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The Strange Story Of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty In Memphis’

Surprisingly unsuccessful at the time, the album has thankfully become a monument to the unique soulfulness of one of Britain’s finest-ever voices.

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Dusty In Memphis Dusty Springfield

The record that’s widely held to be the greatest album in the distinguished catalogue of Dusty Springfield — in fact, for many, one of the greatest albums, period — was released on 31 March 1969. Despite being surprisingly unsuccessful at the time, Dusty In Memphis has thankfully become a monument to the unique soulfulness of one of Britain’s finest-ever voices.

Listen to Dusty In Memphis right now.

The album was Dusty’s fifth, some five years into her hitmaking career, and marked a new era, as it was the first time that she had recorded an LP outside the UK. Masterfully overseen by three of the all-time giants of American soul and rock music production, Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, it had a famously difficult birth, but happily, what endures is the brilliant quality of the songs and performances.

Dusty In Memphis US

The US cover of the ‘Dusty In Memphis’ album

After massive international success for Dusty in 1966 with ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,’ and despite her beloved status with her audience, the following year produced a blank in terms of UK top ten singles or albums. Already known for years as one of the most vociferous champions of soul music in the UK, and Wexler’s work at Atlantic in particular, Springfield and her manager Vicki Wickham agreed that the time was right for a change of direction, both creatively and physically.

Remaining on Philips in the UK, Dusty signed her dream deal for the US with Atlantic, and travelled to ‘Chips’ Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. This was one of the two southern locations that Atlantic had been using, along with Muscle Shoals, in its great soul output of the day.

With Dusty’s usual meticulous attention to detail, a bespoke song list was drawn up including material from such A-list songwriters as Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (‘Just A Little Lovin’’), Randy Newman (‘Just One Smile’), Burt Bacharach & Hal David (‘In The Land Of Make Believe’) and no fewer than four songs by Gerry Goffin & Carole King (‘So Much Love,’ ‘Don’t Forget About Me,’ ‘No Easy Way Down’ and ‘I Can’t Make It Alone’).

Recordings got under way with Wexler, Dowd and Mardin all in the control room at American, and with the great session players known collectively as the Memphis Cats adding their studio expertise. But for all her vocal greatness, Springfield’s insecurities, and a certain uneasiness in these new surroundings, made the Memphis sessions difficult for all concerned. Notwithstanding the authentic Southern flavour of the tracks, the album’s title belied the fact that Dusty’s final vocals for it were recorded at later sessions in New York.

The upcoming LP release appeared to be given a great early boost by the release in November 1968 of the first single ‘Son Of A Preacher Man.’ The fine lyric and memorable melody of writers John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins were matched by a great, slow-burning groove and suitably sensual vocals by Dusty. The result was a top ten single on both sides of the Atlantic.

Then came the album release — and a huge anti-climax. Dusty In Memphis struggled to No. 99 on the US chart and, almost unimaginably, didn’t make the bestsellers back in her own country at all. One of its subsequent American singles, ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind,’ did become a US top three adult contemporary hit, but Noel Harrison had already bagged the UK glory with his version of this theme from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair the year before.

As has happened with some other landmark recordings from the 1960s (one thinks in particular of the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle), it has taken future generations to recognise the huge significance of Dusty In Memphis. It frequently appears on lists of the greatest albums ever made, and was placed at No. 89 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Said Wexler in a BBC Radio 2 documentary about the album in 2006: “The fact that this record has had such a fantastic afterlife…it’s been one of the joys of my life.”

Dusty In Memphis can be bought here.

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Follow the official Dusty Springfield Best Of playlist.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Chris Carroll

    June 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Vicki Wickham was NOT Dusty’s manager at the time of the recording of “Dusty In Memphis”. Although they were friends, she did not become her manager until the 1980s

  2. Dexter

    September 17, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Dusty did work vocals on a few of the tracks while in memphis but did fly to NYC to do the rest.
    This cd is truly timeless and stands out as iconic in Springfield’s career

  3. Steve Ellis

    March 31, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    When you see the adulation accorded one hit wonder chasing pavements Adele it makes you realise the paucity of music today,as talented a voice as she may have I’m sure she would readily admit that she would be fortunate then to have been a back up singer only in Dusty Springfields band

  4. Tim Hanafin

    April 1, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I have never understood people who feel the need to denigrate an artist in order to ‘big up’ their own favourite performer. I have been a life-long admirer of Dusty (and Sandie, Cilla, Petula etc) and am now a confirmed fan of Adele. Having just been to Adele at the O2, I can tell you she had 20,000 people in the palm of her hand. Her voice is astonishing as was Dusty’s, in its own way.
    Please don’t run down the most successful recording artist in the world today to praise Dusty. I know that she wouldn’t thank you for it.

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