27 December 2008

Dusty Springfield (Part Three)

Dusty In Nashville
In The Winter
Dusty Springfield's Lesser Albumsby Donny Jacobs
Dusty Springfield was one of the finest album artists of the 20th century. After her debut LP, A Girl Called Dusty, introduced a generation of European record buyers to American Soul sounds in 1964, she released a succession of highly anticipated, self-produced long-players, each one more eclectic and impressive than the last. Ev'rythng's Coming Up Dusty. Where Am I Going? Dusty . . . Definitely. Critics judged her 1969 set Dusty In Memphis a high watermark of artistry, but that album set the stage for changes that would negatively impact both her critical and commercial appeal. Memphis was the first LP where she relinquished the production reins to someone else. Significantly, it was also the first Dusty Springfield LP not to chart in Great Britain. The 1970 follow-up, From Dusty . . . With Love, did chart but it was in many ways inferior to her previous releases. From a commercial perspective, releasing inferior product is often worse than releasing nothing at all. Nearly eight years passed before a Dusty Springfield studio album (1978's It Begins Again) sold enough copies to chart again in the UK, and then over a decade passed before her 1990 Reputation CD captured the public's interest. Several albums of varying quality were issued in these interim periods. One, 1982's White Heat, was a return to artistic greatness, with Dusty reclaiming the producer's role; that pivotal LP has been discussed in a previous essay. This essay focuses on the albums that weren't so great, including her last, 1995's A Very Fine Love. What do these releases have to offer Dusty Springfield fans other than the disappointment of hearing her marvelous voice in less-than-appropriate settings?
Cameo

CAMEO
ABC-Dunhill DSX 50128
released February 1973

1973's Cameo is actually one of Dusty's more acclaimed albums, but she herself hated it. She carried bad memories away from the recording sessions. In 1978, she told Music Week magazine: "I wasn't happy with (Cameo) . . . I wasn't used to working with producers who didn't ask what key I wanted to sing a number in. They had a conveyor-belt attitude toward singers. (I was) called in at the last moment, when the track was virtually done." Still indignant at her treatment, she added: "I like to be involved with people who care about what I am doing." Thankfully, her behind-the-scenes dissatisfaction isn't reflected in any of the album selections. That said, the production often displays an unpleasant, spit-shined slickness. This problem would only increase as Dusty continued recording in Hollywood; it would reach its nadir with the last album she'd cut there, Living Without Your Love. More on that subject later. For now, let's take a closer look at what Cameo had to offer. The album's centerpiece were five songs written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who co-produced the project with Steve Barri of Grass Roots fame.

What distinguishes "Who Gets Your Love?" most is the exquisite tension it achieves in its aural execution. With its taut-as-a-tightrope string line, ominous electric piano figures, nervous guitar accents and hushed background vocals, it sounds like something that might've been composed for the soundtrack of the 1944 film Gaslight. Dusty steps into Ingrid Bergman's lead role of a woman slowly being driven insane by paranoia. Her performance is so damn convincing, a belated Oscar nomination might be in order! There really ought to be something to compensate for the commercial cold shoulder "Who Gets Your Love?" got when released as a single in March of 1973. "Comin' And Goin'" is an example of what happens when you play an excellent song at the wrong tempo. Superb lyrics capture the frustration of an off-and-on relationship. The melody is almost as good as the lyrics, and Dusty's singing is typically fine, but Lambert and Potter blow it by shoehorning their tune into a Soft Rock groove. As a ballad, "Comin' And Goin'" just seems to drag. Not to imply that it should've been a Disco song, but there's an R & B sensibility there that wasn't fully exploited. The studio musicians surely needed to swing a little harder.

