Know your past live your future

Dusty Spingfield by Bishi

Dusty Spingfield by Bishi

Illustration by Luke Thornhill

Bishi is a Vocalist, Musician, Composer & Performer, currently an Artist in Residence at National Sawdust, NYC. She is The Artistic Director of WITCiH - The Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub, a platform celebrating Women & Non-Binary at the intersection of Creative Tech & Science.

Before Amy, before Adele, pre-Paloma, Pop Idol & Autotune, there was a British Soul Singer who stormed the world & her name was Dusty Springfield. A lesbian firmly in the closet , she had to hide her sexuality in order to protect her career, this being a time before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967.

Her Blonde bangs & thick eyelashes {hallmarks of traditional drag} served as a hidden code to her fans, where she would often pepper her interviews with Polari. According to her manager, Vicki Wickham, Dusty reinvented herself though glamour. Glamour was a way of hiding her poor self esteem & helped create a different more elevated persona. If the public knew she was gay, then her career would have been over.

Dusty gave a voice to the voiceless & shone a light on those in the shadows, a daring & pioneering musical icon, walking the tightrope of talent & torment, plagued by alcoholic demons. Springfield was the best selling singer in the World in 1966, going on to wow both sides of the Atlantic with both critical & commercial success - a rare achievement in any age of Music.

I have always been a music obsessive, devouring records of all eras & genres & I have always been enthusiastic about understanding cultural lineage. But I really got into Dusty Springfield’s music when I was developing my own voice, under the mentorship of producer & club promoter Jim Warboy, who’d lent me a CD of her work. I was classically trained in both Indian & Western vocal styles. Although I’d experimented with Punk & Performance Art, I needed to expand my understanding of what a voice could do & what a singer can be. Jim Warboy & I met through the club Kashpoint, an experimental polysexual disco, I had help inaugurate with Minty’s Matthew Glamorre, as the resident DJ & chanteuse. These were the heady pre-social media days, where there were discos to dance in every night of the week in the East-End & Soho. The dance floor was an HQ incubator of culture, ideas, sex & showing off; hearts were broken & pacts were made. Queer culture was an underground vestige & you showed your allegiance by turning up, peacocking & dancing the night away. I am fascinated by cultural code switching & how avant garde ideas permeate the mainstream. I found this to be symbolic in the life of Dusty Springfield.

Through learning & singing Dusty’s work with a vocal trainer, I understood that her hit ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,’ was number 1 the year my father emigrated from India to the UK. She was not just a mainstream or queer icon, but a source of inspiration to the Indian immigrants of the 60s.

Dusty Springfield was born, Mary O’Brien in 1939 in West Hampstead to an Irish Catholic Family. The family soon moved to Ealing, where she was unhappy in her Convent School. Dusty lived for Music & started singing in her brother’s band, ‘The Springfields.’ She soon went onto establish her own career, scoring her first number 1 hit with ‘I only want to Be With You,’ in 1963. Burt Bacharach wrote some of the biggest hits of Dusty’s career including, ‘Anyone who had a heart,’ & ‘I Just don’t know what to do with Myself,’ made famous in recent years by the video of Kate Moss twirling around a pole in The White Stripes’ Blues Rock cover version.

Through the success of her solo career, Springfield had her own TV show, where she showcased her passion for Motown & Soul by inviting acts she’d toured with America. Bands & Musicians such as Marvin Gaye, The Shirelles and Martha & The Vandellas received their UK TV debut as a result. Dusty used her frequent trips to the States to immerse herself in learning about Soul Music in America. Dusty was one of the 1st ever Popstars to take a stand against against segregation in South Africa, making headlines around the world, where she found herself being deported in 1964 after performing in front of an integrated audience. Her contract specifically excluded segregated audiences, making her one of the few British artists to make this kind of stand.

In 1968 she signed a contract with Atlantic Records & went onto record the crowning achievement of her recorded career, ‘Dusty in Memphis.’ Atlantic had a more southern soul sound, less polished than Motown. The recording sessions, produced by Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin & Tom Dowd, were much smaller than the huge orchestras she had worked with in the UK. The producers recognised that Springfield's natural soul voice should be placed at the forefront, rather than competing with full string arrangements of past recordings. This made for a much more intimate affair. Even though it was met with glowing critical reviews on both sides of The Atlantic, on release, ‘Dusty in Memphis,’ was a commercial flop in the UK & USA,. ‘Dusty in Memphis,’ has come to be seen as a cultural milestone, being awarded a spot in The Grammy Hall of Fame.

This commercial flop, lead to a tumultuous period & a number of lost years in Los Angeles, in a storm of Drink, drugs, debauchery, abusive relationships & a violent marriage to a woman called Teda. Dusty left in LA in 1988, where her career took a sharp turn of resurrection, striking gold on her collaboration with The Pet Shop Boys, ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This.’

The Pet Shop Boys understood her sense of longing, so emotionally present in all her music. Her early hit, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ regained popularity in Quentin Tarantino’s cult smash, ‘Pulp Fiction.’ She even managed to recover from her addictions to alcohol & drugs. After this glowing success with Dusty was diagnosed with Terminal Breast Cancer, battling for the next five years. She was due to collect her OBE from Buckingham Palace, the day she died on the 2nd March 1999 as a final stroke of tragedy. Her funeral service in Henley on Thames, was attended by Elvis Costello, Lulu & The Pet Shop Boys.

Camille Paglia described her as inhabiting, ‘A Conflict of The Pretty Girl Singer & The Volcanic Force Within.’ Although her life was plagued by mental health, addiction & abuse, the Dusty that I want to honour, is the passionate musician inhabiting this volcanic force, tirelessly learning about her craft, whilst promoting lesser known artists she found special. Dusty was someone who stood up to racism in a period of social turmoil & injustice. Although she had to hide her sexuality, she appears to have had an unapologetic approach to her identity, thus permeating the mainstream with outlawed queerness. ‘I’ve got so much love to give,’ she sings on another one of her famous hits. For many of us, her spirit has never left us & her music will live on forever.

Luke Thornhill is a queer illustrator who is known for his bold and bright colours. His work touches a wide range of themes from queer history, politics, to pop culture. 

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