Out There

Ashes to ashes, dust to Dusty

Dusty in London
Dusty in Memphis
Dusty Springfield
Rhino Records

Dusty Springfield died March 3 at the age of 59, felled by the breast cancer she had been battling for years. Just two weeks before her death at her London home, a publicist at Rhino was lamenting the fact that Springfield wasn't available to do interviews to coincide with the bonus-tracks-added (re-)rerelease of her finest album, 1969's Dusty in Memphis--among the greatest, and worst, albums ever made. Springfield had been little heard from in several years, rarely appearing in public and only occasionally going into the studio. And even then, the results have ranged from intriguing (a 1988 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys) to forgettable (1995's A Very Fine Love). And so she existed in 1999 more as a myth than anything else, the subject of so many reissues simply because there would never again be anything new from her.

Dusty in Memphis remains Springfield's masterpiece--and the most inexplicable record ever made, especially now that Rhino has tacked on 14 extra songs, one of which is an endless rendition of "You've Got a Friend." Ostensibly meant to prove that this white Brit could cool-soul it up with the best of Atlantic's roster, the record is one of those brilliant disasters you hear about but never actually listen to. This is what your parents put on when they wanted R&B in 1969--only without all the B. One minute, the disc is soulful like Sunday-morning church on Saturday night: Organ player Bobby Emmons and guitarist Reggie Young help Dusty get nasty with the "Son of a Preacher Man." Never has something tried to sound so gritty and ended up so slick; it's a tease without the follow-through. Then, five songs later, Springfield's wallowing in the sugar and sap of "The Windmills of Your Mind," written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Michel Legrand--who had become rich and famous writing for Barbra Streisand.

For every oddball gem--Springfield had a thing for Randy Newman, covering the mini-majestic "I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore" and "Just One Smile" on Memphis, and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" on the odds-and-sods Dusty in London--there are so many schmaltzy throwaways that these two discs are more frustrating than rewarding. She had the range to make the small songs larger than life (cf. Goffin-King's "No Easy Way Down," Bacharach-David's "In the Land of Make Believe"), but Springfield could never quite make the big moments her own. Underrated in life, she's no doubt going to be overrated in death. Too bad both ways.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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