Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, English pop singer and record producer known professionally as Dusty Springfield, dies in Henley-on-Thames on March 2, 1999, following a long battle against cancer.
With her distinctive, sensual mezzo soprano sound, she is an important blue-eyed soul singer and, at her peak, is one of the most successful British female performers, with six top 20 singles on the United States Billboard Hot 100 and sixteen on the United Kingdom Singles Chart from 1963 to 1989. She is a member of both the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and UK Music Hall of Fame. International polls name Springfield among the best female rock artists of all time. Her image, supported by a peroxide blonde bouffant hairstyle, evening gowns, and heavy make-up, as well as her flamboyant performances on the black and white television of the 1960s, make her an icon of the Swinging Sixties.
Born in West Hampstead, North London, on April 16, 1939, into an Irish family that enjoys music, Springfield learns to sing at home. In 1958, she joins her first professional group, The Lana Sisters, and two years later forms a pop-folk vocal trio, The Springfields, with her brother Tom Springfield. Her solo career begins in 1963 with the upbeat pop hit “I Only Want to Be with You.” Among the hits that follow are “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (1964), “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” (1964), “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (1966), and “Son of a Preacher Man” (1968).
As a fan of U.S. pop music, she brings many little-known soul singers to the attention of a wider UK record-buying audience by hosting the first national TV performance of many top-selling Motown artists beginning in 1965. Although she is never considered a Northern Soul artist in her own right, her efforts contribute a great deal to the formation of the genre.
Partly owing to these efforts, a year later she eventually becomes the best-selling female singer in the world and tops a number of popularity polls, including Melody Maker‘s Best International Vocalist. She is the first UK singer to top the New Musical Express readers’ poll for Female Singer.
To boost her credibility as a soul artist, Springfield goes to Memphis, Tennessee to record Dusty in Memphis, an album of pop and soul music with the Atlantic Records main production team. Released in 1969, it has been ranked among the greatest albums of all time by the U.S. magazine Rolling Stone and in polls by VH1 artists, New Musical Express readers, and Channel 4 viewers. The album is also awarded a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Despite its current recognition, the album does not sell well and after its release Springfield experiences a career slump for several years. However, in collaboration with Pet Shop Boys, she returns to the Top 10 of the UK and U.S. charts in 1987 with “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” Two years later, she has two other UK hits on her own with “Nothing Has Been Proved” and “In Private.” Subsequently in the mid-1990s, owing to the inclusion of “Son of a Preacher Man” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, interest in her early output is revived.
In January 1994, while recording her penultimate album, A Very Fine Love, in Nashville, Springfield falls ill. When she returns to the UK a few months later, her physicians diagnose breast cancer. She receives months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and the cancer goes into remission. In 1995, in apparent good health, she sets about promoting the album, which is released that year. By mid-1996, the cancer returns, and, in spite of vigorous treatments, she dies in Henley-on-Thames on March 2, 1999. Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, is scheduled just two weeks after her death. Her friend Elton John helps induct her into the Hall of Fame, declaring, “I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … Every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”
Springfield is cremated and some of her ashes are buried at Henley-on-Thames, while the rest are scattered by her brother, Tom Springfield, at the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland.