There has been a lot of talk lately of the Class of 68, year zero for the baby boomer generation whose legacy were still busy arguing about 40 years on. Fittingly, it was the year of such musical landmarks as the Beatles White Album, the Stones Beggars Banquet, and Jimi Hendrixs Electric Ladyland, perennial critical faves destined to be revisited and reconsidered between here and eternity. Amid all the noise and hoopla, however, it would be easy to miss another great masterpiece recorded in 68 -- the peerless Dusty in Memphis, one of the most triumphant expressions of the South (or at least the imagined South) ever committed to vinyl, siring the definitive version of Son of a Preacher Man as well as the gorgeous R&B ballads Just a Little Lovin and Breakfast in Bed.
It takes an audacious musician to take on the Springfield canon, but if theres a better candidate than Shelby Lynne, Id like to know his or her name. Just a Little Lovin, a satisfyingly tight collection of Dusty covers, finds the singer at her most spare and authentic. Its hard to imagine anyone else coming up with something as haunting as the title track, which clocks in at over twice the length of the original, a slow-motion exercise in regret that puts a new spin on a classic. Her records were such grand, huge productions that reflected their time, but she had such a vulnerability that I just feel her when she sings, explains Lynne from her home in Palm Springs, Calif. Its the essence of Dusty, because they were her songs, while keeping the production simple and really allowing her spirit to show me where to go.
Springfield was at the still-impressionable age of 29 when she recorded Dusty in Memphis. Although shed created some enduring pop songs -- The Look of Love and I Only Want to Be With You chief among them -- it took a producer of Jerry Wexlers talents to realize her full potential. Wexler, whod produced Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, played Springfields rich, raspy voice like a clarinet, stretching it first in one direction then in another, framing it with lush strings and ripe bursts of gospel. Although the album was critically admired, its ethereal genius took awhile to percolate into public consciousness, perhaps because it was less obviously of its time, and consequently timeless: On the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantinos 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, Son of a Preacher Man feels as fresh and teasing as it must have been 25 years earlier. If anything, the album grows in esteem as it gets older; at the time of its release it all but killed her career, barely scraping into Billboards top 100. (It would take the Pet Shop Boys to rescue her two decades later with What Have I Done to Deserve This?-- a song that has aged less well than anything on Memphis.)
It would be easy to say that Memphis was an album of love songs, but that doesnt do justice to the sheer intensity of Springfields singing, which Elvis Costello, who penned liner notes for the 2002 British reissue, considered among the very best ever put on record by anyone due to its being overwhelmingly sensual and self-possessed but never self-regarding. For Warren Zanes, author of Dusty in Memphis, part of Continuum Books 33 1/3 series on rock LPs, the love that underpins the album is at once diffuse, dark, unpredictable, ecstatic, and a terrible deal. We cant know whether Springfield could have created such an album if she were not also gay, but its the way she infuses the songs with longing and pain that make it so bracingly stirring and honest.
Its only the half of it to say theres a neat symmetry in having a tortured, tough, diffident woman from the South place her stamp on songs made famous by a tortured, tough, diffident woman from England. Lynne, whose late-90s breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne, earned comparisons to Springfield for its pop-soul-country balancing act, has dodged and weaved the easy categorizations that the industry favors. Like Springfield, shes the kind of musician who travels from label to label with the prefix difficult attached, though she thinks her new label, Lost Highway, may be the exception in an industry run by bean counters. Its a business where if youre not the cookie-cutter perfect thing, you find yourself standing out there alone, she says. I guess its about having to put your dukes up and protecting yourself because you have to keep going. You cant put the fire out; its the music that drives you.
Springfield knew how to put her dukes up, all right. Like Lynne, she could come across as shy and awkward in interviews, but feisty when she wanted to be. Touring South Africa in 1964, she was expelled for refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences. In 1970 she told a British paper that she was perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy, which required a kind of bravery that todays crop of musicians can barely imagine. The film writer-director Jessica Sharzer, who is working on a Dusty biopic starring Kristin Chenoweth, believes the contradictions are what make Springfield such a compelling study. She was a revolutionary and a renegade, and I admire her for that, she says. But she also suffered under the weight of the mask she created for herself, and theres a cautionary aspect to her story.
Although the movie is currently beset by labor disputes, Sharzer, who has written two drafts of it for Universal Studios, says that Springfields sexuality is critical to the story and wont be ducked -- if, that is, it makes it over the hurdles to come. Shes a woman, shes British, and shes a lesbian, says Sharzer, neatly summing up the movies perceived liabilities. If you look at biopics about women, almost all of them have a man playing a central role. Dustys story doesnt have that.
No, but it does have drama. And passion. And great, great music. Its impossible to listen to Springfield without appreciating that, for some musicians, music is not simply a vocation but an exorcism and an escape as well. In an interview she gave shortly before her death in 1999, Springfield recalled how the young Mary OBrien (her given name) faced a starkly simple choice as a teenager: Be miserable or be someone else. She chose to be someone elsemascara, blond bob, and all. Her reinvention was our gain.
Lynne, whose father shot her mom and then killed himself in front of her, also uses music as a conduit for cauterizing her darkest thoughts. Though often described as a confessional singer, its not the songs but the way she sings them that counts. This new record is all about feel, she clarifies. We just put together a killer band, and wed pick a key and find a groove, and I would start singing, and theyd fall in around me like great, great cake batter. I think its the only record Ive made in my career so far that has a real, continuous thread -- it goes and it flows, like great records are supposed to.