Dusty In Memphis
Dusty Springfield was a British singer who became popular in her home country around the same time as the Beatles started their trajectory towards becoming the greatest band in the history of popular music. While the Beatles are still well known and revered, the name Dusty Springfield does not trigger the same recognition. But she was one of the great pop music singers of her era, and has been responsible for at least one of its best records. She was blessed with a beautiful voice, and although she sang in a somewhat understated manner, she was able to convey a tremendous amount of emotional content into the songs she performed.
She enjoyed great success in her home country in the early and mid 1960’s, as well as some significant sales in the United States. By 1968 her career had started to wane however. She decided to enter into a contract with the R&B giant Atlantic Records, and come to America to record her next album, in hopes of reclaiming her popularity. It was an inspired choice, as the powers that be at Atlantic held her in high regard and were determined to pull out all the stops when it came to making a record with her. Jerry Wexler, at that time a partner in Atlantic and their top producer, would co-produce the album with Atlantic’s top recording engineer, Tom Dowd. Jerry also had Arif Mardin write the arrangements for the record. All that was left was to pick the recording studio. Jerry originally wanted to use the Muscle Shoals studio, but it was unavailable, so they went with American Sound Studio, in Memphis, Tennessee. Atlantic was familiar with the studio, and held it and its owner in high regard. Other classic sides had been cut there, so Jerry knew that for the kind of record Dusty wanted to make, Memphis was the place to go. From the beginning, this was going to be an album with plenty of soul, and a real R&B feel. In hindsight, the studio musicians (house players at American Sound) were the perfect fit for the project. The music grooved, but the players were polished enough to ensure that they could provide whatever level of musicianship the songs needed.
While Jerry was the ideal producer and project manager, that didn't mean that he and Dusty always agreed on how to conduct the sessions. Prior to the project, he had spent a considerable amount of time reviewing songs he felt would be suitable for her. She turned down the majority of them. Although Dusty was in Memphis for the project, she declined to put any vocal tracks down at the time. Despite Jerry’s desire to record her in Memphis, Dusty said she was too intimidated by the musicians, and the other artists that had recorded there, and felt insecure about her singing. Whether or not that’s true, she recorded the vocals for the album in New York. So although the majority of the songs were recorded in Memphis, her vocals weren’t. While overdubbing the vocals in New York, she and Jerry also clashed on how she would sing her vocal tracks. Although Jerry wanted them recorded a certain way, Dusty insisted in doing it her way. To his credit, Jerry has since said she was right, and she completed her vocal parts with “perfect intonation, every note correct, gorgeous tone production and her own trademark individual phrasing”.
Dusty said that her favourite singer was Aretha Franklin, and I am sure that played a part in decision to come to America, and to try her hand at recording an album of the type of music that Aretha was having so much success with. Atlantic was also Aretha’s label, and they had certainly made her a superstar, which again must have been something Dusty considered. Although the album is considered today a “blue eyed soul” classic, and Dusty’s finest moment, it was not a big seller at the time. The one song that was a hit as a single, and the one that most people have heard, was “Son Of A Preacher Man”. The song has all the ingredients to be considered as a classic in the R&B genre. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics, a slinky (though funky) groove, tasty horn section and of course, the Sweet Inspirations providing backing vocals.
As indicated earlier, the album did not sell particularly well, and was a disappointment commercially. Ironically, it has subsequently achieved legendary status and is considered a landmark recording. It has been through several re-issues on compact disc. The original Atlantic release was catalogue number SD 8214. Since the album only sold around 100,000 copies originally, and has since with the passage of time been declared a masterpiece, finding a copy (that hasn’t been played to death or just abused) can be difficult and costly. It is readily available in other formats though, and is well worth having. Dusty In Memphis is an example of an artist in her prime, with the perfect cast of supporting musicians, classic song material and excellent production.