27 December 2008

Dusty Springfield (Part Three)

Dusty In Nashville
In The Winter

Dusty Springfield's Lesser Albums
by 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.

Dusty Springfield (Part Four)


Dusty In Nashville
In The Winter
Dusty Springfield's Lesser Albums
by Donny Jacobs


Dusty In Hollywood

LIVING WITHOUT YOUR LOVE
United Artists UA-LA936-H 

released January 1979
Dusty chose the relatively inexperienced David Wolfert to helm her second and final United Artists LP. The two reportedly did battle in the studio, and judging from the non-starter of an album they made together, she surely must've regretted the decision. Despite its sophisticated and sleek production style (you can practically see the wine and cheese table set up in the studio lounge), Living Without Your Love is her hands-down worst album of the 1970s. It spends too much time chasing an upscale mood and too little exploiting the abilities of its unique artist. Dusty simply doesn't get enough raw material to work with. Listening to this LP will remind you of a dinner at an expensive restaurant that you leave still feeling hungry. Most of the songs appear to have been written by committee, with three to five writers credited. 

The tune that drew the most attention was the David Foster/Eric Mercury collaboration "Closet Man". The title references camouflaged sexual orientation, and so does the lyric, but not too explicitly. Recording "Beautiful Soul" may have freaked Dusty out, but she seems to enjoy playing with the coy Gay themes of this jazzy number. Gary Coleman's vibes nicely underscore the whimsy in her vocal interpretation. Definitely one of the album's better selections, the track goes down smooth like brandy and calls to mind the future work of R & B icon Luther Vandross. Dusty would come to idolize Vandross, who was himself a "closet man", but it's unlikely that Foster and Mercury had him in mind when writing the song. 

Melissa Manchester was one of the authors of "Be Somebody", a ballad that starts out promisingly enough. However, it's got an albatross around the neck: a repetitive chorus that quickly becomes annoying. Thankfully, the song doesn't last very long, but it runs out of steam long before the (merciful) fade. Carole Bayer-Sager and Franne Gold collaborated on "Dream On", a soulful Adult Contemporary number with a nice little groove. There's a touch of Country music mixed in with the Soul elements, and you suspect it would've made an altogether decent Country song. Dusty sings it like it were a tasty piece of toffee on her tongue. From a lyrical standpoint, though, it's nothing special. 

"I Just Fall In Love Again", another selection from the Steve Dorff songbook, is one of several songs here that weren't fully realized. An excellent composition, late '70s production values don't do it justice. It needs the massive, Wally Stott orchestra treatment heard on Dusty classics from the '60s like "All I See Is You". A bigger sound would surely have drawn a more forceful performance from her. Given her reputation for Motown covers, Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" was a natural choice for Dusty to record, but David Wolfert's subdued sound mix treats her voice like just another instrument in the band. Jai Winding's gospelly piano work ends up being the main attraction of Tom Saviono's slow rolling, New Orleans-flavored arrangement. A good record, but it could've been great. 

A similarly timid mix can't obscure the appeal of Ben Weisman and Evie Sands' "You Can Do It", though. It's the hands-down best song and best performance on the album. Another jazz-tinged track like "Closet Man", it's got a funky, streetwise attitude that prompts a deliciously sullen vocal reading from Dusty. Like "Checkmate", this is a warm-up for the gutsy work she'd deliver on her next LP, White Heat. However, there's nothing gutsy about "Get Yourself To Love". Doug McCormick's Gospel-flavored ballad needed an altogether more Rock 'n' Roll treatment, but of course, that would have killed the cocktail hour mood David Wolfert was cultivating. Better to have left it off the album than do it so terribly wrong; Dusty could've really pulled out the stops on this number if she'd been given a chance, but the middle-of-the-road arrangement didn't give her one. 

Barry Gibb's "Save Me, Save Me" is yet another performance that got away. Dusty sings it with just enough enthusiasm to put it across, but with more driving accompaniment, she undoubtedly would've put more fire into her vocal. Then her second foray into Disco territory might've followed her first into the charts, but Frankie Valli's version got the airplay instead. "Save Me", Save Me" wasn't even released as a single in the United States. You can't help but think Dusty would've done better hiring Barry Gibb to produce the song himself (not to mention the entire LP). 

