Dusty Springfield; 'Queen of White Soul' Hailed as Pivotal Pop Figure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dusty Springfield, whose sensuous, husky-voiced explorations of American soul music made her the most acclaimed female pop singer in her native England, has died. She was 59.

The onetime folk singer catapulted to fame after finding her true muse in the sounds of Motown and soul, influences that clearly flavored her 1960s hits "Wishin' and Hopin'," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "Son of a Preacher Man."

After a five-year battle with breast cancer, Springfield died Tuesday night at her home in Henley-on-Thames, about 30 miles west of London, said her agent, Paul Fenn.

Her death coincides with a rising chorus of praise for her career and influence.

Before her condition worsened, she had been scheduled Tuesday to visit Buckingham Palace to be honored as an officer of the Order of the British Empire. On March 15 she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with a class that includes Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

Springfield, born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in London, changed her name in the early '60s to join her brother in the folk trio the Springfields. But after seeing the Beatles perform, she abandoned the genre's twang and turned to soul music. Her influences included Dionne Warwick, the Shirelles and soul-gospel singer Mitty Collier, but her smoky singing voice was unique.

"Dusty's voice was and always will be recognizable, one of the truly great, distinctive voices of our time," said composer Burt Bacharach, who wrote two of her biggest hits, "The Look of Love" and "Wishin' and Hopin'."

Springfield's career took off in early 1964 with "I Only Want to Be With You," the first song ever played on the British TV show "Top of the Pops."

Her voice made the song a hit, but her fashion helped make her a star: She wore thickly caked eye makeup, a peroxide blond beehive and Supremes-style gowns. The look, she would say later, was an image to hide behind.

Biographer Lucy O'Brien, whose book "Dusty" will be published in April, wrote of her subject: "As youth mod culture came to a head in the Sixties--with its stringent attention to fashion, Motown and television pop programs--Dusty Springfield, panda-eyed and urbane, emerged as Queen Bee."

Springfield, an intensely private person who surprised many by publicly acknowledging her bisexuality in the 1970s, became an icon for the gay community and a pioneer for female artists.

Elton John, who will be the presenter at Springfield's Hall of Fame induction in New York, learned of her death Tuesday night just before his sold-out concert in Peoria, Ill.

"Hers was the first fan club I belonged to," John told his audience during the show. "I had pictures of Dusty all over my walls."

John sang "I Only Want to Be With You" and said, "Dusty, wherever you are, this one's for you, my love, with all my love."

Springfield's career reached an artistic zenith in 1969 with "Dusty in Memphis," a landmark recording of the British star in a Tennessee studio with Aretha Franklin's production and musical team.

One of the producers of that album, Jerry Wexler, recalled in a telephone interview Wednesday that the sensitive Springfield would only sing if wearing headphones with the accompanying music on full volume--so she couldn't hear her own voice.

"She didn't want to hear herself," Wexler said. "Can you imagine? She was the queen of white soul. There are no Dusty clones or acolytes because Dusty had a quality that was inimitable. She had an absolute sexual vulnerability in her voice."

The critical acclaim for the album did not translate into a major commercial success, and Springfield, after moving to Los Angeles in 1972, went into semi-retirement. In interviews years later she would reveal that she was grappling with substance abuse and depression throughout the decade as several career revivals fell short.

The 1980s saw Springfield return to England and the charts as she recorded "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" with the Pet Shop Boys, which hit No. 2 on the U.S. charts--her biggest hit in the States.

Several recent reissues of her classic works and the inclusion of "Son of a Preacher Man" on the soundtrack of the film "Pulp Fiction" triggered a small Springfield revival. But the singer's career was, to many observers, defined by unrealized potential.

"She had a truly evocative voice and great talent," Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, which signed her in the late '60s, said Wednesday. "That album 'Dusty in Memphis' was one of the great albums ever . . . but for one reason or another [follow-up albums] didn't materialize. We should have had more. She was very special."

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, said Springfield's spot in music history is assured but she might have benefited from having her career begin in a different era.

"Springfield was an extraordinarily soulful singer whose 'Dusty in Memphis' album is one of the classics of the modern pop era," Hilburn said. "But she often had trouble finding material or producers that properly showcased her sensuous and intimate pop style.

"Despite her many accomplishments, it's tempting to think Springfield could have reached even greater commercial and artistic heights if she had come along in the '90s," he said. "In this era, the record industry has finally begun allowing women the opportunity to produce their own recordings, giving them greater control over the content and tone of those works."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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