What words best describe the quality of voice and singing on `Dusty In Memphis`?
I’m damned if I know. You could start by saying the singing is `cool`, in that it is elegant and restrained but it also has great warmth and power. Doesn’t the tone sound like some kind of vapour at times? No, that just doesn’t do it justice. It is true to say that the voice is recorded in the audio equivalent of `extreme close-up`? Every breath and sigh is caught and yet it can soar. Knowing that these things are beyond words, I offer these few lines of adoration and praise.
Dusty Springfield’s singing on this album is among the very best ever put on record by anyone. It is overwhelmingly sensual and self- possessed but it is never self-regarding. The delivery might be confidential, intimate or vulnerable in the opening lines of a song only to explode in the chorus with unknowable emotion. Every crescendo is well judged; the performances are never showy or bombastic. The most striking impression throughout is one of honesty.
The most famous songs in this collection are probably `Son of a Preacher Man` and `Breakfast in Bed` - simply one of the most knowingly adult records ever made. This track may have the greatest vocal entrance of Dusty’s career. Her vocal tone on the line, `She’s hurt you again, I can tell`, tells an entire story in itself.
On `Son of a Preacher Man`, Dusty recalls the life of a young girl. She teases through the taboo tale, lending her brand new style to the Memphis funk. She had clearly left behind the world of her English vocal contemporaries. Don’t get me wrong; Dusty’s London recordings are wonderful. However, at times the accompaniments sound as if the players are struggling to receive messages from overseas about the music that the singer is interpreting with ease. Then again, many of the best cuts have a glorious European drama that would have been totally alien to the Memphis players.
Now Dusty had a rhythm section that dove deep into the groove but could also play with extreme delicacy. She also had Arif Mardin’s arrangements to sparkle and illustrate her voice with Spanish guitars, shimmering strings and snaking lines of oboe. All this was immaculately ordered by the production team of Mardin, Tom Dowd, and Jerry Wexler. The only comparison that comes to mind is the musical journey of that other great Irish soul singer, Van Morrison, in the records such `Moondance` and `Tupelo Honey` (a song that Dusty would later cover). Even when the accompaniments have touches of period charm such as the electric sitar introduction to `in the Land of Make Believe` or the Tennessee version of a Byrds guitar figure in the opening of `Don’t Forget About Me`, it is Dusty’s performance that is timeless.
Most extraordinary is her poise and confident progress through a frankly berserk, psychedelic Brazilian- influenced arrangement of Michael Legrand’s utterly French melody for `Windmills of Your Mind` .
The occasionally comic surrealism of the lyric never sounded better.
Dusty’s ethereal and seamless tone is perfectly matched to Burt Bacharach's exquisite and otherworldly, `In the Land of Make Believe` while Carole King’s song of the earth, ` No Easy Way Down` is as well suited to Dusty as the same composer’s `Natural Woman` was to Aretha Franklin, Gerry Goffin’s lyric speaks of romantic disappointment and the embrace of melancholy.
It could have no finer advocate. However, there are two other songs in particular which serve to best illustrate the musical ambition and achievement of `Dusty in Memphis`. They are both by Randy Newman and are almost unique in their tenderness and straight-faced passion, among his catalogue of dark humoured portraits.
The first, `Just One Smile` opens with a series of rising, questioning phrases and unravels into an gracious but constantly surprising melody that might have come from the Catania of Bellini’s time. This is soulful music of the first order even though it arrives from place beyond our expectations. The second of these unusual songs is `I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore`. It written from the point of view of a betrayed woman living in a poor apartment block. She can hear the gossip and innuendo coming through the walls, hence the title. However, the song never descends into soap opera melodrama thanks to the remarkably ambitious melody, a line that Dusty negotiates with conversational ease, so that you hardly realise how far your ear has travelled when you are hurled into the longing of the chorus.
The arrangement contains the sort of sublime touch that, for me, places `Dusty in Memphis` right up there with Aretha’s `I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You` album. In the final verse she sings: `Ain’t
it sad` said a woman down the hall, `That when a nice girl falls in love, ain’t it too just bad she had to fall for a boy that doesn’t care for her at all`. At this moment a cool vocal group enters and utter their judgement with such pity and cruelty: `It’s so sad` and the song crashes into the final devastating chorus: `I don’t want to hear it anymore!`
Hearing this record again in all its stereo and mono glory, I realise that this is just one moment among so many others on `Dusty in Memphis`, that will chill and thrill, always and forever.
Elvis Costello, May 2002.