"Of All The Things" sounds like an attempt to recreate the ethereal mood of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Land Of Make-Believe" from the Dusty In Memphis album. If that was indeed Lambert and Potter's intention, it was successfully realized. One of Dusty's fragile-as-crystal performances graces this tender song of devotion, which had been previously released by Dennis Lambert himself. While it clearly wasn't a single candidate, it's a joy to hear. "Breakin' Up A Happy Home" still sounds like a hit single, thirty-seven years after it was cut. ABC-Dunhill Records didn't fold until 1979, but for overlooking potential smashes like this, it deserved to die as a company long before then. The best song Lambert and Potter wrote for Dusty subtly tips its hat to both Diana Ross and The Supremes' "Stop! In The Name Of Love" and Jackie DeShannon's "Needles And Pins". Take a booting Jazz/Rock band, add some of the tension from "Who Gets Your Love", then top it off with wailing vocals, and you've got an aural snapshot of Dusty Springfield at the very top of her game.

The lilting "Mama's Little Girl" can be seen as a feminist statement, perhaps Dusty's answer to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman". It's certainly not as militant, but militancy wasn't her style. She preferred the imagery of a butterfly bursting forth from its cocoon to that of an Amazon warrior marching off to battle. Even though Dusty didn't write "Mama's Little Girl", you can't help but note how autobiographical the lyrics are. Just like the song's narrator, she effected her own transformation years before from drab convent school girl to exciting Pop chanteuse. Her exuberant vocal over the track's insistent habanera shuffle earned the single version an all-too-brief showing on the Adult-Contemporary charts .

Let's turn our attention now to contributions from other writers. Al Wilson and other Soul singers cut Willie Hutch's "Who Could Be Loving You" before Dusty did, but none of them got a chart record out of it. Dusty would likely have scored the hit had ABC-Dunhill executives been savvy enough to press up her recording on 45. Guess what? They weren't! Jimmie Haskell's dreamy sitar-laced arrangement moves her back and forth between dreamscape and nightmare tableau as she stumbles in anguish through a faltering love affair. Dusty never sang this number live, but it fairly cries out for embellishment with her signature arm and hand gestures.

With its satiny vocals and slow-percolating woodblock and electric piano arrangement, Dusty's cover of Alan O'Day's "Easy Evil" calls to mind her 1970 rendition of the Classics IV's "Spooky". She performs this sexy snippet of a tune with a wicked leer in her voice; for sure, she's not mama's little girl anymore! Then we have Dusty's brilliant version of Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey". Surely one of her greatest performances on wax, this song fits her Soul diva persona like a glove. It's bluesy, but she wisely places the emphasis on its Gospel elements. Her deceptively straightforward interpretation is anything but; it's many-faceted, simultaneously communicating languor and passion, sweetness and spice. Steve Barri was probably tempted to put a full choir behind her, but he was smart to resist temptation; the backing voices are appropriately understated. Really, Dusty's voice and that fabulous saxophone accompaniment could've carried the tune all by themselves.

David Gates' "The Other Side Of Life" is a fragile soap bubble of a song that nearly shatters from overproduction. No orchestration was necessary; all it needed was acoustic guitar accompaniment. Dusty knew it called for delicate handling even if her production team didn't, and her feather-light touch salvages the track. After the tension of "Who Gets Your Love?" and "Breakin' Up A Happy Home", Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson's "I Just Wanna Be There" is the joyful release we've been waiting for. Steve Barri touches off a musical jubilee around the song with tambourines and soaring brass. La Springfield and her sanctified background singers (including Hollywood session stalwarts Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews) bask in the glow of a superb Gospel/Pop number, the kind Ashford and Simpson specialize in. What a pity Dusty never cut a whole album of their songs.

Recorded for and used in the ABC Movie Of The Week "Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole", Hugo Montenegro and Bradford Craig's "Learn To Say Goodbye" sounds like a blast from the past. It fits right into Dusty's Italian ballad repertoire alongside "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" and "Give Me Time". Steve Barri's production just hints at the majesty it would've had if she and Johnny Franz had produced it in her '60s heyday. As a single, it did crack the American Adult-Contemporary charts, but the era of power ballads had come and gone. It would return in the 1980s, of course, but that didn't help Dusty in 1973. She'd enjoy one last ballad hit in 1987, when she contributed a guest vocal to Richard Carpenter's solo single "Something In Your Eyes".

