Who was Dusty Springfield? We all think we know the answer – an international superstar loved by millions who never learned to love herself; a tortured soul forced into hibernation in California because of her sexuality; a washed-up has-been whose repatriation by the next generation of recording artists was cut short by her death from cancer. Poor Dusty, tragic Dusty.
The truth, like the woman, is rather more complex, and the many shades of her personality have been captured in Dusty, a new musical written by Jonathan Harvey and directed by Maria Friedman.
Unlike a jukebox musical of the same name that bombed in 2015, the new show offers a realistic, psychological portrait of the singer, with a narrative based on the memories of people who knew her well. These include Tris Penna, a producer who worked with her in the Eighties and Nineties, Vicki Wickham, who gave Springfield one of her big breaks on the Sixties’ pop show Ready Steady Go!, and Pat Rhodes, the singer’s secretary.
Penna had the idea for the musical six years ago and says he refused to see the rival production when it opened at the Charing Cross Theatre in London.
“I heard it was dire but it made my life difficult while it was running,” he says. “It made me more determined to do the right thing by Dusty.”
Rhodes did see it, but wished she hadn’t. “There were costumes my mother wouldn’t have been seen dead in and the wigs! I could have cried my eyes out. And then they brought in [a] stupid hologram. It was so badly done.”
The new Dusty promises to be a much more accomplished show and will see actress Katherine Kingsley age from 23, when Springfield had her first solo hit, to 59, the age of the singer when she died. Rufus Hound will play her manager, Vic Billings, and Roberta Taylor her mother, Kay. It will also feature some of Springfield’s best songs, such as Son of a Preacher Man and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.
Springfield’s background has been the source of much speculation. Born Mary O’Brien into an Irish immigrant family in 1939, she was a child of the suburbs, living first in High Wycombe and then in Ealing. Her father, who worked as an accountant, was a frustrated concert pianist and her mother, a former dancer, spent her days in an alcoholic fug. Her father would call his plump red-headed daughter “stupid and ugly” and she sometimes self-harmed. But it was impossible to ignore her voice.
Influenced by a mix of American genres, from black soul music to country, folk and pop, Springfield sung with a power and attitude that stood out among other female singers of the era, such as Lulu, Cilla or Sandie Shaw. She made her professional debut at 17 in a small club near Sloane Square and, after success with folk trio The Springfields, started her solo career in 1963 with the hit I Only Want to Be With You. Rhodes was present when the star unveiled her now iconic look – the bouffant wigs, the extraordinary long, fake eyelashes and the evening gowns that weighed a ton.
“Her image was all her idea,” Rhodes explains. “She got it out of Vogue and it really suited her. It was so different and you needed something different to appeal to the public.”
Springfield admitted that the image doubled up as a disguise. “I was raised on potatoes,” she said. “I developed this front so people wouldn’t know. Because if they knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”
And, without a doubt, there was a note of sadness in many of her songs.
But if Springfield was vulnerable, Rhodes says she also responded to a vulnerability in others, often spending hours signing autographs after recording her BBC series, Dusty.
“If someone was especially timid, she made sure she spent extra time with them,” says Rhodes.
Indeed, there was always an affinity for the underdog. She detested the racial divide that was prevalent in music at the time, and would often be the only white artist appearing on a bill when she travelled to America. In South Africa, she refused to play to segregated audiences. “It wasn’t a political statement,” says Wickham. “She just had a strong sense of right and wrong. She was super bright.”
Springfield was also aware that, by the late Sixties, her white soul sound was in danger of becoming old fashioned amid the rise of psychedelia. She decamped to America to record the landmark album Dusty in Memphis. While there, she appeared on The Dating Game. For a gay woman, I suggest, this must have been torture.
Penna disagrees. “If you look at that show, there is a twinkle in her eye. She liked the silliness. There was a self-destructive goofiness to her.”
Wickham is in no doubt that “coming out would have been disastrous”, and yet Springfield herself gave remarkably frank interviews about her sexuality. She told London’s Evening Standard in 1970: “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.”
Nevertheless, Springfield’s move to California in 1972, where she would live for the next 17 years, was necessitated by a need to escape the media. Her previous experiences in the US had sustained, possibly even saved her career, but this time she wasn’t so lucky.
“She went to America thinking it would help and it almost killed her,” says Penna.
Far from home and without a manager, she embarked on a string of ill-advised projects. “It got to the stage where she wasn’t working, so inevitably the drinking and drugs started,” says Wickham. “Each time I saw her in LA, I would try to get her out of wherever she was. But when people are addicted you can’t do much.”
After years of addiction and a string of difficult relationships (“They were all mostly unsuitable,” says Rhodes), Springfield was welcomed back in Britain. She recorded vocals on the Pet Shop Boys’ hit What Have I Done to Deserve This? and re-established herself as a solo artist.
However, her success was fleeting. In 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and, after a brief period of remission, it returned. The stories from this time, of Springfield living reclusively, eating only ice cream and broccoli, and watching repeats of Bonanza in German, were overstated. Wickham recalls much love and laughter in these final years.
“When she was really sick, they would send her home. I remember her being in an ambulance and she asked the driver to stop on the Fulham Road. She ran across to [cookshop] Divertimenti in her hospital gear because she needed something for her kitchen.”
So who was Dusty Springfield? A diva? “No,” says Penna. “She was troubled and demanding but she wasn’t that.”
“She wasn’t a star,” says Rhodes. “She wouldn’t let you call her that because she didn’t think she was.”
“I never thought of her as anything other than Dusty,” says Wickham.
Dusty opens at Theatre Royal Bath on Saturday June 23 before visiting the Sheffield Lyceum, Newcastle Theatre Royal and The Lowry, Salford. Dustyspringfieldmusical.com