Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Dusty in Memphis: Turning up the heat
There are some albums you search for your whole life, and then one day they suddenly appear, looking innocently at you from the shelves as if they had been there the whole time, sporting stickers saying ‘Buy 2 for the price of 1’. If you cast a wide net, it happens quite often, and it can make your day, or week, or month. It may actually be the only real upside to being a serious record collector – but I am digressing. The point is, after five years of searching (and one fleeting glimpse in a Chennai mall) I finally managed to lay my hands on Dusty in Memphis.
In 1968, Dusty Springfield was somewhat of a star in her native Britain. She sounded remarkably like what she looked – blonde and stylish – and recorded three albums which fit snugly into the background as fellow-countrymen Beatles and the Stones and the Who changed popular music forever. On her fourth, however, she took a decisive right turn. Like most white female vocalists of the time, she was a huge admirer of the R&B stars on the other side of the ocean. She especially revered Aretha Franklin, and that distinctive Atlantic sound that emerged from Memphis under the aegis of Jerry Wexler, a mixture of thudding R&B, gospel and soul that was neither wholly holy nor unholy. And so it happened that Dusty, British blonde, chronicler of delicate heartbreak, decided she would record an album in the heart of Memphis.
It didn’t quite go as planned. As the story goes, Dusty was so nervous at the thought of meeting her idol Aretha, and recording in the same studio as her that she never ended up singing there at all. Instead, she recorded her vocals in a studio in England, while the backing tracks were recorded in Memphis, supervised by Wexler, Arif Mardin and the legendary Tom Dowd (engineer on Aretha’s records, as well as others like Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground and Simon and Garfunkel). The result should have sounded disjointed, tacked on – but miraculously, it doesn’t. Miles away from the actual place, Dusty in Memphis captures the spirit of the Atlantic recordings of the time. She turns up the heat, sonically on ‘Don't forget about me', lyrically on ‘Breakfast in bed’, and in everyway possible on ‘Son of a preacher man’.
The backing musicians are given less space to manoeuvre than they might have had with a local singer and Dusty’s past sound means that the arrangements too often substitute down-home horns and the fantastic guitar of Reggie Young for orchestral backing. On the other hand, crafting an album that sounds black, but doesn’t have a black singer at the helm may not have worked either. Dusty herself resists the temptation to sound radically different from her previous recordings – the only discernable change is a subtle shift in her accent. Never one to bully a line, she sings softly and huskily, only letting herself go on select occasions, which are, when they arrive, the most thrilling moments on the album. Like that moment when she fairly yells ‘He was a sweet talkin’ son of a preacher man’ and then drops pitch and drawls ‘I guess he…was the son of a…preacher man’. It’s a stunningly sexy moment, and surprisingly, for an album that could easily have ended up as a tribute to a particular sound, it encapsulates something that is indefinably but specifically Dusty Springfield.