Memphis Belles

2.26.2008

By Aaron Hicklin

There has been a lot of talk lately of the Class of '68, year zero for the baby boomer generation whose legacy we're 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 Hendrix's 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 there's a better candidate than Shelby Lynne, I'd 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. It's 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. 'It's 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 she'd 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 Wexler's talents to realize her full potential. Wexler, who'd produced Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, played Springfield's 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 Tarantino's 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 Billboard's 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 doesn't do justice to the sheer intensity of Springfield's 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 can't know whether Springfield could have created such an album if she were not also gay, but it's the way she infuses the songs with longing and pain that make it so bracingly stirring and honest.

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