Dusty Springfield, Reluctant Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul
On 'Son of a Preacher Man', an Aretha Franklin Track without Aretha Franklin
Despite her standing across the Atlantic as one of the crown jewels of British pop, in American histories of 1960s music Dusty Springfield tends to float around the edges as an outlier. Among female soul singers, black and white, her star is well eclipsed by those of Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner, to name just a few, while among “British Invasion” protagonists she remains an afterthought to the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Van Morrison, and many more. But in late 1968 Springfield found herself the starring player in one of the more quietly remarkable moments in American popular music, one in which the rigidities of nation, race, genre, gender and sexuality gloriously softened and swirled into two and a half of the most intoxicating minutes in all of Southern soul music. In the 38 years since its release Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” has wound its way through movie soundtracks, hip-hop samples, and countless spins on jukeboxes, radio stations, record players, Spotify. It’s a song you think you know that slips away from every attempt to fully grasp it, its elusiveness partly a product of the woman at its center, its story confounding our expectations of race, region, and Sixties music at every turn.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary O’Brien in North London on April 16, 1939, and first rose to prominence as a member of the folk-pop group the Springfields.[i] In 1963 she embarked on a solo career that soon made her one of the brightest stars in England, and by 1967 had racked up eight Top 10 hits in the United Kingdom, including “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which crossed over to the U.S. and peaked at number four in 1967, giving Springfield the biggest American hit of her career.
Prior to 1968, Springfield’s fleeting moments of stateside success had come through pop confections and melodramatic ballads, and most American audiences would have been unaware of the degree to which Springfield was associated with American rhythm and blues in her native country.[ii] Springfield’s perceived fluency within black American musical idioms prompted British pop star Cliff Richard to dub her the “White Negress,” and Springfield’s 1964 solo debut album contained no fewer than seven covers of songs originally performed by African American artists.[iii] In 1965 she was instrumental in spearheading the landmark Ready, Steady, Go: Sound of Motown television special, which brought artists such as the Supremes, the Miracles, the Vandellas, and the Temptations to prime-time British television. Springfield also mixed her love of black music with a fierce commitment to antiracist activism. In late 1964 she was kicked out of South Africa after her refusal to play before segregated crowds; her expulsion was widely publicized in England, and even garnered coverage from African American newspapers in the United States.[iv]
The frankness, honesty, and awkwardness with which Springfield discussed her own relationship to race and racial privilege was striking as well, particularly in the context of the period. In 1964 Springfield told a British interviewer, “I have a real bond with the music of the coloured artists in the States. I feel more at ease with them than I do with many white people.” She then remarked that “I wish I’d been born coloured. When it comes to singing and feeling, I just want to be one of them and not me. Then again, I see how some of them are treated and I thank God I’m white.”[v]. If other white performers of R&B during this period—most notably Janis Joplin, but others as well—often sought to minimize race’s salience to musical authenticity, Springfield instead rendered it paramount, in a tortuous mix of insecurity and apology.
In 1968 Springfield’s contract with England’s Philips Records expired; looking to grow her American audience, Springfield signed with Atlantic Records, the home of soul superstar Aretha Franklin, who’d graced the cover of Time magazine earlier that year. Atlantic Vice President Jerry Wexler had long admired Springfield’s talents, and hoped she’d provide an avenue into both the lucrative British import business and the burgeoning market for “blue-eyed soul,” a somatically euphemistic term coined by black disc jockey Georgie Woods a few years earlier to describe the Righteous Brothers. That fall Springfield traveled to the States to record Dusty in Memphis, an album whose lead single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” had been written for her more famous labelmate, Franklin, who’d recently passed on it. Springfield’s recording of the song would give the singer her last U.S. Top Ten hit of her career.
Written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, “Son of a Preacher Man” is a song so direct that its strangeness eludes detection on first listen. Most pop songs are sung to someone—there is usually an object of address, sometimes a named person but often simply “you,” and most are directed to someone who is inspiring either affection or heartbreak. “Son of a Preacher Man” is a song about “Billy Ray,” a preacher’s son, and sung by a woman, although exactly when and to whom is unclear. It’s a story song, but its indeterminacies of time and address lend a hazy ambiguity: it’s really a song about memory. The first verse establishes that Billy Ray would accompany his father to the narrator’s house, and “when they gathered round and started talking / that’s when Billy would take me walking.” At first our heroine is too demure to offer details of what happens next, even if the chorus’s revelation that Billy Ray was “the only boy who could ever reach me” helps fill in some of the blanks.
The second verse heightens the level of suggestion. “Being good isn’t always easy / no matter how hard I try” is its opening line, an eloquent statement on the struggle between propriety and desire swaddled in a beautifully halfhearted protestation. The rest of the verse establishes Billy Ray as sexual initiator, and when we reach the second iteration of the chorus this knowledge infuses the descriptions of “teaching” and “reaching” with distinctly carnal overtones. As we approach the bridge, “Son of a Preacher Man” is now a song about a sexual awakening.
And then the bridge arrives, and changes everything again. “How well I remember / the look that was in his eyes,” is the first line, and the entire narrative frame is shifted. This is a song that is being told much later, and suddenly a song about memory is also a song about loss, the couplet “taking time to make time / telling me that he’s all mine” revealing the betrayal of a false promise. This was a love rooted in the physical that disappeared long ago, and on the final repetition of the chorus the suggestion that this was the “only one” takes on a melancholic defiance, and the very act of recounting the tale an assertion of selfhood.
