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Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien, OBE (16 April 1939 – 2 March 1999), professionally known as Dusty Springfield, was an English pop singer and record producer whose career extended from the late 1950s to the 1990s. With her distinctive sensual mezzo-soprano sound, she was an important blue-eyed soul singer and at her peak was one of the most successful British female performers, with six top 20 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 and sixteen on the UK Singles Chart from 1963 to 1989. She is a member of the US Rock and Roll and UK Music Halls of Fame. International polls have named Springfield among the best female rock artists of all time. Her image, supported by a peroxide blonde bouffant hairstyle, evening gowns, and heavy make-up, as well as her flamboyant performances made her an icon of the Swinging Sixties.
Born in West Hampstead to a family that enjoyed music, Springfield learned to sing at home. In 1958 she joined her first professional group, The Lana Sisters, and two years later formed a pop-folk vocal trio, The Springfields, with her brother Tom Springfield and Tim Field. They became the UK's top selling act. Her solo career began in 1963 with the upbeat pop hit, "I Only Want to Be with You". Among the hits that followed were "Wishin' and Hopin' " (1964), "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" (1964), "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (1966), and "Son of a Preacher Man" (1968).
As a fan of US soul music, she brought many little-known soul singers to the attention of a wider UK record-buying audience by hosting the first national TV performance of many top-selling Motown artists beginning in 1965. Partly owing to these efforts, a year later she eventually became the best-selling female singer in the world and topped a number of popularity polls, including Melody Maker's Best International Vocalist. Although she was never considered a Northern Soul artist in her own right, her efforts contributed a great deal to the formation of the genre as a result. She was the first UK singer to top the New Musical Express readers' poll for Female Singer.
To boost her credibility as a soul artist, Springfield went to Memphis, Tennessee, to record Dusty in Memphis, an album of pop and soul music with the Atlantic Records main production team. Released in 1969, it has been ranked among the greatest albums of all time by the US magazine Rolling Stone and in polls by VH1 artists, New Musical Express readers, and Channel 4 viewers. The album was also awarded a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Despite its current recognition, the album did not sell well and after its release, Springfield experienced a career slump for several years. However, in collaboration with Pet Shop Boys, she returned to the Top 10 of the UK and US charts in 1987 with "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Two years later, she had two other UK hits on her own with "Nothing Has Been Proved" and "In Private." Subsequently, in the mid-1990s, owing to the inclusion of "Son of a Preacher Man" on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, interest in her early output was revived.
Springfield's parents, Catherine and Gerard, lived in Hove, East Sussex from 1962. Catherine died in a nursing home there in 1976 of lung cancer. In 1979, Gerard died of a heart attack in Rottingdean, East Sussex.
Some of Springfield's biographers and journalists have speculated that she had two personalities: shy, quiet, Mary O'Brien, and the public face she had created as Dusty Springfield. An editorial review at Publishers Weekly of Valentine and Wickham's 2001 biography, Dancing with Demons, finds that "the confidence [Springfield] exuded on vinyl was a facade masking severe insecurities, addictions to drink and drugs, bouts of self-harm and fear of losing her career if exposed as a lesbian". Simon Bell, one of Springfield's session singers, disputed the twin personality description: "It's very easy to decide there are two people, Mary and Dusty, but they were the one person. Dusty was most definitely Dusty right to the end."
In her early career, much of her odd behaviour was seen as more or less in fun—described as a "wicked" sense of humour—including her food fights and hurling crockery down stairs. Springfield had a great love for animals, particularly cats, and became an advocate for animal protection groups. She enjoyed reading maps and would intentionally get lost to navigate her way out. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Springfield's alcoholism and drug addiction affected her musical career. She was hospitalised several times for self-harm by cutting herself, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Springfield was never reported to be in a heterosexual relationship and this meant that the issue of her sexual orientation was raised frequently during her life. From mid-1966 to the early 1970s Springfield lived in a domestic partnership with fellow singer Norma Tanega. In September 1970, Springfield told Ray Connolly of the Evening Standard:
Many other people say I'm bent, and I've heard it so many times that I've almost learned to accept it ... I know 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.
By the standards of 1970, that was a bold statement. Three years later, she explained to Chris Van Ness of the Los Angeles Free Press:
I mean, people say that I'm gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I'm not anything. I'm just ... People are people ... I basically want to be straight ... I go from men to women; I don't give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can't love a man. Now, that's my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition ... They frighten me.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Springfield became involved in several romantic relationships with women in Canada and the US that were not kept secret from the gay and lesbian community. From late 1972 to 1978, Springfield had an "off and on" domestic relationship with Faye Harris, a US photojournalist. In 1981 she had a six-month love affair with singer-musician Carole Pope of the rock band Rough Trade. During periods of psychological and professional instability, Springfield's involvement in some intimate relationships, influenced by addiction, resulted in episodes of personal injury.
In 1982 Springfield met an American actress Teda Bracci at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; the pair moved in together in April 1983, and seven months later, they exchanged vows at a wedding ceremony which was not legally recognised under California law. The pair had a "tempestuous" relationship which led to an altercation with both Springfield and Bracci hospitalised; Springfield had been smashed in the mouth by Bracci wielding a saucepan and had teeth knocked out, requiring plastic surgery. The pair had separated within two years.
In January 1994, while recording her penultimate album, A Very Fine Love, in Nashville, Tennessee, Springfield felt ill. When she returned to England a few months later, her physicians diagnosed her with breast cancer. She received months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and the cancer was in remission. In 1995, in apparent good health, Springfield set about promoting the album, which was released that year. By mid-1996, the cancer had returned, and in spite of vigorous treatments, she died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on 2 March 1999.
Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had been scheduled two weeks after her death. Her friend Elton John helped induct her into the Hall of Fame, declaring, "I'm biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been ... every song she sang, she claimed as her own."
Springfield's funeral service was attended by hundreds of fans and people from the music business, including Elvis Costello, Lulu, and Pet Shop Boys. It was a Catholic funeral, which took place at the ancient parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in Henley-on-Thames, where Springfield had lived during her last years. A marker dedicated to her memory was placed in the church graveyard. Springfield was cremated and some of her ashes were buried at Henley, while the rest were scattered by her brother, Tom Springfield, at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
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