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Remembering Dusty Springfield, a Soulful Trailblazer Who Put Her Own Stamp on Southern Music

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When you look back and the great voices of 1960s Motown, you may think of legendary divas, such as Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. But don't forget about Dusty Springfield, the British singer who took the world by storm in the '60s.

Springfield was born in London in 1939 as Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien. She grew up in a musical family, but without a happy home life. With an abusive father and alcoholic mother, it couldn't have been easy for the future star to put herself out there. But she and her brother Dion were passionate about music and started recording in their garage as teens. 

Mary O'Brien was known as a tomboy growing up and alledgedly earned the nickname "Dusty" from playing football with the boys. She decided to change her look, dying her hair platinum blonde and wearing smoky make-up, and began performing at local clubs with Dion. In 1958, she answered an advertisement and joined the girl group The Lana Sisters. 

Dusty Springfield
ASSOCIATED PRESS

After two years with the group, Springfield had learned a lot about music and performing all over the country. She formed a new group with her brother and friend Tim Field, The Springfields. The siblings adopted new stage names: Dion officially became Tom Springfield and Mary became Dusty. 

The band was a success, named one of the top bands in the UK. They even recorded multiple top 5 British hits including the country-inspired "Say I Won't Be There." But after a couple of years it was time for Springfield to embark on a solo career. With strong influences from girl groups like the Exciters and the Shirelles, Springfield released her debut song in 1963, "I Only Want to Be with You."

Dusty Springfield
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Her debut album the following year, A Girl Called Dusty, was a major success in the UK as well as the United States, where soul music was all the rage. She continued to reign supreme through the '60s. Dusty in Memphis, which she recorded in Memphis in 1969, is considered one of the best soul albums of all time. Springfield was certainly not the first British performer to adopt a southern persona, but with her trademark long lashes and unforgettable stage presence, it's safe to say no one did it quite like Dusty. 

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Springfield was also an early advocate for the LGBTQ movement during a time when it really wasn't spoken about. At the peak of her career, Springfield was fielding questions about her love life. She decided to address the issue honestly in an interview with Ray Connolly of the London Evening Standard in 1970.

"A lot of people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learned to accept it...Girls run after me a lot and it doesn't upset me. I'm perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way, and I don't see why I shouldn't." 

It was a brave move for the queer movement, but at the cost of Springfield's career. Her longtime partner singer Norma Tanega ended up moving back to the U.S. after the stress coming out put on Springfield. Three years later, she expanded on her statement in another interview with Chris Van Ness of the Los Angeles Free Press. She explained that she was bisexual, which was another bold move for a singer-songwriter of that time. 

Dusty Springfield
MediaPunch

Springfield briefly returned to the spotlight with her 1987 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" in a duet with Neil Tennant. She capitalized on that success with 1990 album, Reputation and A Very Fine Love in 1995.

Dusty Springfield passed away in Oxfordshire, England in 1999 after losing a battle to breast cancer. But her legacy continues to live on. Her skills as a vocalist are still recognized as one of the greats in the history of music. She was inducted post humously into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame. She was also included on Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Singers of All Time". 

In honor of her memory, we've rounded up 10 of her greatest songs to celebrate the powerhouse she was.

1. "Son Of A Preacher Man"

2. "The Look Of Love"

3. "I Only Want To Be With You"

4. "Some of Your Lovin'"

5. "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten"

6. "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"

7. "Wishin' And Hopin'"

8. "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" 

9. "Spooky" 

10. "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself"

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Remembering Dusty Springfield, a Soulful Trailblazer Who Put Her Own Stamp on Southern Music