LONGING
ABC-Dunhill DSD-50186
recorded 1974, unreleased

There was supposed to be a second ABC-Dunhill album. A catalog number was assigned, and album art was produced. Dusty hired former Jeff Barry associate Brooks Arthur to helm the project, and she traveled to suburban New York to record it. The proposed song list included contributions by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Carole Bayer-Sager, Janis Ian and Barry Manilow. Manilow played keyboards, top arrangers Gary Sherman and Ron Frangipane were engaged to write charts, and Melissa Manchester led the backing vocal group. It looked like a promising collaboration, but nobody realized that Dusty was on the verge of a nervous collapse. When the breakdown came, her new album was abandoned midway; Dusty fled back to her California refuge where superficiality, dubious friendships and drug binges awaited her.

In 2001, Hip-O Records, the reissue arm of ABC-Dunhill’s successor Universal Music, did La Springfield a huge dishonor by issuing all the unfinished album tracks on CD. It’s heartbreaking to hear her tortured “scratch” vocals on songs clumsily remixed to sound like finished masters. However, a handful of the selections do feature complete vocal takes, and two of these are absolute stunners. Janis Ian’s “In The Winter” represents an artistic zenith for both composer and interpreter; it’s sublime pathos poetry set to music. In her most emotionally fragile state, Dusty grasps after Ian’s lyric like a drowning woman and hangs on to it for dear life: And in the winter/Extra blankets for the cold/Fix the heater/Gettin' old/ You are with her now, I know/I'll live alone forever/Not together now. She doesn’t just interpret the words, she confesses them! Never before or since has the pain of abandonment been communicated so starkly, so directly, and so masterfully; “In The Winter” is, quite simply, Dusty Springfield’s finest recording.

The second marvel to emerge from her 1974 sessions is “Beautiful Soul”, a woman-to-woman love ballad penned by Lesbian music icon Margie Adam. La Springfield treats this song as if it were a flower and she a honeybee; circling it lazily, she comes to rest on the petals and tenderly extracts the delicious nectar . . . a delicacy she ultimately was too frightened to share with anyone else. The unabashed homosexual theme of “Beautiful Soul”, with its potential to destroy the career Dusty worked so hard to build, may very well be what pushed her over the edge. Nearly four years passed before she found the courage to enter a recording studio again. When she did, Hollywood was her venue once more, but a new label, United Artists Records, had become her musical home.
It Begins Again

IT BEGINS AGAIN
United Artists UA-LA791-H
released February 1978

Her debut LP for United Artists, It Begins Again, ranks as her second best album of the ‘70s. By not forcing her to sample a number of tunes from one songwriting team’s catalog, it honors her eclecticism better than Cameo does. Also, the production values aren’t as glaringly high gloss as they’d been on the previous set. Not to imply that Roy Thomas Baker produced the sessions on a meager budget; there are lots of strings and brass, and even a hint of Phil Spector sensibility in some of the sound mixes (minus the singer-obscuring Spector bombast). Dusty got a solid piece of product out of Queen's former producer, and unlike her ordeal with Lambert, Potter and Barri, she enjoyed working with him. They worked together so closely, in fact, that he gave her an associate producer credit. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her comeback album from sounding dreadfully uneven; it suffers from inconsistent quality of material. Since she was involved in all the track selections, Dusty has to share blame as well as kudos, but to be sure, there are gold nuggets to be found among the stones.

