Dusty Springfield – At her Very Best

“You could almost run a spread bet on the number of times “heart ache” or “heart break” is sung during this compilation.”

“You could almost run a spread bet on the number of times “heart ache” or “heart break” is sung during this compilation.”

Dusty Springfield – At her Very Best



Blue eyed soul – it’s a funny phrase isn’t it?  It fully implies that one’s colour of eyes and by extension hair and skin, affects whether or not a singer or musician has soul.  Surely soul is an attitude, a state of mind, something ethereal and not bounded by such mundane concerns as colours of eyes and other body parts.


However, type “Dusty Springfield” into any browser and the chances that you will very quickly find exactly that phrase and no doubt, others such as “pop diva” or dark murmurs concerning her sexuality.


For the record, I’m not sure if Dusty had blue eyes or not (admittedly it is difficult to tell under the mass of mascara she liked to rock) but I can tell you she did have soul.  I’m not alone, during her hey-day in the mid 1960s, Dusty’s voice was admired by many R&B and Motown artists, not the least of which was Martha Reeves and Dusty’s Atlantic label mate, Aretha Franklin.


With so much attention now focused on the boys (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks etc), it is now difficult to imagine that Dusty was in fact one of the most successful solo artists of the mid 1960s.  This is exactly why we need compilations such as At Her Very Best to remind us just how worthwhile her legacy is.  With the greatest respect, Dusty is probably not one of those artists which will have modern pop kids hunting out her numerous hit albums from the 60s and 70s (except of course for the sublime Dusty in Memphis – if that isn’t in every CD collection in the country, it damn well should be).  So this compilation is just what the doctor ordered – a one stop shop which clearly shows why Dusty is still so highly regarded.


Dusty’s story is right up there with her contemporaries as a parable of meteoric rise and the inevitable fall.  As part of a successful folk act which also featured her brother, Dusty was touring the US (before the Beatles even had their visas stamped) where she heard American girl groups and Motown artists for the first time.  An epiphany occurred and Dusty went solo with the first of many hit singles, I only Want to Be with You.


Her voice was an emotional powerhouse which seems to embody heartbreak, making her perfect chart fodder. A string of hit singles including Wishin’ and Hopin’ and the Look of Love (both written by Bacharach and David – Dusty recorded a number of their songs – more than half a dozen are on this compilation alone), Stay Awhile, In the Middle of Nowhere, Losing You and the massive You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.  Dusty topped the charts, won awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song (Look of Love from the Bond movie, Casino Royale.)  She also refused to play to a racially segregated audience in South Africa and hosted a 1965 TV special, The Sound of Motown, which introduced American soul music to a mainstream British audience.


However, by 1968, the combined influence of Revolver and Sgt Pepper, psychedelic drugs – coupled with a move to even longer hair and flirting with Eastern mysticism quickly left Dusty unhip amongst an increasingly fragmented pop record buying public.  No doubt influenced by Elvis’s legendary 1968 comeback, Dusty decided to revisit her roots, signed to Atlantic and journeyed to Memphis to record her masterpiece album, featuring producers and session musicians who had worked with Aretha Franklin and were steeped in the traditions of Sun and Stax. A person would need to be made of granite, not to be moved by Dusty’s blistering vocals, but like so many albums now regarded as essential, it was a commercial failure. Dusty’s career went into decline during the 70s and she became known as a difficult diva and battled her own demons of mental health, drink and drug abuse. During the 80s and up until her tragically early death in 1999, she became a gay icon (must be something about those blonde hairstyles and lashings of excessive eye make-up c/f Nancy Sinatra), which was fuelled by rumours that she was bi-sexual or a lesbian culminating in a musical of her life (what could be more camp?) and her collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys for an album and tracks for the Scandal soundtrack including What have I Done to Deserve This? Crikey, no wonder there have been rumours of a Hollywood version of her life for a number of years.


That’s enough of the potted history lesson – is this album any good?  Yes, although with any CD which is 45 tracks long, it does lose a bit va-va voom mid way through disc 2 if listened to all in one go.  Probably best to listen to the two discs separately on a Sunday morning or at a time when you are feeling emotionally fragile.  Dusty always seems to sing about being the losing party in affairs of the heart and is no stranger to break ups, separation and sorrow, all backed by sweeping strings.  You could almost run a spread bet on the number of times “heart ache” or “heart break” is sung during this compilation.  


A great soul singer at the peak of her epic powers, heartbreaking urgency and catchy pop tunes – its all here in one easy package.  The songs (which don’t seem to be in chronological order for some reason) show a versatile range covering teen girl band angst, swinging sixties easy listening, a little bit of rock, soul, C&W and jazz and blues (and ignores her brief flirtation with disco.) It’s almost as if these songs have been hardwired into your DNA, they are so familiar.  This is no doubt due to the fact that modern popular culture is committed to keeping Dusty’s memory alive – a number of songs have been used in modern films, including Pulp Fiction and  Lock Stock; TV programmes such as Smack the Pony, advertisements, not to mention a recent cover by the White Stripes.


I spoke to some friends about this album and we honestly can’t think of a modern female artist (especially one from Britain) with such emotional depth and a voice as honest, powerful and soulful as Dusty Springfield.  Now I’m not usually one to wallow in nostalgia but there’s just something about Dusty – go and buy this album and I trust you’ll agree.


Words: John Cottrill