Released 50 years ago, to underwhelming sales and attention, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis has come to represent one of the great highs of soul and pop by one of the finest, if tortured, singers of all time.
Songs by writers established and rising, alongside established greats. Performances by some of the best musicians in the field. And an Englishwoman of Irish descent whose connection with the American South was non-existent and yet deep and true.
In this review from 2004, when a remastered version was released, some – but only some – of the love I have for this album was expressed. There’ll be more some day.
Dusty in Memphis (Mercury/Universal)
Emotionally, musically and lyrically, Dusty In Memphis is one of the sublime creations of pop music. Here are songs by some of the finest songwriters of the '60s - Bacharach and David, Weil and Mann, Goffin and King, the young Randy Newman. Songs of betrayal, sensuality, complex love and pain, sung direct to your heart by a superb soul singer at the height of her powers.
Yet as the liner notes (which include a lovely mini-essay by Elvis Costello) show, Dusty In Memphis was the work of a woman with almost crippling self-doubt. This English singer refused to record her vocals during the original sessions in Memphis, later saying she was intimidated by the calibre of the players (the Muscle Shoals crew who had backed Aretha Franklin among others) and having to use the same vocal booth that Otis Redding had used.
When she recorded eventually in New York, she sang in the dark, with the backing tracks loud in the headphones to drown out her voice.
And yet not one vocal line is forced, let alone shouted here. There is a startling intimacy: breaths, pauses, the merest hesitation before a word; all are exposed, even revelled in. And when she lets loose, the voice expands, fills the space, but doesn't overwhelm.
It's more than technique, and this is key to understanding Dusty In Memphis: Dusty's voice is never wrong - her pitch was true, her intonation spot-on every time - but it never feels like form taking precedence over heart. Far from it. The notes are hit, without effort, but you soon forget the notes and see that these songs seem to live within the voice.
She isn't just singing the words or just emoting them; she's releasing them. Others have recorded the songs on this album but none has owned them the way Dusty does.
Rarely have remastered albums convinced me that the ordinary listener could tell the difference. But of all the versions of this album I've had over the years, this easily sounds the best: the clarity is impressive, the separation clean and the tone warm.
You can hear just how marvellously sympathetic Jerry Wexler's production was and how brilliant the arrangements of co-producers Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd. And, even better, how those arrangements were brought to life by some superb players. Not least among them was Tommy Cogbill, whose bass guitar sometimes feels like a second voice with an alternative but complementary melody, though he is just as capable of shadowing the lead instruments with a loose-limbed firmness that is relaxed and precise.
There's so much more to say about Dusty In Memphis, but it can be reduced to this: you must own this album; there is no argument.