First attempted during her aborted Brooks Arthur sessions, Chi Coltrane's soaring "Turn Me Around" is an excellent showcase for Miss Beehive's high vocal range. Despite the bright, florid melody, it's a song of regret and atonement, and she sings as if it were a hymn. Her prayerful tone is enhanced with angelic background voices led by future Disco star Pattie Brooks. The circular structure of this ballad makes you think of the waltz, but it's actually a modified tango; the arrangement was written by Barry Fasman, future music director of the "Fame" TV series. Dusty had tried recording Holland, Dozier and Holland's "A Love Like Yours" for her 1974 album, too; the surviving tapes confirm her failure to nail it down. However, she was determined to add the number to her catalog of distinguished Motown covers, and managed to do so under Roy Thomas Baker's supervision. At one time, the song appears to have been Phil Spector's favorite Motown record; he covered it twice, first with Ike and Tina Turner (who scored a Top Twenty British hit with their version) and later as a duet featuring Cher and Harry Nilsson. Dusty was no doubt familiar with the Turners' record, but given her longtime friendship with Martha Reeves, its inclusion here probably reflects her affection for the original Martha and The Vandellas single. Her cover certainly sounds nothing like Spector's ponderous production; she and RTB give it an old-fashioned, swinging, gather-round-the-piano treatment. Unexpected hard Rock guitar licks keep the track from sounding too old-fashioned, though. The fun Miss Beehive has interpreting "A Love Like Yours" is obvious from the way she allows her voice to get all nasty and guttural at the fade.

Lesley Gore has spoken about struggling in the 1970s to make it as a professional songwriter along with her then-writing partner, Ellen Weston. If most of their compositions sounded like "Love Me By Name", it's not hard to understand why she struggled. Dusty was no doubt attracted to the world-weariness of this soapy ballad, but it has little else to recommend it; the song turns out to be an ill-conceived piece of melodramatic fluff, not worth her attention at all. She tries to dress it up in an emotional rendition, as Lesley Gore herself did with her own earlier recording, but neither of them could disguise the truth: "Love Me By Name" would be the ham sandwich at anybody's musical banquet table.

"Hollywood Movie Girls" was Dusty's second feminist song, a sensitive ode to women chasing dreams of stardom in Hollywood penned by Gaille Heidemann. (Heidemann was definitely one of those girls she wrote about; back in 1970, Cheryl Ladd just barely edged her out of a job with Josie and The Pussycats, the cartoon-inspired Rock group.) The malaise that permeates the song's bittersweet lyric probably mirrored the misgivings Dusty herself was having by this time about her move to the glitter capitol. Miss Beehive didn't wait another album to cut her next feminist number. She programmed "Sandra" on It Begins Again, too, and its bottomless well of pathos makes "Hollywood Movie Girls" sound like a fairy tale. Its narrative spins the sad tale of a woman suffering from post-partum depression and coming to terms with a loveless marriage. At the song's climax, she attempts suicide. Lord, I love my husband, and I love my kids, Dusty wails, the urgency in her voice making the protagonist sound simultaneously sincere and uncertain. Another masterful dual interpretation on her part. The Barry Manilow/Enoch Anderson composition emphasizes a woman's need to find fulfilling work, and leaves open the possibility of closeted Lesbianism (albeit in a subtle way that doesn't encourage awkward questions about Dusty's own sexuality). The Alfred Hitchcock-reminiscent string coda that closes this track suggests an uncertain fate for Sandra, and underscores the occasional brilliance of Roy Thomas Baker's production.

A tragic ballad like "Sandra" should've been followed by a steamy love song. From a mood standpoint, an album sequencer would want to gradually bring down the intensity of emotion without jarring the listener with too much emotional contrast. The Dusty Springfield/Steve Dorff production of "Let Me Love You Once Before You Go", her very first recording under United Artists Records auspices, would've been the ideal segue. It finds Dusty revisiting the adulterous relationship territory she staked out on 1969's “Breakfast In Bed”: It’s like looking in the mirror of a fine boutique, she muses, knowing there is nothing I could ever buy. Then we learn what kind of boutique she’s talking about: The kind that sells forbidden love! When she pants sweet baby, please come over here at the song’s, ahem, climax, it’s ten times more erotic than any sexually explicit booty call a Hip Hop artist might feel forced to vocalize. Miss Beehive simply excelled at singing about illicit sex; she proved it again years later when she put her indelible stamp on the Profumo scandal-inspired Disco rocker “In Private.” The production values on “Let Me Love You” aren’t so terribly different from what we hear on It Begins Again, but Roy Thomas Baker probably didn't want people comparing his productions with Dusty's. Knowing she’d supervised recordings like “Goin’ Back” and “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten”, who could blame him? So her self-produced single (which nearly broke for a regional hit) was omitted, and the new album hit the racks with only nine tracks on it. That was fairly slim pickings for a Pop record, even in 1978.

