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Dusted Off

A Next Generation of Elegant, Complex Singers Revisit Dusty Springfield

Deanna Staffo

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/26/2008

Back before she was a solo star, back before she was the focal point of the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox was in a British pop band called the Tourists. The group's one moment of glory was a 1979 single, "I Only Want to Be With You," which found Lennox wailing unstoppably over tumbling, rushing proto-techno/rock backing, delivering the title line simultaneously as a pledge of devotion and a threat of possession. The template for all her future successes--from the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" to the solo "Why"--can be found in the double-edged nature of that Tourists single, in the talent to wield emotional nakedness as both a gift and a weapon.

That talent came from Dusty Springfield, of course. Springfield hit first with "I Only Want," taking it to the No. 4 chart spot in England in 1963, just as the Tourists would 16 years later. Springfield sang it over the horns and strings of a big band rather than synthesizers, but what were synths conceived to be other than a substitute for a big band? Is it really a coincidence that the song's co-writer, the veteran British tunesmith Ivor Raymonde, was the father of the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde? Or that Springfield made a 1987 comeback with the help of the Pet Shop Boys? And is Lennox's belt-it-out challenge to the terrified object of her affections really any different from Springfield's big-lunged cry but for the added icy frosting?

Lennox is hardly the only singer who owes such a debt to Springfield. From Lesley Gore to Amy Winehouse, female singers wanting to open the throttle on romantic need and desire have inevitably borrowed more than a little from Springfield--especially if they were white women who loved black R&B. Just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones tried to imitate black American artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Smokey Robinson, and in not quite getting it right created something new and wonderful, so did their female contemporaries. In trying to impersonate Ronnie Spector, Little Eva, and Darlene Love, and missing the target a bit, Springfield created an unprecedented hybrid sound that made fans out of Elvis Costello, Nick Hornby, Sting, Elton John, and many more.

One of her biggest fans has been Shelby Lynne, the Alabama blonde who was making country records for Epic by the time she was 20 in 1988. Lynne struck out with country radio, but her first two albums were terrific, a great voice hinting at a love of R&B within the confines of mainstream country. Lynne won a Grammy for Best New Artist on the strength of 2000's I Am Shelby Lynne, and the award made a weird kind of sense. Lynne had reinvented herself as a new artist by spotlighting her Springfield-esque R&B instincts.

In late January, Lynne released Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway), a collection of nine songs originally recorded by Springfield plus a new Lynne composition in the same mode. Among those tunes is "I Only Want to Be With You," but unlike Lennox, Lynne doesn't try to imitate the big sound of Springfield's original. Lynne goes for an unexpected minimalism, singing in a relaxed conversational voice over drum brushes and bossa-nova guitar.

It couldn't be more different than Springfield's trademark sound, but it manages to get at the heart of the '60s diva's art. If Springfield's "I Only Want" is the high-school version of the song and Lennox's the college version, Lynne's is the divorcée take. Her protagonist has been through enough men that she no longer has to shout at them; she can croon, "No matter what you do, I only want to be with you," with such a knowing finality that her lover realizes there really is nothing he can do about it.

Lynne's whole album is like that--radically different from Springfield in its sound but incredibly faithful to her emotional impact. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote "The Look of Love" as a confession of being overcome by infatuation, but Lynne sings it in an intimate whisper that implies her hormones may be racing but have failed to short-circuit her intelligence--she sounds like a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

When Springfield sang "The Look of Love," she did so surrounded by a huge orchestra and a cavernous echo, but she achieved much the same effect as Lynne: brain was fully engaged, contemplating how to best handle the unruly desires surging through her. She achieved that effect--as Lynne does now--by almost never sounding like she's working when she sings. Even when Springfield is belting out a big chorus over a thundering band, she never sounds strained.

This is the exact opposite of modern diva singing exemplified by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and nearly every finalist on American Idol. That's why Springfield, Lennox, Lynne, and Winehouse can transmit multiple emotions at a time, while most of today's vocal acrobats can barely communicate one.

All nine of the Springfield songs that Lynne redoes can be found on The Dusty Springfield Anthology (Mercury/Chronicles), a three-CD, 77-song box set that makes the case that Springfield is the most underacknowledged great artist of the '60s. Of that decade's great divas--Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Diana Ross, Petula Clark, Cass Elliott, Lesley Gore, Grace Slick, Martha Reeves, Carla Thomas--only Franklin left behind enough great tracks for a better box set. And no one had better taste in songwriters; Springfield's box set includes five songs by Bacharach, four by Carole King, three by Leon Huff, and three by Randy Newman--recorded before most people knew who he was.

Springfield's influence is in the air this year. The Australian diva Tina Arena has included four Springfield numbers on her recent album, Songs of Love and Loss, and Maine folk-rocker Carol Noonan has included three Bacharach-by-Springfield songs on her new album of '60s covers, As Tears Go By. Noonan strips the songs down even further than Lynne, slowing them down and crooning them over a drummer-less band of accordion, mandolin, upright bass, and jazz guitar. She has a pleasurable voice, and it's a pleasant album.

But it lacks the rare sense of drama that Lynne and Springfield share. It's tempting to look to their biographies for an explanation. Lynne and her sister--singer Allison Moorer, now married to Steve Earle--were just teenagers when they watched their alcoholic father kill their mother and then himself in 1986. In 1970, Springfield admitted to the British press that she was bisexual, though it turned out she'd always been a lesbian.

Imagine trying to support yourself and your orphaned younger sister by singing upbeat country love songs after something like that. Imagine recording pop-operatic odes to heterosexual love while hiding your own true feelings. That might enable you to sound uninhibitedly emotional and shrewdly aware at the same time. At the very least, it might lead you to adopt a peroxide beehive tall enough and black mascara thick enough to resemble a Fellini heroine or a female impersonator.

Or maybe biography has nothing to do with it. Maybe Springfield and Lynne are just brilliant artists--underrated only because their chosen medium is the pop-diva music of romantic trauma.

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