at a time when Springfield’s career was viewed as being on the decline, with 1966’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” being her last hit single at that point.
Born Mary Catherine O’Brien, Springfield’s career began with the pop vocal trio the Lana Sisters before winding up with the folk/country trio The Springfields, featuring her brother Tom Springfield and Tim Feild. It was in this group where she took the stage name Dusty Springfield. Already a huge success in the UK, the Springfields landed in the U.S. Top 20 in 1962 with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” While touring in the states, Springfield developed a great appreciation for the then-emerging Motown sound and American R&B. So strong was this music’s influence on her that she decided to leave the Springfields to pursue a solo career the following year, with her subsequent output from 1963 to 1968 embracing a gorgeous mix of ‘60s girl group pop and Blue-eyed soul.
A handful of months after Springfield’s rendering of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David composed “The Look of Love” was released in January 1967, the Summer of Love arrived and the music it brought along with it changed the music landscape for good. The heavily orchestrated pop sound and girl groups were pushed aside to make room for rock with its electric guitars, psychedelic music and ongoing social commentary. On the soul side, there was a paradigm shift as well. Motown was no longer the predominant voice in Black America. Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels gave us a grittier, more soulful sound that just felt more real. It didn’t feel like it had come off the assembly line of a Detroit auto factory.
In 1968, Springfield signed with Atlantic Records with the hope of re-energizing her career. Producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin thought it was a no-brainer to record Springfield’s first album with Atlantic in Memphis, where many of the label’s hits had been recorded. Despite the fact that Springfield had never cut an album outside of the UK, she, along with her manager Vicki Wickham, thought it was the right career move to make.
Dusty in Memphis was recorded at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios with session players known as the Memphis Boys, featuring bassist Tommy Cogbill and guitarist Reggie Young. The Sweet Inspirations provided the backing vocals and Gene Orloff conducted the orchestra. The producers assembled a list of songs for the album, some of which were written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King (“So Much Love,” “Don’t Forget About Me,” “No Easy Way Down” and “I Can’t Make It Alone”), Randy Newman (“Just One Smile”), and Burt Bacharach & Hal David (“In the Land of Make Believe”). One would think that this was the perfect set of circumstances lined up for Springfield, but her quest for perfection made the sessions a little difficult. Wexler wrote in his book Rhythm and Blues that out of all the songs on the list, “she approved exactly zero.”
Springfield was out of her element. Recording outside of the UK for the first time proved to be tough for her. In addition, recording with musicians who played with the likes of Wilson Pickett and many others, whose work she revered, was an understandably intimidating proposition. Her desire to honor the music which she was a fierce champion of was a hindrance, but listening to the album, you would never know it.
Springfield was used to having complete control over her recording sessions, even though she was never given credit as a producer on her previous four albums. American Sound Studios was not her turf and eventually her final vocals wound up being recorded in New York. One of the most fruitful events to come out of her Memphis sessions was Springfield suggesting to Atlantic Records that they sign a new group called Led Zeppelin. Bassist John Paul Jones was a part of her touring band and she fought for Led Zeppelin to get signed and they did.
“Son of a Preacher Man” was released in early November 1968, four months ahead of the release of Dusty in Memphis. It was an international hit, reaching the top 10 in both the US and UK. At this point, all signs pointed towards Dusty in Memphis being a major hit, but, unfortunately, this was not the case. The album reached #99 on the US album charts and it failed to chart altogether on the British top 40. It was a commercial failure.
There are some who would say Dusty in Memphis is a great album that simply came along at the wrong time. I would contend that a great album is a great album no matter when it is released. Excellent songwriting paired with Springfield’s gift of interpretation made the songs of this all-star lineup of collaborators work to near perfection. Not to mention, the orchestration is classic Atlantic Records and permeates throughout the entire album.
This masterpiece’s legend has only grown over the last 50 years. “Son of a Preacher Man” was played in a signature moment of Quentin Tarantino’s epic film Pulp Fiction. While that song has entertained generations of music lovers, the rest of the album’s tracks should not be ignored. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Just a Little Lovin'" is the perfect opening track because it signals Springfield’s musical shift in gears.
I can’t explain why Dusty in Memphis didn’t get the love it deserved when it was released, but luckily we still have it here to listen to. That old saying about things aging like a fine wine applies to Dusty in Memphis. As each year passes, I love it even more than I did before. Greatness doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the moment. It could slowly reveal itself over time, letting you know it’s always there for you. That is what Dusty in Memphis is all about.