born mary isabel catherine bernadette o'brien in london, england, dusty springfield grew up in a music-filled environment that all but behooved her to enter a career in show business. a tomboy by nature, the name "dusty" was applied by childhood friends who felt it better suited a girl who liked rough-and-tumble play. it wasn't until her sixteenth year, however, that she would become the dusty known the world around in style, as well as name. having made a decision to launch a campaign of self-improvement, dusty abandoned her spectacles and began to adorn herself in the "mod" fashion that would become all the rage.
in the late fifties, dusty began performing folk music as a solo artist, at small london clubs. her first stint as part of an ensemble came when she answered an add to join an established sister singing act called the lana sisters. time would prove, however, that blood is, indeed, thicker than water, as springfield left the lana sisters to join a folk group established by her brother, tom. along with tim field, the three performed as the springfields and proved relatively successful, especially as they developed an american audience that mistook them for a country western group. frustrated with their inability to be received as the folk group they were, the springfields disbanded and dusty re-emerged as a solo artist.
an incredibly talented singer with a musically-diverse upbringing, dusty's first solo sensations were a far cry from the folk music performed by the springfield trio. "i only want to be with you" and "stay a while" reflected dusty's mod style, in that they foreshadowed the future of british music. influenced, among other things, by the acts featured on the motown label, dusty saw a niche that had yet to be filled in the u.k.. dusty admits to attempting to copy motown and other popular styles of african-american music. "i swiped anything that i heard from the states that wasn't going to be released here i was wanting to cop phil spector's sounds and i knew that i could. i wanted to be the crystals and darlene love, and knew that there was going to be a space for that in [the u.k.] because it hadn't hit here and i definitely knew that the wall of sound thing could be adapted for england, and i was the one to do it," she explained. but, unlike motown and phil spector, dusty didn't limit herself to one sound. to challenge her talent and hold her own interest, songs reminiscent of motown would be interspersed with more mainstream popular songs, in the style of burt bacharach and hal david.
as dusty had predicted, the time was right for this sound in england and she formed a large following who considered her "black" sound as intriguing as it was unique. dusty's uniqueness, however, would be expressed in far more tangible ways than her singing style. a 1964 tour to south africa established springfield as the first performer to include an antiaparthied clause in her contract. of course, the tour was ended abruptly by the government, which felt embarassed by its inability to circumnavigate the clause; the most they could do was to pressure dusty to leave the country. in interviews, dusty has claimed that her intent was not to spark an international incident, but rather to simply play her music to everybody, equally. dusty also experienced unintentional tension at many recording studios. at a time when female performers were barely tolerated as performers and never considered production-savvy, dusty had a very clear vision of they way she wanted her music to sound. having been exposed, through trips to america, to the motown sound to which most english session performers were completely unaccustomed, she often came up against resistance from male co-workers.
a growing reputation as a troublesome artist did nothing to hamper her growing popularity. frequent appearances on the ultra-hip variety program ready, steady, go culminated in her own special, produced by vicki wickham. the sound of motown, as the special was called, aimed to give british audiences a large dose of the sound upon which springfield's career had been based, thus far. many consider this special, with special guests martha reeves & the vandellas, to have begun the cultural exchange between the u.k. and the united states which later came to be know as "the british invasion". in fact, at a time when cultural exchange was rather regulated, it is reported that martha & the vandellas tour of england allowed the beatles to infiltrate america. additionally, the exposure of acts such as mary wells, the supremes and the marvelettes caused many british artists to change their sound to reflect styles that dusty had been emulating for years.
always ahead of the curve, dusty began to shed her r&b image in the late sixties, as she fulfilled a dream with the release of the bacharach/david tune "the look of love". her growth as an emotionally-mature singer continued with "i think it's gonna rain today". dusty's most recent incarnation as a woman with very deep thoughts and emotions coincided with her desire to capture an american audience. having just signed with atlantic records, dusty set out to record her next albumthe historic dusty in memphisin memphis, tennessee. unaccustomed to nashville recording practices, which positioned the singer as the centerpiece of the song, springfield excelled in spite of herself with the full support of her label, a group of the industry's best producers and songwriters, and a house band up to the task of complimenting dusty's unusual vocals. a blend of pop, soul and blues, dusty in memphis' sales never matched the critical acclaim it received. in spite of this, dusty managed to accomplish her initial goal of establishing herself, in the united states and elsewhere, as a vocal force with which to be reckoned. perhaps the dismal commercial success of dusty in memphis can be attributed to the contradiction of fashion's front-woman tackling emotions untouched by women, musically, since the blues. or maybe audiences just weren't ready to take female vocalists seriously. regardless, dusty springfield continued undaunted.
after the release of dusty in memphis, springfield struggled to find musical compatibility with record labels, producers and musicians who all either misunderstood her vision or wanted her to be something other than herself. this resulted in a string of albums that acheived nominal success featuring styles from california soft rock to disco punk. dusty returned to her california home, after completing promotional chores in the uk, to continue to release albums that evoked lackluster reception from 1984 to 1987. it was then that dusty heard from old friend vicki wickham, who announced that the pet shop boys, a fellow british pop band, wanted dusty to provide some vocals for a song of theirs. originally skeptical and unfamiliar with their work, springfield eventually acquiesced and the song, "what have i done to deserve this", became an international hit on the airwaves and dancefloor. the success of "what have i done to deserve this" led to a subsequent collaboration with the pet shop boysthe theme to scandal, "nothing has been proved"and another smash hit. with her confidence restored and the spotlight set, once again, squarely upon her, springfield released reputation, which was well received, both critically and commercially. back in her stride, and signed to a new deal with columbia records, dusty headed back to nashville to record her next album. having reached such great musical heights during her last trip, and feeling that she was becoming too mature to sustain a career as a dance diva, springfield returned to her roots in the down-home soul of the south.
the joy of returning to nashville, however, was accompanied by the anguish of discovering that she was suffering from breast cancer. "i shed a few tears at the hospital, when it had been confirmed, but then i pulled myself together and took everybody out for what turned into a roaringly funny lunch. later, when i got home, there was a mundane thing that set me off again," she recalled. the release of a very fine love did not meet the unequivocable acclaim of reputation, partially due to the year-long delay of its release. a five-year battle with the disease ended on 2 march 1999, when it was reported that dusty springfield had passed away. she is quoted as having said, once, "it's marvelous to be popular, but foolish to think it would last." perhaps that was the key to her enduring success dusty never tried to be anything but herself. establishing her own sense of style and following her own musical muse, dusty has made an indelible mark upon history. her platinum blonde bouffant and raccoon-like eye make-up may not have launched a thousand ships, but her musical foresight and undeniable talent launched a cultural revolution that affected two nations and irrevocably changed the course of pop music. music critic greil marcus summed up dusty's contribution by saying, "most female singers are searching for music they can call their own. dusty is not searching she just shows up and she, and we, are better for it."