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Dusty Springfield: 'Son Of A Preacher Man's Singer's Blue-Eyed Sadness

Music | November 6, 2017

Dusty Springfield in an undated photo. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Singer Dusty Springfield, whose "Son Of A Preacher Man" was a highlight of the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, had a string of hits in the 1960s and '70s, and is among the greatest blue-eyed soul singers of all time. Her other hits include "I Only Want To Be With You," "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," and her 1969 album Dusty In Memphis is considered a masterpiece. But Springfield lived a troubled, unhappy life, and as a closeted gay celebrity in the 1960s and '70s, never felt the freedom to be herself.

Following Dusty In Memphis and "Son Of A Preacher Man," Dusty Springfield spent years -- the '70s and '80s -- in a dark place. "What Have I Done To Deserve This?," her chart-topping 1987 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, was a momentary bright spot. Although she lived to see "Son Of A Preacher Man" discovered by a new generation thanks to Tarantino, she died of cancer in 1999.

Mary O'Brien's Unhappy Childhood

Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in the UK, the future Dusty Springfield grew up in a dysfunctional family. Her home life as a child, as described in a 2014 biography, was less than ideal. Her mother was an alcoholic who spent her days sitting in movie theaters; her father was a bit eccentric, to say the least. There was no such thing as family nurturing in Springfield’s childhood home. Her father demeaned her by calling her “stupid and ugly,” which only fueled her insecurities. This daily torment left her feeling sorely inadequate and soon led to self-mutilation.  

She Always Felt Like An Outsider

Springfield was tormented and loathed herself, on a daily basis because she wasn’t comfortable in her own skin. She had been inwardly struggling with who she was and her sexual orientation. She knew going to her parents was not an option. To further complicate matters, she attended school at a convent under the supervision of strict nuns. She couldn’t seek counseling at school because homosexuality was sinful. There were different schools of thought on the subject, including electroshock therapy as well as praying the “affliction” away. Dusty Springfield truly believed that she had been cursed.  

She Was Too Talented To Fail

Despite her unhappy upbringing, and often-unhappy life, there were moments and periods of positivity -- it would be hard to have achieved such musical success if not. Indeed, the beginning of her professional career was inspirational. The girl named Mary decided to change. "I just suddenly decided, in one afternoon, to be this other person who was going to make it," she recalled. She bleached her hair and began obsessively studying jazz and soul vocalists. Mary answered an ad in a newspaper and was invited to join the Lana Sisters -- a trio who weren't sisters at all -- and took the name Shan Lana for the gig. In 1960, she left the Lana Sisters and joined up with her brother Tom and another guitar player in The Springfields, a folk-music trio for which she adopted the name Dusty Springfield.

The Springfields were a successful group, sort of a British Peter, Paul and Mary, and became one of the most popular groups in the UK during the pre-Beatles era. They also hold the distinction of being the first British group to place a single in the Billboard top 20, "1962's "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." In 1963, Dusty Springfield struck out on her own.

Dusty Springfield Became A Musical And Style Icon

The hit that kick-started Springfield's solo career was "I Only Want To Be With You," which went to #4 on the UK pop chart. Others followed; throughout the mid-'60s she placed numerous singles in the UK Top Ten. In 1966, she had the biggest hit of her career with "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," her only UK #1 and a top-five hit in the U.S. 

Springfield became well known for her musical and vocal abilities, captivating audiences with her beautiful, blond, bouffant hair, blue eyes and flamboyant sense of style and fashion. Springfield's appearance and ample vocal talent made her a big star who'll forever be associated with the Swinging '60s and the Swinging London scene. As beautiful as she was, Springfield despised everything about herself including her physical appearance.

About the time Dusty Springfield was beginning to realize her success, her life was simultaneously coming unraveled. She sought comfort by losing herself in the stories of Doris Day and Billie Holiday because she was able to identify with them. She was still struggling with her sexual identity and used pills and alcohol in an effort to lessen her inhibitions; making it easier to experiment with lesbian relationships. The effects of intoxication, obviously, being only temporary. As with any celebrity, the media picked up on it, which only muddied the waters.

Dusty Springfield's Behavior Became Increasingly Erratic

Liquid courage only goes so far in a deep-seeded personal struggle. Dusty Springfield was in such agony that she began to display bizarre and eccentric behavior, not unlike what she had seen as a child but possibly more pronounced. She reportedly ordered boxes of dishes to be delivered just so she could smash then against the wall. She had also been known to “toilet paper” houses, throw furniture, throw food in restaurants and often play mean and distasteful pranks on others. At one point she went so far that she landed herself in New York’s Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital; having been diagnosed with a nervous breakdown. That, however, was not her only trip to Bellevue. She had become well known for her unhinged behavior and naturally, her reputation eventually suffered for it.

Who Knows How Her Story Might Have Been Different Today?

In the 1960s, among other issues, women were fighting for sexual equality. Springfield had desperately hoped that at some point lesbians would be included in the liberation movement. At that moment in time, homosexuality was still taboo and especially so for women. She had spent her entire life hating herself and running away from who she was. Sadly, Dusty Springfield spent years in a self-imposed prison.

Tags: Celebrities When They Were Young | Dusty Springfield | Music In The 1960s | Quentin Tarantino | What Did She Do?...

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.