Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Ice Queen

By Matt Hanks

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Dusty Springfield has always been misunderstood. Called a visionary by some, a hack by others, she’s done little to refute either tag. She’s left tracks all over the musical map, but it’s impossible to tell if her eclecticism stems from inspiration or trendspotting. She was the hip mod chick who sang traditional folk songs, the white ice queen who helped define Southern soul. She was, and is, utterly confounding. Thirty-five years of recording have only proved one thing – that Dusty possess a malleable but richly distinctive voice. The new three-CD set The Dusty Springfield Anthology on Mercury Chronicles pays tribute to that voice, but does little to demystify its source.

Here’s what we do know: Dusty Springfield spent her childhood being called Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien by her mother. At the age of 22, she signed on as one-third of the Springfields (hence the name change), a folk/pop trio founded by her brother Tom, that scored with hits like “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and “Island of Dreams.” The Springfields’ act was generally rote (whose wasn’t in 1963?), but Dusty’s sharp vocal delivery and the group’s mild genre-bending (aside from folk and pop, they incorporated elements of rock, jazz, even Latin) helped set the stage for the psychedelic Brit-folk movement spearheaded by more inspired and supple-toned women like Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee and their respective groups Fairport Convention and the Pentangle.

The Springfields’ celebrity was short-lived. As was the case for any musician who didn’t hail from Liverpool, 1964 stopped them dead in their tracks. While the Beatles conquered England, America, and the rest of the world in rapid succession, the Springfields were left with their acoustic guitars dangling in the wind.

It was around this time that Dusty underwent the first of many makeovers – musically and cosmetically – a chronic act that would come to define her time in the public eye. As makeovers went, this one – a sort of Doris Day-cum-Mae West routine – served Dusty well. Inspired by newly empowered female acts from the Motown and Phil Spector talent pools, Dusty re-emerged from Mersey with a stronger, more sultry delivery and the mile-high beehive and thick black eye shadow to match. Though she cut a striking visual image, Dusty’s mid-’60s output still stuck to the middle of the musical road – for the most part.

Never a songwriter in her own right, Dusty began to draw heavily from the catalogs of the American songwriting teams of Burt Bacharach/Hal David and Gerry Goffin/Carol King. Other performers were more closely associated with – if not better suited for – these songwriting teams, and Dusty knew it. Relentless comparisons to Dionne Warwick and Ronnie Spector took their toll. But on a few occasions, Dusty turned in definitive performances of her own. One track in particular, Bacharach-David’s “The Look of Love,” was Dusty like no one had ever heard her before. Recorded at a rare early-morning session, the song possesses a drowsy, almost unsettling intimacy – as if Dusty was still between the sheets when she sang it. The song’s come-hither implications and brilliant close-miked saxophone solo made for a landmark in recorded sexual innuendo. More importantly, it presaged the next and undoubtedly most important phase in Dusty’s career.

Save for her performance on “The Look of Love,” no one figured Dusty for a sublime practitioner of Southern soul. But Dusty in Memphis proved just that. This album, her debut for Atlantic Records, usually finds itself in close proximity to words like “legendary” and “cult favorite” – a kind way of saying that it’s more talked about than listened to. That’s a shame, because Dusty in Memphis deserves its place alongside Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You) or Janis Joplin’s Pearl in the American psyche. In fact, you could call it the best album ever recorded in Memphis by a non-Memphian, if that were the case.

One of the reasons Dusty in Memphis is so “legendary” is that it’s so misunderstood. Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler had signed Dusty himself and was intent on personally overseeing her first project for the label. It was a decision he would come to regret. Wexler and Dusty butted heads for months over what songs to record and where to record them. When they finally booked time at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio (not Muscle Shoals, as Wexler had wanted, or Stax, as the album is often accredited), Wexler found his new protege paralyzed by the studio’s unfamiliar surroundings and unconventional techniques. As per the prevailing modus operandi of the day, Dusty was expected to collaborate with the American Studio band on arrangements, tempos, and other variables she was wholly unaccustomed to considering. In his autobiography, Wexler recalls these sessions as “grueling” and concludes that Dusty must be “the most insecure singer in the world.” After two weeks of tracking, Wexler had an album’s worth of exceptional instrumentals, and a cutting-room floor full of botched vocal takes. He gave up. And thus, the vocals for Dusty in Memphis – a document of Southern soul – were recorded in New York.

You’d never guess it from the final product. Dusty in Memphis is a completely seamless work. “Son of a Preacher Man” (re-popularized by 1994’s Pulp Fiction soundtrack) is, by quite a fair piece, the best song she ever recorded. It’s one of those rare tracks where the open spaces sound just as good as the filled ones. “Breakfast in Bed” finds Dusty returning to the bedside manner she introduced with “The Look of Love.” This time, she doesn’t imply, she pleads. And “The Windmills of Your Mind,” for its shear ambition, deserves a place alongside “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” It is soul at its most cerebral.

These three songs, and three others from Dusty in Memphis, are included on the new anthology. It’s tragic that Mercury didn’t include the album in its entirety, especially considering all the bland disco-Dusty material that did make the cut. But the new collection endeavors to present an even-handed overview of her entire career. When you’re talking about Dusty Springfield, even that task is subjective.

Blue Farewell

Blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers, the last remaining original member of Muddy Waters’ legendary ’50s band and a frequent performer in area clubs and festivals, died December 19th in Chicago from complications arising from colon-cancer surgery.

Rogers was born John Lane in 1924 in Ruleville, Mississippi, about 85 miles south of Memphis in Sunflower County. He spent part of his teen years in Memphis, where he first learned to play harmonica, and soon he could be heard playing harp with the likes of Robert Jr. Lockwood and Robert Nighthawk all up and down the Mississippi Delta. In 1947, Rogers, followed the African-American post-war migration north and moved to Chicago.

In 1950, he was playing with guitarist Blue Smitty, when Muddy Waters joined them. Soon afterward, Smitty left, Rogers switched to second guitar, and Little Walter filled in on harp, forming the nucleus of the first great electric-blues band.

Rogers left the Muddy Waters band for good in 1955 and recorded and toured as a solo artist and as a sideman for Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II until he retired from music in the ’60s to run a clothing store. He returned to playing in 1971 with his first solo album, Gold-Tailed Bird, and continued to work steadily until shortly before his death.

Rogers last Memphis appearance was at the 1997 Beale Street Music Festival, where he headlined the blues tent on Saturday night. An appearance later in the year at B.B. King’s Blues Club had to be cancelled when Rogers suddenly took ill.

Rogers influence on blues and rock guitarists has been considerable. His playing style, which combined finger-picked chords and single-note fills, has been copied by innumerable guitarists, including Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Clapton even covered two Rogers compositions – “Goin’ Away Baby” and “Blues Leave Me Alone” – on his acclaimed first all-blues album, 1994’s From The Cradle.

At the time of his death, Rogers was in the middle of a recording project that teamed him and his band with various guest artists who have been influenced by his music. Rogers managed to cut 17 of the planned 30 songs for the record, working with such artists as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, and Jeff Healey. Though no definite plans have been made, Rogers’ manager says he expects Atlantic Records will want to release the album, perhaps later this year.

And last year, as part of its Chess 50th Anniversary collection MCA released the two-CD set Jimmy Rogers: The Complete Chess Recordings, which serves as an excellent introduction to his work.

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