Dusty Springfield
Dusty Springfield (Photo: YouTube)

Is “Son Of A Preacher Man” Dusty Springfield’s best single? It’s certainly one of her most popular and best-known.

The 1960s era singer enjoyed a string of hits in her native UK–such as the drama-infused “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten”–which did little in the US.

Conversely, she enjoyed hits in America (“Wishin’ and Hopin’”, “The Look of Love”) that failed to set the UK charts alight.

However, “Son Of A Preacher Man” was a smash on both sides of the pond and is regarded as one of her defining songs.

The track also arrived at a tricky time in her career. 

Springfield was one of the most popular entertainers of the ’60s. She was also a lesbian at a time when the world would not accept an out-gay singer.

This, combined with crippling perfectionism and lack of belief in her own abilities would greatly contribute towards many of the problems that she faced in her personal and professional life. 

Early career and success

Born Mary O’Brien shortly before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Dusty and her older brother Tom were brought up in relative middle-class comfort in Ealing, west London.

She first found success with Tom in the pop-folk trio, The Springfields, before striking out on her own in 1963 with her first solo hit single, “I Only Want To Be With You.”

Unlike other girl singers of the time, Springfield oversaw her career from the very beginning. 

“I was my own Svengali,” she recalled in an interview later in her career, adopting her iconic image of towering beehive hairdo and heavy makeup (“I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big, butch lady,” she later commented when explaining her hyper-feminine style).

Unlike some of the shrill singers of the time, Springfield’s strength lay in her voice and song choices. She sang about longing, heartbreak and frustrated desire.

Unsurprisingly, she gained a devoted following of LGBTQ+ fans, as well as cultivating a mainstream audience through several TV series in the late ’60s.

However, by 1968, her career was at a crossroads. Pop has moved on. Major acts such as the Beatles were moving in a more experimental and rock-oriented direction. 

Springfield faced falling out of fashion, perceived more as a light entertainment act for the cabaret circuit. 

Atlantic Records

Once again, her instincts saved her.

Springfield had a passionate interest in US soul music (she was also a lover of Motown and her TV show in the UK was among the first there to showcase Motown acts). She idolized Aretha Franklin and signed to Franklin’s old label, Atlantic Records, in the US. 

The resulting album was Dusty In Memphis. It was recorded at the famous American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin.

They pushed Springfield’s soulful vocal to the fore rather than have it compete with heavy string arrangements, as it had done on some of her earlier work.

“Son Of A Preacher Man” was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins. They initially thought about giving it to Aretha Franklin. However, Wexler heard it and suggested giving it to Springfield instead. 

Lyrically, although about a boy-girl coupling, the song is about an illicit, secret love. Springfield sings about falling for Billy Ray, the son of a preacher man who would visit her family. The two youngsters would sneak away and steal innocent kisses, fumbling with their developing natural urges.

“How well I remember, the look that was in his eyes / Stealin’ kisses from me on the sly, takin’ time to make time / Tellin’ me that he’s all mine, learnin’ from each other’s knowing / Lookin’ to see how much we’re growin’ / And the only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man.

The song went top 10 in the US and UK in 1968. 

Aretha Franklin did end up recording her own version the following year. With no disrespect to the Queen of Soul, most people regard Springfield’s version, with its classic arrangement, as superior. 

Fall from grace in the 1970s

Despite the acclaim Dusty In Memphis received, as the decade came to a close, Springfield struggled to evolve her career after that. 

Regarded by audiences as a ’60s relic, she moved from the UK to the US at the beginning of the 1970s: a relocation that those close to her now regard as her undoing.

Directionless, unable to repeat her earlier success, and living in the closet, she increasingly turned to alcohol and drugs for comfort. This led to long-term problems and frequently erratic behavior. 

Springfield managed to miss out on many opportunities, some due to problems with record labels, bad timing or her own increasing unreliability.

It’s been reported that Elton John originally intended for Dusty to sing ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ with him. However, gave up when she wavered and instead offered it to Kiki Dee: one of Springfield’s former backing singers. 

Springfield also missed the chance to record “Killing Me Softly” (later a huge hit for Roberta Flack), and–incredibly–turned down “Nobody Does It Better” for the Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. Both became huge, worldwide hits. 

1980s return

As the 1980s approached, her problems only intensified, culminating in bouts of self-harming, suicide attempts, and a spell in 1985 in a secure psychiatric hospital in New York. 

Thank goodness then for Pet Shop Boys, the queer duo who successfully re-invigorated her career and interest in her back catalog when they invited her to duet on their massive 1987 hit, “What Have I Done To Deserve This.”

Following this collaboration, Springfield relocated back to the UK and enjoyed further chart success in her home country in the latter years of her life.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s, finally succumbing to the disease in 1995 at the age of 59. 

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