“Dusty In Memphis” at 50
When Atlantic Records signed Dusty Springfield in 1968, it was anything but a sure bet. Although she was widely, and justly, admired, and had scored a few hit singles in the U.S., her track record of late had been spotty. Since her biggest chart success, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” she’d struggled Stateside, only managing to get a semi-hit with her sleepily murmured version of Bacharach & David’s “The Look of Love,” from Casino Royale. Also, she’d never had a big-selling album.
But Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler was a fan. He’d heard her recording of Goffin & King’s “Some of Your Lovin’” and thought she would be a good fit for the label. Wexler had the notion of bringing Springfield down to Memphis and putting her in American Studios with the town’s ace gang of session players, a suggestion that she had some trepidation about. As Stanley Booth’s liner notes for the eventual album quote her, ““I associated Memphis with one kind of sound, a hard R&B sound. That’s not the thing I can do, and I’d rather leave it to those who can.”
She needn’t have been concerned. Although the project didn’t go as smoothly as Wexler might have preferred—the song-selection process was agonizing, and Springfield was unaccustomed to the in-the-studio spontaneity and daunted by the specters of the soul singers who’d been there before her (the final vocals wound up being recorded in New York)—Dusty in Memphis is a landmark album, and ever since its release fifty years ago, it has been a musical guiding star that no one else has reached. Not Dusty herself, not anybody. It’s perfect: a peak for the Memphis Boys (as the musicians were known), and for the kind of savvy A&R that drew on material from the cadre of Brill Building and 1650 Broadway songwriters who shaped so much pop music during the ’60s. It is, perhaps, the definitive summing-up of that style and that era.
It wasn’t as though Wexler, along with co-producers Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, was pushing Springfield into unknown territory. Her prior albums contained songs by Goffin & King (who have four cuts on Dusty in Memphis), Randy Newman (represented by two), and Bacharach & David. The difference was in the approach. She’d taken a shot at one Goffin & King song, “Don’t Forget About Me,” during an earlier U.K. session, and the contrast between the two versions tells you all you need to know about how the Atlantic team and the Memphis Boys rethought Dusty’s sound. The London version is blaring and chaotic, the tempo is off, and Springfield communicates none of the ache of resignation in this hesitant breakup song. On Dusty in Memphis, she finds the emotional center: it’s one of Goffin’s most naked lyrics—“The road just isn’t there for us/There never was a prayer for us”—and Dusty’s vocal can crack your heart.
People use the term “curated” a lot; too much, even. But that’s what this album is. Of the many, many demos Wexler offered up to Springfield, they settled on eleven (a twelfth song was cut but didn’t end up sticking), and with only a couple of exceptions—the top 10 single “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts’ languid sleepover invitation “Breakfast in Bed”—they’d been recorded before, by artists as varied as Lana Cantrell (Mann & Weil’s hymn to morning sex, “Just a Little Lovin’”), Gene Pitney (Newman’s “Just One Smile”), and The Hour Glass with Gregg and Duane Allman (Goffin & King’s “No Easy Way Down”). Atlantic had already recorded Ben E. King on Goffin & King’s “So Much Love,” “Don’t Forget About Me” with Barbara Lewis, and Bacharach & David’s “In the Land of Make Believe” with the Drifters. Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” was first done by Jerry Butler, “The Windmills of Your Mind” (by Michel Legrand with Marilyn and Alan Bergman) was from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair, and the closing song, the epic “I Can’t Make It Alone” (another one by Goffin & King) had made its debut on a P.J. Proby record.
Everything feels locked in: the sweep of Mardin’s string arrangements, the background vocals by the Sweet Inspirations (sometimes echoing Dusty, sometimes taunting her, as on “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” where they play her gossiping neighbors), the unerring pulse of Tommy Cogbill’s bass and Gene Chrisman’s drums, Reggie Young on guitar (his work on “Don’t Forget About Me” is stunning) and occasional non-gimmicky electric sitar. The album has flow, and drama, and Springfield, however rattled she may have gotten in Memphis, is a marvel throughout–smoky and seductive. The way she purrs the word “apple” on “The Windmills of Your Mind” makes it deliriously erotic, and it doesn’t matter that the song is a string of verbal nonsense hanging on a swirling melody. “Son of a Preacher Man” (by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins), the album’s best-known track, is one of the few times Aretha – she’d turned it down, but then covered it post-Dusty — couldn’t top someone else’s vocal.
While “Son of a Preacher Man” returned Dusty to the charts, the album at the time barely caused a ripple, except among writers who rhapsodized about it (and continue to: it appears on quite a few critics’ Best Ever lists). There never was a sequel; a second album with Wexler was abandoned, and Springfield’s next album for Atlantic found her in Philadelphia working with Gamble & Huff and their creative squad. Brand New Me is comparatively slight, and she’s let down by the lack of A-material.
It was the end of her association with the label. Atlantic tried the formula with other female singers, bringing Cher to Muscle Shoals, Lulu to Criteria Studios in Miami with the Dixie Flyers, Jackie DeShannon to Memphis. A Carmen McRae Miami-based session for the label (with the Sweet Inspirations on board) even repeated a couple of Dusty in Memphis songs. Ultimately, the achievement of this album was unrepeatable. It’s an example of musical alchemy, an extraordinary combination of songs, arrangers, and players. With one peerless singer, who might have been out of her element, and perhaps given Wexler agita in the process, but made it all sound nuanced, intimate and rapturous.