“I Found Love With You” comes from the pen of Disco producer Bob Esty, who also arranged the track. It’s actually more dance Pop than Disco, the kind of deliriously giddy number you might associate with Bette Midler’s stage show. Besides providing Dusty with a bonafide uptempo track to sing on this ballad-heavy set, there’s no justification for it being in her catalog. The tune is pleasant enough, and she sings it competently, but that’s about all you can say. The only really memorable elements of the track are its rather incongruous cocktail piano licks. “Checkmate”, on the other hand, is completely memorable. It’s an edgy, confrontational song from a songwriter who specialized in that kind of material: Dusty’s friend Nona Hendryx, formerly of the Glam-Rock vocal trio LaBelle. In addition to its appearance on It Begins Again, "Checkmate" sneaked out on the back of a dull movie theme single La Springfield cut later in the year. This tough-as-nails flipside blew the plug side all to smithereens; just play “Checkmate” once, and you won’t even remember what “Give Me The Night” sounds like. In a program of AOR ballads and lite Pop fare, its aggressiveness comes across like a glass of cold water thrown in the face, but the sensation is not unwelcome. It reminds us that, despite her sophisticated veneer, Dusty is still a Rock ‘n’ Roll singer. When Miss Beehive hisses You can fake me/Fake me/But I keep on comin’ at'cha/I ain't movin'!, you can almost picture her in a gangsta girl crouch, pulling a switchblade from her big old bouffant hairdo! Just give it a New Wave makeover, and “Checkmate” would fit snugly into the track listing of Dusty’s 1982 White Heat LP. Incidentally, Bob Esty's charts are on display here, too.

Most fans of ‘60s Pop/Rock had a hard time transitioning to Disco. Songs like “That’s The Kind Of Love I Got For You” certainly didn’t ease the transition. Its overheated rhythm section and mindless repetition of the title signifies the genre at its worst. Songwriters Don Fletcher and Dean Parks had placed this dubious dance number with Rita Jean Bodine four years earlier. A cover version was entirely uncalled-for! Dusty obviously wanted to stay abreast of contemporary trends, but she really should've held out for a better tune. Because it’s so mediocre, the track seems interminably long; two decent dance Rock numbers could’ve gone in place of this monstrosity. Yet amazingly, it found an audience: Club deejays were serviced with a Tom Moulton remix of this frantic reject from a Brazilian Mardi Gras celebration, and that mix managed to net Dusty her first charting club record. Nine years later, she'd top the Dance charts as a guest vocalist on The Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This", but that was the extent of her club appeal. (It’s a crime that deejays would play a forgettable track like "That's The Kind Of Love" and ignore far better dance discs Dusty cut in later years like “Donnez-Moi”, “Reputation” and “In Private”.) Dusty and Roy Thomas Baker must've thought nothing could follow their Disco extravaganza, so they closed the album with it. Big mistake! A chanteuse should never say goodnight to her audience on a sour note. The song they should’ve ended with was “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love”. The title all but screams “album closer”, so how could they have overlooked it? Even though the subject matter (a disintegrating relationship, natch) is melancholy, the breezy melody has a hopeful quality about it. Dusty picks up on that quality, and optimism permeates her delivery. She may be sad now, but she’s anticipating a brighter day tomorrow. Making this the final cut on Side Two would’ve symbolically set the stage for Dusty’s next LP release. Could it be someone had a bad premonition about that subsequent album?

"In The Winter" continues with Part Two.

No comments: