Monday, July 03, 2006

Dusty in Memphis

Friday was payday, so, as is my usual custom, I walked down to the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip to pick myself up a treat. Last month was Peggy Lee's Black Coffee, this month's, following in the icy blonde theme, was Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis.

I discovered Dusty for the first time when I was TAing a course on gay and lesbian popular music. I had heard her music before, of course, but just as part of that strange ahistorical soup of music that gets played on oldies stations. Her music is so stylistically diverse, I certainly never thought that "I Only Want to Be With You" and "Son of a Preacher Man" were by the same person. And I certainly never would have that this music was by an English lesbian of Irish descent!

Side note: A friend of mine likes to joke that Dusty's "Wishin' and Hopin'" is her revenge on heterosexuality. Just consider the lyrics:

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'
Plannin' and dreaming each night of his charms
That won't get you into his arms

So if you're lookin' to find love you can share
All you gotta do is
Hold him and kiss him and love him
And show him that you care

Show him that you care just for him
And do the things he likes to do
Wear your hair just for him, 'cause
You won't get him
Thinkin' and a-prayin'
Wishin' and a-hopin'

Just wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'
Plannin' and dreamin' his kiss is the start
That won't get you into his heart

So if you're thinkin' heartbreak
True love is
All you gotta do is
Hold him and kiss him and squeeze him and love him
Yeah, just do it and after you do, you will be his

This is Dusty's advice to some poor little straight girl? If you like a guy, don't just hope he likes you. Instead, have sex with him--oh, I'm sorry, "hold him and kiss him and squeeze him"--do everything he tells you to, and then maybe he will like you. Nice advice, Dusty.

Anyways, Dusty in Memphis. What a great album. She recorded it in 1969, at a time when her career was sort of in the doldrums. So she made a deal to go record an album with Atlantic Records at their "soul" studio in Memphis, using many of the same studio musicians who had played on Aretha Franklin's breakthrough debut album. Although like Aretha, she recorded her actual vocals back at a fancier studio in New York City. "Son of a Preacher Man" is obviously the stand-out track on this album, but the entire thing really holds together well. Dusty idolized Aretha's singing style, but really, she does things her own way. What I find most attractive is her sense of restraint. Unlike every single wanna-be soul singer on American Idol, she knows that the key to singing soul--especially if it is not the idiom one has grown up with--is not to simply go for vocal pyrotechnics. If you go back and listen to "Son of a Preacher Man" now, you'll hear that it is actually remarkably restrained. She always seems to be holding back something, never quite giving all of herself up to the music. It's a lovely sound, with a hint of menace to it.

So, musicological advice of the week, go buy and listen to this album. Rhino has a great reissue that has a bunch of unreleased tracks from the period.

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