By Andy Cataldo
On March 19, friends of the Center and fans of Dusty Springfield gathered to hear Kirsten Holly Smith and Jonathan Vankin recount details of the legendary singer’s life, as well as to describe their journey in creating the Off-Broadway musical, “Forever Dusty.”
The talk opened with Kirstin performing “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” one of Dusty’s most popular numbers that is also featured in the musical. A recent fan of Dusty’s music, I wasn’t aware of the artist’s colorful past and early activism. The writers described her as “active in Swingin’ London’s lesbian nightlife scene” of the 1960s. The musical, which stars Smith in the title role, focuses on the artist’s two lives — first as Mary O’Brien, an Irish Catholic school girl growing up in 1940s England, and later as the performer and party girl, Dusty Springfield.
At the time, the Irish living in England were viewed as second-class citizens. Dusty’s upbringing followed her throughout her career. She began by singing in a folk band called The Springfields which provided the inspiration for her stage name. When she began to perform solo she also produced her own records. Even at the height of her success, though, icons like Paul McCartney would still describe her as “just a young Irish girl.”
It was Dusty’s interest in American soul music that would shape her identity. Drawing inspiration from popular songs like “Tell Him,” she began her solo career with the hit “Only Wanna Be With You” in 1963. She was one of the first blue-eyed soul vocalists. She is credited with bringing soul to England when she organized a televised special, “Sounds of Motown,” featuring legends including the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations.
All the while, Dusty pushed the envelope. On a 1964 tour in South Africa, she caused a stir back in England when she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. Vankin described that she worked with her manager to include a clause in the contract requiring her performances to be held in cinemas, which welcomed mixed audiences. She would send her bass player out before each show to confirm that there were black and white attendees; otherwise she would refuse to perform.
Smith sang other numbers featured in the musical including Dusty’s first #1 single, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” which she produced in 1966 at the height of her success. Smith studied some of Dusty’s notable quirks for her performances. Some of the Irish Catholic school-girl awkwardness would come out in her animated arm motions, which some said were a covert method of reading lyrics she had written on her hands and forearms, as her nearsightedness would have prevented her from reading prompts. Her vision was not as bad as her stage fright however. One of her companions once said that she would smash plates before going on stage to settle her nerves.
Jonathan Vankin talked about Dusty’s significant relationships with both men and women, including photographer Faye Harris, musician Carole Pope and the abusive Teda Bracci, a man she met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She spent a long period in the 1970s living in Los Angeles where she was a notorious partier, indulging in alcohol, cocaine and Quaaludes. She was ahead of her time with her openness about sexuality; however the reception of Dusty’s openness was not warm. Her career never experienced a resurgence after a famous September 1970 interview with journalist Ray Connolly when she spoke publicly about her involvement with women:
- There’s one thing that’s always annoyed me…so many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard
it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it…Girls run after me a lot and it doesn’t upset me. It upsets me when people insinuate things that aren’t true. I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady. But I know that I’m as perfectly 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.
One audience member added to the narrative by sharing that Dusty partnered with Richard Carpenter after the death of his sister Karen in 1983. Check out the track they created together: “Something In Your Eyes – YouTube” – Time (Richard Carpenter), 1987
Forever Dusty runs at New World Stages with final performance on April 7.
Did you party with Dusty in LA? Share your stories with the Center family by commenting below.