By Simon Napier-Bell

A one-volume insider history of the whole damn music business

Friday, 27 September 2013

Dusty Springfield

People are always asking me about Dusty, but it wasn’t me who managed her, it was Vicki Wickham, my co-writer of the lyric for 'You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me'.

Dusty had invented a character the public loved – a magic voice, a face from Vogue, and a giggly girl-next-door speaking voice, but the public only saw the good-natured part of her personality, they never saw the depressions and tempers – that’s what Vicki had to deal with. 

I didn’t see much of them either. Apart from singing, the thing Dusty was most famous for round the music business was her manic partying. I remember her once in the green room at Top Of The Pops telling me about a party she’d been to the night before. “There was cole slaw and God-knows-what flying through the air and Martha of the Vendellas came out clutching a loaf of French bread and took up a softball stance. Oh, it was a marvelous party.”

Her real name was Mary O'Brien, from an Irish catholic family. In the early 60s, with Mike Hurst and her brother Tom she started the Springfields - a folk-cum-pop group. She was still a devout Catholic, so although she entered into all the excesses that touring always leads to, she felt the need to own up to them the next day and would keep the others waiting in the van while she stopped off at church for confession.

People said when she sung she sounded black, but really she didn’t. She sounded only like herself. “Haunting and husky,” Bette Midler said of her voice, “full of secrets and promises.” 

She was at her best when her affinity for black music was blended with the traditions of European pop. Like in 'I Count To Ten', when her voice flies high above a huge arrangement then melts to pure loneliness as the orchestra drops out behind her. “There is a great sadness in my voice,” she said. “Even I can get quite touched by it if the song is right.”

In 1966, after three years of success, Dusty still hadn’t had a number one. She then discovered an Italian song and asked Vicki, “How do I go about getting English lyrics?” Vicki said, "Simon and I will write them." 

Dusty was doubtful. And to be honest, so were we. I asked Vicki, “Does the lyric have to say I love you?” Vicki hated the idea. "How about I don't love you?" she replied. 

For an hour, our reticence at using the word love fought with the need to do so; then we arrived at the devious compromise that became the song’s title - 'You don't have to say you love me'. 

In the course of recording the song Dusty complained about the echo on her voice. When the engineer went to the basement to adjust it, he noticed how good the natural echo sounded in the stairwell of building. Five minutes later, Dusty was halfway up it, leaning out from the stairs, singing into a mike hanging in space in front of her. 

There, standing on the staircase at Philips studio, singing into the stairwell, Dusty gave her greatest ever performance - perfection from first breath to last, as great as anything by Aretha Franklin or Sinatra or Pavarotti.

Great singers can take mundane lyrics and fill them with their own meaning. This can help a listener’s own ill-defined feelings come clearly into focus. Vicki and I had thought our lyric was about avoiding emotional commitment. Dusty stood it on its head and made it a passionate lament of loneliness and love. 

Fragile-voiced, panda-eyed, lazy, determined, petulant, moody, humourous and totally charming - at last she had a number one record. And so, of course, did we.

Thanks Dusty! 

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