It wasn’t much of a stretch to call the British Mary O’Brien, better known as Dusty Springfield, “The White Queen of Soul.” Nor was it surprising that that is what she became. Her younger version, the one who kicked up dust playing football with the local boys, was enamoured at an early age with Count Basie, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Peggy Lee.

During her forty year reign as a pop vocalist, she landed eighteen singles in the Billboard Hot 100 from 1964-1970 and garnered recognition from both the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame. Elton John, a great fan, at the American ceremony, had stated, “I think she is the greatest white singer there has ever been.”

Her career started simply when she joined forces with her brother, Dion, in the folk trio, the Springfields. That effort, however, would be short lived. Her first single, ‘I Only Want to Be With You’, in 1963, echoed the style of the popular girl groups she adored. It was characterized by blaring brass, double-tracked vocals and orchestra hits. One million copies later it was given a gold medal in the UK.

Her 1964 debut album, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’, included the torchy, minor-keyed ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Burt Bacharach’s ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ which became a US Top 10. Another recording, ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’ solidified her status as one of the greatest, white interpreters of R & B/Pop.

Throughout Dusty’s career, she felt the sting of racial injustice. When touring South Africa, she performed before an integrated audience. Because she ignored the rules of apartheid, she found herself deported.

Her selection of material was unique. After hearing the Italian ballad, ‘Lo Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), her manager, Vicki Wickham, hurriedly scrawled English lyrics to it on a napkin. ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ became a number one smash in the UK, subsequently, in 1966 and reached number four in the US charts.

A steady devotee of Motown, Dusty arranged to bring together the Temptations, the Supremes and the Miracles for a ‘Ready Steady Go!’ TV special, ‘The Sound of Motown’. Throughout her career, she garnered a huge, international gay following, and became a style icon because of her Bardot-like make-up, bleached-blonde, beehive and glitzy eveningwear.

Another one of her more emotionally driven covers, ‘The Look of Love’ (which was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) defied pop categorization with its pronounced, jazz chords and undulating tempo. The glamorous contralto sang lusty, breathless vocals over the top.

By the end of the 1960s, Dusty had garnered the attention of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Marden, Atlantic Records producers. Unlike her former mentors, the team determined that her previous “Wall of Sound” productions hardly did justice to her fine voice and that it should take on a starring role.

By the 1970s, Dusty was spending most of her time in the US. In 1971, her final album on Atlantic, ‘A Brand New Me’ was released. To revitalize her career, in the 1980s, she collaborated with Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys, to record ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ plus songs with Richard Carpenter and B.J. Thomas.

Dusty’s legacy was that she had become one of the most influential, and evocative, vocal stylists of her era. Whilst recording what would be her final album, ‘A Very Fine Love’ in Nashville, Dusty began to feel sick. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer, at that time and then in 1996, after radiation treatments had failed, diagnosed again.

Because of a pre-arrangement between the Queen and Vicki Wickens, the renowned singer was able to receive her OBE (Order of the British Empire) award in her Henley-on-Thames hospital room surrounded by a small circle of family and friends. Ironically, the actual date of the ceremony was the day that she died, March 2, 1999.

‘Goin’ Back: The Definitive Dusty Springfield’, Dusty Springfield’s super deluxe new box set includes four CDs, three DVDs, two hardback books and four photo prints. It’s obviously designed for the British, blue-eyed soul fanatic. But, even if one is new to Dusty or has heard one of her pop, R & B or torchy ballads, there is a lot here to take in.

Dusty performs a number of well-known covers such as ‘How Can I Be Sure’ made famous by the Little Rascals and ‘You Don’t Own Me’ which, to many, was Lesley Gore’s baby. ‘Angel of the Morning’ was done in a unique way and was well worth the effort. ‘Spooky’ has an uncluttered vamp and an expressive horn solo.

You will also hear her classics like ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ which, with its contrasting rhythms in the B section, give Dusty a chance to show off her versatile ear and ability to tackle rapidly, shifting material.

‘Give Me Time’ was beautifully arranged giving the talented singer a lot of room for expression, and the lesser known ‘Little by Little’ features escalating vocal, melodic lines, whimsical modulations and, in general, a riveting, sonic ride.

We’re also treated to some Motown-inspired stuff. ‘All Cried Out’ delights with a minor to major- keyed chorus that comes alive with backing vocals. ‘Am I the Same Girl?’ is just plain funky with blaring horn, but ‘All I See is You’ suffers from way too many horns.

‘In the Middle of Nowhere’ is lush and bluesy and a refreshing change from the usual cannon.

‘A Brand New Me’ has a slow, cool, finger-snapping breadth that will definitely attract some new fans. Some other tunes that showcase Dusty’s voice in its purest form are ‘Stay a While’ which recalls the riveting, all-girl bands like the Ronettes, the Blossoms and the Crystals. The lyrics are profoundly innocent and ooze with delightful call and response. ‘Losing You’ has a cunningly, slow rise to the hook, showing off Dusty’s ability to make her singing sound absolutely effortless.

A medley: “It’s Your Thing/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough/Since You’ve Been Gone” shows that Dusty was always searching for a different way to express herself, theme-wise, but some songs that were earmarked “rareties” missed the mark.

With the Springfields she performed live, ‘Breakaway’ and ‘Bambino’ – a sort of Mariachi tune – and ‘Goodnight Irene’ a song that has been consistently over played, anyway, but this version is just weird. Obviously, though, we can chalk these off to it being an early, exploratory work.

‘Can’t We Be Friends?’ is a duet with Peter Miles. Again we have to give the production team and Dusty accolades for showing us so many different sides of her persona, even if not every song reveals her gut-wrenching potency.

One disc features songs from the “stage and screen” such as ‘Windmills of your Mind’, and ‘What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?’ which served as lovely vehicles for Dusty’s range and vocal texture, and, of course, the gorgeous lyrics leave lots of room for expression.

One of my personal favorites, though, was the superbly understated ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ A George-Shearing style acoustic piano makes a stunning backing for Dusty’s contagious contralto. Another classic torch song, ‘The Look of Love’, is here with two renditions; one is heavier on the production with descending, austere bass lines and Latin percussion and the other, mixed by Tris Penna (‘Abbey Road’), is more delicate and easier to take in.

‘Won’t Be Love’ amazingly sounds like it was recorded in a Pentacostal Church, and ‘Peel Me a Grape’ is made captivating by sharp keys and Dusty’s incredible talents as an interpreter of jazz stylings. Even some die-hard fans might not realize that she had such an ear for genres outside of pop and R & B; this one smartly sizzles.

Regardless of how much you wish to discover about Dusty Springfield’s repertoire, whether you enjoy pure R & B, pop, blue, Gospel or jazz, or consider yourself more eclectic, you’ll enjoy much of what this set has to offer and probably, along the way, find yourself surprised at what one entertainer can accomplish with a great ear, natural talent and an open-minded attitude towards the art of self-expression.

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