In the 1960s, Britain was a world of psychedelia, mods, rockers, thigh-grazing miniskirts, street protest, and sexual liberation. London, in particular, had thrown off the gloom of post-Second World War austerity, and was ready to embrace a new beginning filled with color, optimism, and culture. And if anyone was ready to unravel societal norms, it was British musical legend and emergent queer icon Dusty Springfield. But, for a long time, Springfield had to wait for the world to catch up to her.
Born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien to Irish immigrants in 1939, Springfield was a plain, albeit tomboyish child who earned the name ‘Dusty’ playing football with the boys on the street outside the family home in Ealing. Growing up, family life was fraught: her mother was an alcoholic with a tendency to throw food, while her abusive father repeatedly told young Springfield that she was stupid and ugly. Meanwhile, at her Catholic all-girls school, the nuns predicted that the shy girl was destined to become a librarian.
Though Springfield’s childhood had been soundtracked by fuming rows, there was also a deep appreciation of music: classical, jazz, and, Springfield’s favorite, American rhythm and blues. At a young age, Mary and her elder brother Dion began singing and making tape recordings in their parents’ garage. By 16, though, Mary was determined to establish a new direction, swapping her glasses and auburn hair for high heels, vampish makeup, and startling peroxide blonde. She started performing at local clubs with her brother, and in 1958, after answering an advert in The Stage, she joined the all-girl singing trio the Lana Sisters.
Then, on a spring day in 1960, Mary, Dion, and a family friend named Tim field, teamed up to embark on a new musical venture. The Springfields, as they called themselves, produced a fresh, upbeat sound, and the siblings gave themselves new stage names to suit. With heavily blackened eyes, colorful frocks, and a platinum blonde beehive, Mary shed her suburban roots and adopted a glamorous new public persona: Dusty Springfield.
In 1962, The Springfields toured the United States. There, Springfield heard the Exciters’ big hit “Tell Him” emanating from a music store, and was changed; she resolved to try her hand at pop. Other girl groups like the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Chiffons provided inspiration in the way of their boundless vitality, simple sentiments, and finger-snapping melodies. "I was deeply influenced by Black singers from the early 1960s," said Springfield. "I liked everybody at Motown and most of the Stax artists. I really wanted to be Mavis Staples. What they shared in common was a kind of strength I didn't hear on English radio."
The next year, this new Springfield embarked on a solo career and soon released her debut album, A Girl Called Dusty, which, like her future work, was deeply indebted to Black American soul. From the start, she electrified the British pop scene. And by the mid-1960s, she was heralded as one of the best voices ever in British pop, while overseas, where Southern soul music was stirring America, she became a leading player alongside the Black female superstars of the era. One obituary of her, published by the Guardian, claimed she was “the only white woman singer worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the great divas of 1960s soul music: Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells.”
Yet despite Springfield’s cultural impact, there has been little exploration into the layers of her popular appeal. Even after her death in 1999, the legend of Dusty Springfield has remained perpetually fixated with her aesthetic, rather than the ways in which she, and the music she created, transcended traditional categorization.
The common denominator in most tributes written after Springfield’s untimely passing is the mention of her “subversiveness.” Many attribute it to her appearance; with her false lashes, flamboyant hand gestures, and oversized wigs, she came to symbolize the joyful, defiant energy of the Swinging Sixties. And as Juliana Smith writes in The Queer Sixties, “she pushed accepted notions of femininity to absurd extremes and thus, even if unwittingly, subverted the iconography of what it means to look like—and be—a “girl.”
Though her sexuality was an open secret to the gay community, the fact that Springfield was a lesbian is not common knowledge today, thanks in part to the legacy of homophobia that left prominent queer figures in constant fear of being outed. Modern biographies seem only to bring her sexuality to the forefront when detailing the tragic self-destruction that defined her lost years in Los Angeles, where she moved to escape public scrutiny. There, she formed many long-term relationships with women, most notably American actress Teda Bracci, who she unofficially wed in 1983. “In England, she had the whole lesbian thing thrown at her in the papers,” remembers Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys. “She wasn't married. Did she or did she not have a boyfriend? Those days were tough.”
Yet, at a time when any suggestion of non-normative sexuality was considered career suicide, Springfield committed an act of bravery during a 1970 interview with Ray Connolly of the London Evening Standard. “A lot of people say that I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it,” she told him. “I know I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more, people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
Springfield’s honesty came at a cost: throughout the Seventies, her popularity waned, and she didn’t have another hit single for over fifteen years. By the 70s, Springfield’s stardom was largely over, and over the course of the next decade and a half, she faded into obscurity in LA. When she returned to London in the early 1990s after the success of a collaboration with The Pet Shop Boys on “What Have I Done To Deserve This?,” Springfield was prepared for a renaissance; but a recurrence of breast cancer in 1998 stopped her in her tracks. To the end, though, Springfield remained unapologetic in the way she underlined her identity, refusing to conform to the music industry’s expectations of how a great diva should behave. “It’s a long time since being a star was the most important thing to me” she said at the time. “I don’t need to be adored, to hear that applause. If I never heard it again, I would still be fine.”