“Son of a Preacher Man” belongs to the genre of the forbidden love song, and such songs were not uncommon to Sixties R&B, with James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street,” Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away,” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” all standing as classic explorations of the illicit or unattainable. And yet “Son of a Preacher Man” departs from these in its invocation of religion, and it is here that it strays into its most peculiar territory of all. In one sense this can be seen as an indictment of Southern social mores, a suggestion that underneath genteel morality all is not as it seems; or, perhaps, it celebrates the more sensual aspects of Southern religiosity, evident to anyone who’s ever heard a particularly impassioned Holiness sermon, or gospel performance.
Whatever it was, it was too much for the woman for whom it was written. When Atlantic brought Hurley and Wilkins’s composition to Aretha Franklin, she rejected it. For all of the erotic undertones of Franklin’s Atlantic work, the potent combination of religion and sex in “Son of a Preacher Man” was apparently too much for Franklin, a preacher’s daughter herself.
Franklin’s loss was Springfield’s gain. Along with American Studios’ formidable session musicians, Springfield turned “Son of a Preacher Man” into a masterpiece of late-Sixties soul.[vi] Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” is its use of quiet. The song’s opening guitar riff is spacey and surreal, so cleanly played that it almost chimes, while a Wurlitzer electric piano hums warmly underneath it. Gene Chrisman’s drum performance is delicate and understated, his cymbals played almost at a whisper, his fills sparse and laconic. Tommy Cogbill’s bass is the most active instrument on the record, bubbling nimbly underneath Chrisman’s drumming.
This quiet has several effects. From a thematic standpoint it heightens the song’s undercurrents of illicit suggestion while evoking a setting of thick, slow Southern evenings. Musically, the quiet directs our attention to even the slightest moments of dynamic emphasis, such as Chrisman hitting a snare-drum backbeat just slightly harder than he did in the previous measure, or Cogbill’s bass line providing a particularly nimble flourish. Even Springfield’s vocal begins with careful breathiness, as though confessing a secret, the British pop chanteuse as parody of a Southern belle.
The arrival of the bridge following on the heels of the second chorus transforms the performance. Horns play sustained pads, while the electric guitar plays chopping rhythm chords for the first time in the song. Harmonically, the song modulates up an entire fourth, an unusually wide interval that forces Springfield into the upper registers of her vocal range, where she remains for the song’s final chorus. We hear ad libbing from Springfield, as “Son of a Preacher Man” becomes “sweet-talking son of a preacher man,” then “sweet-lovin’ son of a preacher man,” as her backup singers take on their fullest role yet, filling out the entirety of the chorus. As the song soars toward its fade the listener is swept away in the mixture of exuberance and lament that haunts the song’s text.
Jerry Wexler’s visions of Springfield as the blue-eyed soulstress who would bring his label the lucrative transatlantic demographic he craved never materialized. Ironically, the British band that would finally give Atlantic that success was recommended to the label by Springfield herself, when she pointed executives in the direction of an up-and-coming quartet called Led Zeppelin.[vii] Aretha Franklin finally did record a rousing rendition “Son of a Preacher Man” for her 1970 album This Girl’s in Love with You; Springfield herself was never able to hear “Son of a Preacher Man” the same way after Franklin’s version, and was perpetually convinced that Franklin had “done it better.”[viii] A self-conscious performer perpetually aware of and mistrustful of her own whiteness, Springfield was mortified at the thought of being compared to Franklin, even if their moment of overlap had produced the most brilliant performance of her career.
And yet the singular triumph of Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” was both a direct and indirect result of Franklin’s tremendous influence on late-Sixties R&B. Not only does the recording feature numerous musicians who were veterans of Franklin’s sessions, it also features Franklin’s backup singers, the Sweet Inspirations. “Son of a Preacher Man” is basically an Aretha Franklin track without Aretha Franklin: by placing the white British Springfield in a recording studio with a song written for Aretha Franklin and musicians who backed up Aretha Franklin, what emerged was one of the great R&B records of the 1960s, a recording whose peculiar, atmospheric power is truly unique. Penned by two white Southern men for a soul superstar from Detroit, only to be made a hit by a white Englishwoman, “Son of a Preacher Man” is a remarkable document of the fluidity and multiplicity of Sixties soul. And even its Southern-ness ultimately proves elusive: in a final twist, Springfield’s own insecurity led her to re-record most of her final vocal tracks for Dusty in Memphis in the same place Franklin herself recorded nearly all of her most of her most iconic Atlantic sides: New York City.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, for basic biographical information on Dusty Springfield I relied on Penny Valentine and Vicki Whickham’s Dancing with Demons: The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000), Annie Randall’s Dusty! Queen of the Postmods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Laurence Cole’s Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere (Middlesex, UK: Middlesex University Press, 2008).
[ii] Randall, Dusty!, 71.
[iii] Ibid, 19. Dusty Springfield, A Girl Called Dusty, Philips Records BF 7594, 1964, 33rpm.
[iv] “Dusty Ordered ‘Hit the Road,’” Chicago Defender, 17 Dec. 1964, 2.
[v] Ray Coleman, “Pop Probe: Dusty,” Melody Maker, 21 Nov. 1964, 3.
[vi] Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man,” Atlantic 2580, 1968, 45rpm.
[vii] Led Zeppelin is a massively important band whom, largely due to periodization, I’ve mostly left out of this book. I have written about them extensively elsewhere, though: see Jack Hamilton, “Good Times Bad Times,” Slate, 18 June 2014, available at http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/06/led_zeppelin_how_jimmy_page_robert_plant_et_al_invented_modern_rock.html, and Jack Hamilton, “Robert Plant’s Second Act,” The Atlantic, 1 Nov. 2010, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/11/robert-plants-second-act/65278/.
[viii] Valentine and Whickham, Dancing with Demons, 87.
From Jack Hamilton’s Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, courtesy Harvard University Press.