|Who was Dusty Springfield?
Considered one of the best female vocalists of all time, Dusty Springfield's work spanned the gamut from soul and blues to disco and techno. Though she struggled with her own sexuality, she became both a dyke icon and a diva beloved by gay men.
Springfield was born Mary O'Brien on April 16, 1939, in Hampstead, London. Her father encouraged her interest in music, and she told the nuns at her convent school that she wanted to become a blues singer. A bespectacled, overweight tomboy, she considered herself unattractive and lacked self-confidence. But at age 16, she later recalled, she looked in the mirror and said, "Be miserable or become someone else."
In 1958, Springfield answered a newspaper ad and joined a girl group called the Lana Sisters. Two years later, her older brother asked her to join him and a friend to form a folk-pop trio, the Springfields, and she adopted the name "Dusty." By 1963, she struck out on her own; her debut, "I Only Want To Be With You," was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. She subsequently enjoyed a string of hits and hosted a television show, Ready, Steady, Go!, which introduced black American music to a British audience. One of the few white women to master the style, "the White Negress" said her performances with Motown acts such as the Martha and the Vandellas were among her biggest thrills. In 1964, Springfield was one of the first artists to refuse to perform before segregated audiences in South Africa.
Making good on her earlier promise to transform herself, Springfield adopted a mod image, with a bottle-blond beehive hairdo and thick "panda" eye makeup. She acknowledged that she took her style from female impersonators, and drag queens ever since have repaid the compliment. According to queer theorist Patricia Juliana Smith, Springfield "disguised her own unspeakable queerness through an elaborate camp masquerade that metaphorically and artistically transformed a nice white girl into a black woman and a femme gay man, often simultaneously."
A pioneering woman in the music business, Springfield insisted on controlling her own sound, earning a reputation for being difficult to work with. But she continued to push artistic boundaries, refusing to be pigeonholed into any particular market niche.
Springfield also resisted categorization in her personal life. In response to endless rumors, she was one of the first popular entertainers to come out as bisexual. "I know I'm as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy," she told the London Evening Standard in 1970. "It's other people who want you to be something or otherthis or that," she would elaborate 25 years later. "I'm none of the above."
According to Springfield's longtime friend and manager, Vicki Wickham, "She would often say that there were footballers that she fancied and a string of men that she'd had affairs with. But...all Dusty's long-term relationships, and most of her short-term ones, too, were with women." Among these were American folk singer Norma Tanega, with whom she lived in the late 1960s, andreportedlya black American soul singer. Her most enduring relationships, though, were with her beloved cats.
Bored and frustrated with the lack of privacy in England, Springfield moved to Los Angeles in 1972. She retreated from performing and recording, and attempted to adopt the life of a Beverly Hills socialite. She moved in lesbian circles and became interested in women's tennis, befriending Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals. Springfield married a woman in a backyard wedding, but the relationship soon turned abusive. She drank heavily and became addicted to drugs, inflicted injuries on herself, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized several times in psychiatric facilities.
As the '70s ended, Springfield seemed to become more comfortable with her sexuality, speaking out against homophobia in the entertainment industry. In 1981, she moved to Toronto to live with a new lover, singer/songwriter Carole Pope, but the two broke up within a year. Springfield subsequently returned to Los Angeles, embarked on recovery from alcohol and drugs, and campaigned for animal rights.
After several failed attempts, Springfield's career enjoyed a revival when British techno-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys invited her to record with them, producing the worldwide hit "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (1987). Although the collaborationand the inclusion of her "Son of a Preacher Man" in the movie Pulp Fiction (1994)brought Springfield a new generation of fans, she grew weary of keeping up her image. "It would have been so easy to go the diva route," she said, "but there's no substance to it and it bores me."
Not long after moving back to England in early 1990s, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her health deteriorated, she moved into a secluded mansion outside London. Springfield died in March 1999, on the day she was scheduled to receive an Order of the British Empire award at Buckingham Palace and two weeks before she would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At her funeral, more than 1,000 mourners turned out to pay their respects. "The whole town was out in the street crying," said Carole Pope. "If only she'd known how loved she was."
Liz Highleyman, a freelance writer and editor, can be reached at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.15 November 23, 2005