Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend

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I’ve always liked Dusty Springfield. She was born in 1939 just up the road from where I live now in West Hampstead as Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. Her father was a tax consultant, her mother kept house and they took their holidays in Bognor Regis. Her Catholic parents had a deeply unhappy marriage and Dusty, with her brother Dion, found a release in music.

As soon as she left school aged 16 she transformed herself. “I just decided I wanted to become someone else...so I became someone else.” She started singing with her brother in clubs and at private parties. Her distinctive voice brought her chart success in the 1960s. She was influenced by Motown and introduced Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder to a British audience through her TV shows.

Although she always maintained she was “not at all political”, her actions, and sometimes her musical choices, tell another story. Early in her career she recorded the anti-war song, Broken Blossoms. She championed black American artists, challenging the racism that prevented her black friends finding somewhere to rent in London. When she visited New York in 1964 she wandered happily around Harlem. She was the only white artist on the bill at the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn, describing herself as “the token honky”.

She also took on the sexism that ran through the industry and tried to take control of her song choices and the production of her music. Then she made the front pages for her stand against apartheid in South Africa. Dusty was determined to have it written into her contract that she would only perform to mixed audiences.

Dusty told the NME magazine that if she was forced to play segregated venues she would “be on the first flight home”. And that’s what happened. She was deported from South Africa with a police escort. When she got back both Max Bygraves and Derek Nimmo complained that she’d now “made it difficult” for British entertainers to go to South Africa and make big money.

But by the time she died in 1999 from breast cancer, the world was aware of the turmoil behind the smiles. Her battles with addiction, her outbursts and penchant for hurling crockery around, and her long-standing struggle with her sexuality have all been documented. But this book fills in some of the gaps, including the mental health problems that blighted her later years.

Norma Tanega, one of her ex-lovers, said the problem was that Dusty “wanted to be straight and she wanted to be a good Catholic and she wanted to be black”. And perhaps there is the real tragedy of her life.