By fan consensus, "I"m Coming Home Again" was the album's standout ballad. Dusty navigates Carole Bayer-Sager's lyrics like the pro she always was, investing them with either pathos or elation at exactly the right moment. Like "I Just Fall In Love Again", this song belongs in the '60s, powered by a full-throttle Johnny Franz/Dusty Springfield orchestra treatment. Only the quality of the song and the performance can explain the esteem fans hold it in; there's nothing distinguished about the string-laden production at all. The most undistinguished track of all is probably "Living Without Your Love". Worse, the song itself is mediocre, a waste of Dusty's time and talent; the only thing that makes it listenable is the tight Disco rhythm section. Yet David Wolfert must've thought a lot of it, since he made it the title track. Could that have had something to do with the fact that he co-wrote the tune? 

Very Fine Love

A VERY FINE LOVE
Columbia CK 67053 
released June 1995
Fade out from 1979 and fade back into the year 1994, dateline: Nashville, Tennessee. Four years earlier, Dusty realized her second career comeback, this time under the auspices of her new friends, The Pet Shop Boys. Reputation, a collection anchored by their dance-oriented songs and productions, was her most successful studio album since Dusty . . . Definitely back in 1967. Disco diva status beckoned, but La Springfield balked at being pigeonholed. She declined to cut a follow-up dance record, leaving her career to languish again for a few years. "I wasn't raised on (that) kind of music," she protested to interviewer Laura Lee Davies. "I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe (I should sing) Country, they really appreciate someone with a few sad songs to sing and a story to tell." Her words proved prophetic. In the summer of 1993, Sony Music approached her with the idea of recording a Country Pop album in Nashville; surprisingly, Dusty agreed. The Springfields had recorded there in 1962, and she hadn't liked it much then. However, the passage of three decades had seen the town evolve beyond its rural music roots into a major hub of songwriting and session talent. Dusty was aware of the changes in Nashville, and felt she could benefit from them. Ultimately, she didn't benefit much, but unexpected health problems were as much to blame for that as anything else. 

The breast cancer that would eventually claim Dusty's life was diagnosed during sessions for A Very Fine Love. Producers Tom Shapiro and Brian Tankersley worked hard to camouflage the wasting effect it had on her singing voice; you can barely hear much difference in her performances. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain, because they didn't pay enough attention to song selection. They supervised the tracking of some of the blandest material Dusty ever had the bad luck to sing. After the triumph of Reputation in 1990, who would've guessed that she might release another set as unsatisfactory as Living Without Your Love? To be fair, A Very Fine Love wasn't quite as bad as that, but it came much too close for comfort. 

Jim Photoglo and Bobby DiPiero's "Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love" is the first of three wannabe Country Funk tracks that pass for uptempo selections on this album. Its strong hooks and punchy rhythm makes it easily the best of the trio, but prominent synthesizers give it a rather cheesy sound. A full brass section would've framed the vocals better. Budget limitations, maybe? Then the downhill slide starts with Craig Wiseman's "All I Have To Offer You Is Love". This song is painfully contrived, bogged down by cliché lyrics and a bass heavy arrangement that tends toward funk but never quite gets there. At least the solo guitar work by Dan Huff is worth hearing. 

"I Can't Help The Way I Don't Feel" is no improvement. Probably the closest thing to a bonafide Country tune on the album, it's awkwardly titled, wordy, and not compelling in the least musically. Rather frothy production values don't help. Inexplicably, this weak track was chosen for inclusion on UK Mercury's definitive Dusty Springfield collection in the year 2000. A tight habanera rhythm picks up the pace on Graham Lyle and Terry Britten's "Old Habits Die Hard". It could've stood both an edgier arrangement and a more strident lead vocal, but given Dusty's health problems at the time of recording, she no doubt sung it as forcefully as she was able. Lyrically, the song is a trifle, but the catchy music does get your toes tapping. 

"Lovin' Proof", previously a Celine Dion album track, is another unsuccessful stab at funky honky tonk music. While the melody is solid, and the embellishment by Dusty and Audrey Wheeler's backing vocal unit is, too, the song lacks sufficient hooks, and the lyrics aren't memorable. Not exactly one of Diane Warren's better writing efforts here. Warren didn't cornered the market on great contemporary tunes, though. "Roll Away" is the kind of song a performer prays to find; this one track is worth the price of the entire album. Will Jennings and Martee Lebow's atmospheric Country/Blues ballad sounds as if it had been tailormade for Dusty, but that isn't the case; it was written for no one in particular, and she learned it from the songwriters' demo. She was, however, first to record this gem, and no one will ever surpass her reading. The way she sings it's only time and the river calls to mind images of Huck Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi. The last single to chart during Dusty's lifetime needed to be classic right out of the box, and "Roll Away" definitely was. 

