Dusty's Southern Excursion Has Never Sounded This Good

A fully realized production conceptually, musically, spiritually and sonically, Dusty in Memphis has rightfully attained legendary status since it was first issued by Atlantic Records as SD 8214 back in 1969. By bringing the British pop star to Memphis, Jerry Wexler figured he could do for Springfield what he managed when he redefined Aretha. Plus the former folky had had her musical life turned around when during a stopover in New York in the early ‘60s on her way to Nashville to record with her group The Springfields she heard The Exciters’ supercharged Lieber/Stoller penned hit “Tell Him.” After that, the powerfully voiced Dusty began covering American pop songs and making her covers the definitive version, though her first hit single was an original written for her: the memorable “I Only Want to Be With You.”

But Wexler knew that Springfield was a pop singer not a soul/gospel belter so the A&R prep concentrated on pop songs from Brill Building veteran songwriting teams Cynthia Mann and Barry Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Burt Bacharach and Hal David, as well as Barbra Streisand favorite Broadway’s Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who wrote English lyrics to Michel Legrand’s Mozart-influenced “Les moulins de mon coer” (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) and the then relatively obscure California-based songwriter/composer Randy Newman, best known then as the nephew of famed film composer Alfred Newman.

Springfield had already scored big in the mid ‘60s with other Bacharach and David tunes like “Wishin’ and Hopin’, ” and she was a worldwide phenomenon, but by the late ‘60s her peroxided, beehive look and sound were starting to date so down to 827 Thomas Street, home of North Memphis’ American Studios they went, with engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin (Norah Jones, etc.) in tow. The producer/engineer/songwriter “Chips” Moman had opened the studio two years earlier, after moving there from Los Angeles where he played session guitar at Gold Star (see Brian Wilson interview elsewhere on this site), and before that was in Gene Vincent’s band. Moman wrote many classics too, including “The Dark End of the Street” and with Dan Penn, “Do Right Woman Do Right Man.”

But the studio was only opened after he’d the first produced Carla Thomas’s hit “Gee Wiz” for Satellite Records, which would become Stax and left because of a financial dispute with founder Jim Stewart. Oh, and did you know he also produced and engineered The Box Tops’ (Alex Chilton) first album including hit single “The Letter”? And recorded Elvis’s final #1 hit single “Suspicious Minds” from Elvis In Memphis, which he also produced? Gotta love the guy! And the sound he got from the place was stupendous!

Momans had assembled a crack team of studio cats including Gene Chrisman on drums, Reggie Young on guitar, Tommy Cogbill on bass and Bobby Emmons on keyboards. These guys could play anything and they did on everything from rock to soul, from Wilson Pickett to Paul Revere and The Raiders.

Back to this album: once in Memphis, as the original liner notes recount, Springfield was taken aback by the different production methodology. She was used to showing up and finding backing tracks recorded from written charts awaiting her vocals. Here, she found musicians sitting around listening to publishing demos and self-inventing expressive rhythm parts for the chosen instruments, augmented later in New York by Dowd’s and Mardin’s horn arrangements, Mardin’s string parts and background singing fills by The Sweet Inspirations.  

The best known songs from the album are “Just a Little Lovin’” (ably but not as well covered by Shelby Lynne) and “Son of a Preacher Man” (by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins and first turned down by Aretha), but others like Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” (also covered by the Al Kooper version of Blood, Sweat and Tears) and “The Windmills of Your Mind” will be familiar to many discovering this album for the first time.

However, given the quality of the songwriters and the astuteness of the producers, you can be sure there’s not a dud in the set and the arrangements that subtly merge greasy Memphis guitar licks and thick southern backbeats with city slicker strings and horns expose with repeated listening the magical soft yet funky bed the producers provide Springfield to work her spell.

