There is no doubting that Dusty Springfield was one of the greatest singers of all time, as well as being one of England’s best vocal exports. And it was on her 1969 release Dusty in Memphis where everything came together harmoniously, in a collection of songs that optimises the amazing vocal abilities of this great singer.
Dusty in Memphis was Dusty’s fifth studio album and came at a time when she needed a career boost in order to get her out of the British club circuit and onto a wider stage. So it was with this that she dived head first into American soul music, signing with prominent R&B/soul label Atlantic Records and inheriting a team of producers that included Jerry Wexler who had worked on albums by Aretha Franklin (one of Dusty’s main inspirations). The result was soul and nothing but soul, and it seemed that Dusty had finally found her calling as a singer, with the combination of some great soul songs and Dusty fitting together perfectly like a glove. Backed by a group of studio musicians called the Memphis Cats who had played with Wilson Pickett and Elvis amongst others, and the prestigious singing group The Sweet Inspirations on backing vocals, Dusty delved into the annuls of the then modern day American songbook, taking on songs by some of the best songwriters of the period. Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Goffin/King and Mann/Weill originals would all feature, as Dusty put her stamp on some amazing songs and in many cases made them her own. Dusty’s voice sounds mega on here, in what is surely one of the best vocal performances on record. She nails pretty much every song with amazing technique and delivery, with a voice that also sounds soft and silky and that harnesses incredible range and an amazing control of tone.
In terms of the overall sound of the album and on the production side of things, Wexler and co go for a heavily produced sound on here with a full backing band complete with string and horn sections, as well as the prominent use of backing vocalists, not that Dusty needed them of course. This leads to quite a dense layer of sound across the album similar to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, as well as the great recordings of Motown. The extensive nature of the production means that at times it feels like Dusty is having to compete with the massively extravagant instrumental arrangements in order to let her voice shine through. This appears to especially be the case during the choruses. Sometimes I feel they tend to overdo the production side of things rather than just letting Dusty’s voice take centre stage, and that some of the songs would have sounded even better if the instrumental arrangements were stripped right back. However this is just more of an overall observation rather than a criticism, while the heavy production on these songs is no real surprise and was immensely popular on records by soul singers and singing groups during that time.
There are many highlights for me on this album starting with opening track “Just a Little Lovin” which is quite a sexy number with a great vocal and nice arrangement, and the gorgeous “So Much Love” which captures the essence of Dusty so well in what is also one of the more soulful tracks on the record. Then there’s “Son of a Preacher Man” which goes without saying really, and the up-tempo “Don’t Forget About Me” which is more of an R&B-like number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Stax record. Finally, “The Windmills of Your Mind” is very different from everything else on the record and has an overall eerie mystery to it, whilst also featuring an almost bossa nova styled acoustic guitar accompaniment, and the brilliant album closer “I Can’t Make It Alone”, a track which appears almost like a soul anthem and one that Dusty puts everything she has into.
Time has been kind to Dusty in Memphis, although it was not a great commercial success at the time despite garnering a good response from the critics. It has since gone on to become considered a great album, of which Rolling Stone magazine listed as the eighty-ninth best album of all time, and the third best album in a poll titled “women in Rock: 50 essential albums”. The praise heaped on this album comes as no real surprise when you consider the quality on here and the amazing vocal performance from Dusty herself. Dusty in Memphis was the moment that turned Dusty from a really good singer into a great singer, whilst helping to turn her career around completely. This would arguably become her defining statement as a singer and is also one of the things she will be best remembered for as an artist. Dusty in Memphis is one of the great soul records and contains in my opinion one of the greatest vocal performances. It is truly a great listen and a must for music fans.