Some songs require their emotional impact to be conveyed by the singer alone. Too much instrumentation spoils them, and even a little is too much. The aforementioned "Other Side Of Life" from Cameo is such a composition. Matraca Berg and Ron Samoset's "You Are The Storm" is another. With bare bones musical accompaniment, it might've worked well for Dusty. Unfortunately, Messieurs Shapiro and Tankersley couldn't resist the temptation to swaddle it in guitars and keyboards. The nuances of her delivery can't save it from boiling over into artificial-sounding melodrama. She has better luck with John Jarvis and Randy Goodrum's "Go Easy On Me". Her gossamer voice is pregnant with soulful feeling as she delicately extracts believability from the shopworn lyric. In the hands of a lesser artiste, this song's overwrought nature would be much more obvious. Sensitive production and vocals has lifted many a throwaway song from mediocrity to greatness; here's an example. 

If there's one tune that demonstrates why Diane Warren is Queen of the Rock Ballad songwriters, it's "Wherever Would I Be?" This is the kind of rousing, barn-burner anthem arena bands like Foreigner build a following on. Dusty doesn't sing it like Foreigner's Lou Gramm (she didn't have the strength to even attempt that), but she still belts the Hell out of it, and her performance bristles with authority. At this advanced point in her career, Dusty can convey quiet dignity even while wailing her heart out. Fronting a sea of overdubbed backing voices, she comes across like the senior soloist in a Gospel choir; she's justified, ancient, experienced, and proud of it! The duet version with Daryl Hall that appears on this album may boast more star power, but the original solo recording (which, oddly enough, has yet to appear on a stateside CD) is the keeper. 

The last diamond to be unearthed in this final Dusty Springfield collection is arguably the rarest and most brilliant. KT Oslin and Jim Gillespie's "Where Is A Woman To Go?" finds La Springfield in sackcloth garments, standing at the Wailing Wall and crying the broken-heart blues of every abandoned woman since time immemorial. Her rasping interpretation sounds timeless; it could just as easily have been recorded in 1924 as 1994. Repetition, underscored by the righteous harmonies of co-writer Oslin and Country/Folk diva Mary Chapin Carpenter, is this song's secret weapon. The chorus, equal parts Blues and Gospel, brands itself into your brain and rocks you so profoundly, you can't be blamed for wiping away tears. Regardless of whether you're male, female or transgender, it's a mix of pleasure and pain that you just don't want to end. Not only does "Where Is A Woman To Go" have the honor of being the last selection on the last Dusty Springfield album, it's also the last song Dusty ever performed on TV. On 10 June 1995, she featured it on the BBC's Jools Holland show, with Alison Moyet and Sinéad O'Connor subbing for Mesdames Oslin and Carpenter. 

Notable albums like Dusty In Memphis, Reputation and the still-unreleased Jeff Barry production Faithful/Dusty Sings The Blues prove that other producers could bring out important facets of Dusty's talent. However, the preponderance of recorded evidence suggests that Miss Beehive gambled and, more often than not, lost whenever she allowed other people to produce her albums. Like Prince, Madonna and George Michael, she was the kind of artist who got the best results when she assumed complete control over her work. Too many times, the woman born Mary Catherine O'Brien failed to challenge herself, cutting lackluster songs that others pushed on her, or songs that she personally liked but neglected to evaluate with a critical ear. As the 1960s morphed into the '70s, she lost the ability to choose consistently excellent material. Yet her diminished artistic instincts still occasionally steered her in the right direction, and as a result, we have splendid waxings like "Sandra", "Tupelo Honey" "Roll Away", "Where Is A Woman To Go?", "Beautiful Soul" and "In The Winter" to treasure. Fans never knew when Dusty was going to come up with another classic, but we always knew she would if we waited long enough. That's why, despite many wasted feet of recording tape, there's no such thing as a Dusty Springfield album that isn't worth listening to. 

Special thanks to Frances from the UK 
for suggesting this essay.