The songs are packed with heartache and unrequited love and in some ways mirror Springfield’s personal life as a closeted lesbian at a time when it simply couldn’t be discussed in public. She is claimed to have said she'd love to love a man but was "scared to death." But those “in the know” knew, and that combined with her early ‘60s lacquered hair, heavily mascarad semi-drag queen look (toned way down for this album cover) made her a gay favorite. Her final recorded performance was with The Pet Shop Boys.

Springfield was also apparently shy and uncomfortable when she wasn’t in complete control of the recording process. Because of that, the vocals were not recorded in Memphis. Instead, the music beds returned to New York where the vocals were overdubbed along with the strings and horns.

There’s a slightly disconnected quality to the backing track/vocal mix that’s particularly apparent on this absolutely stunning double 45rpm issue mastered from the original tape by Kevin Gray, which is only compounded by Springfield’s emotionally powerful yet curiously detached vocal style. She doesn’t belt here. She’s always controlled but her power and presence are only augmented by her ability to lay back and deliver the goods without pressing too hard. The upper registers she reaches with ease just ooze ache and pain and she moves through the climactic parts the way Heifetz would have fiddled them.

Despite the familiar American Studios 4 track recorder “house sound,” which is ultra-wideband, incredibly dynamic and simultaneously transparent and dirty, the original Atlantic pressing of this record has always sounded somewhat opaque and cloudy as if a great recording lies beneath—not that the original is awful sounding. A 4 Men With Beards 180g reissue from 2002 offers a nice gatefolded package with detailed and appreciative liner notes along with a great period piece black and white photo of Springfield window shopping, but the sound takes things in the opposite direction from the original. It’s brighter, yes, but it’s also metallic sounding, particularly the strings, and Springfield’s vocals sound almost car-radio like. This sounds sourced from a poor digital transfer that’s dynamically compressed in a foolish attempt to make it sound “modern.”

I didn’t know what to expect from this but my most optimistic hopes didn’t begin to approach this album’s reinvention at 45rpm. Yes, the 4 track nature of the production is obvious: the right channel owns the whole drum kit, the guitar the left and the horns and strings do sound dialed in behind and underneath the rhythm tracks, giving the whole an assembled, somewhat uncohesive quality (which may be what led the original mastering engineer give it an opaque patina in the first place), buthere you get to hear Springfield’s voice intimately, as if you are standing there in the tracking booth. You can almost hear the lag as she keeps time and fills in the spaces left for her vocals. Plus, now, finally you can appreciate the subtleties in the rhythm bed, especially, but hardly limited to Gene Chrisman’s drumming “touch.” You could spend an entire listening wrapped up in his foot-work on the kick drum, and another go round on his stick on the cymbal, I swear!

But above it all is Dusty Springfield’s performance: controlled passion, directly communicative, and finally released from the bounds mediocre mastering. A classic re-invented. Very highly recommended for the music, for the mastering and for the superbly detailed pressing quality too from Quality Record Pressing.

Music Direct Buy It Now

baijamesr's picture

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rudirudi's picture

In this review you speak harshly of the sound quality of  the 2002 4 Men With Beards issue of this album but include it in your 157 LP's  to own list ?

AnalogJ's picture

First of all, I have had two copies of this set and the first LP sounds rolled off compared to the second, as though the first was pressed toward the end of a stamper's life and the second from a fresh one.

Secondly, that the clarity of this residue makes it clear that she is singing in a both and the backing group in a large space adds to the more disconnected and relatively less coherent presentation. The music or performance I give a 10. The sonics, well closer to a seven. I just got through listening to the new Music Matters Kenny Burrell "Midnight Blue", and THAT'S a sonic 10.

Thirdly, what's with the "free credit report" post? :-*

xtcfan80's picture

I just bought a clean 1985 UK pressing on Phillips of this classic. Not nearly as good as the AP version I'm sure but it does include 4 extra tracks recorded in the early to mid 1970s one of which,"I Believe in You" is a total winner. I really love the Goffin/King classic "Don't Forget About Me".....Great LP, that never gets old.