Category Archives: The Essentials

The Essentials: Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis

I can say with certainty when I first encountered many LPs and 45s – not because I possess an extraordinary memory, but from my old desk diaries. In mid-1982, not long before I started my senior year of high school, I began charting said purchases – a routine I maintained through much of the next three-and-a-half years. Looking back, though, I wish I’d tracked such things from the get-go, and continued the practice after I stopped – and if I’d been aware that one day I’d be blogging about this stuff, I likely would have.

Anyway, I first met Dusty in Memphis during those pre-1982 years. I have no memory of when or where it happened, though my hunch – because the LP was out-of-print – is the early 1980s at Memory Lane Records, an independent store in Horsham that traded (and still trades) in used vinyl. Why I bought it is yet another question I can’t answer: Did I read about it in a music magazine? In a book? Was it spurred by hearing “Son of a Preacher Man” on the radio?

The story behind the album is easier told: In 1968, Dusty Springfield signed with Atlantic Records and, shortly thereafter, arrived in the hallowed halls of American Studios in Memphis to work with producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, and their crack studio crew. She rejected many of the songs they wanted her to sing, and her nerves caused havoc with her voice – as a result, many (if not all) of the final vocals were actually recorded at a later date in New York City. No matter. The final set is simply exquisite, the epitome of “blue-eyed soul” (though Dusty’s actual eye color was a light aqua green).

The 11 songs are sultry, soulful, gritty and sweet, sometimes all at once, and lay down a blueprint that generations of singers have sought (and usually failed) to replicate. Dusty’s vocals reflect and inject her soul into the lyrics; she may not have written the words, but one senses that she lived them.

The tortured “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” by Randy Newman, is one of the album’s tour de forces:

Another: “Breakfast in Bed.”

And, of course, the now classic “Son of a Preacher Man”:

Yet, despite the presence of a Top 5 hit in “Son of a Preacher Man,” the album didn’t sell well – about 100,000 copies. By year’s end, Dusty moved onto Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, where she worked with TSOP practitioners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (who, in 1971, founded the Philadelphia International label) on A Brand New Me.

The failure of Dusty in Memphis to do well just goes to show that sales don’t always equal quality – a fact many music fans know, but others never seem to get. (That’s a tangent for a future rant from me, I think.)

Rolling Stone ranks the LP at No. 89 in its 500 Greatest Albums All Time list, but I’d rank it higher. It shares space with dozens of others in my mythical Top 10. It’s as perfect an album ever released – so perfect that, through the years, I’ve acquired just about every iteration of it released, including the original CD, the reissues with bonus tracks, high-resolution versions in stereo and mono…and, to close the circle, on vinyl yet again. It sounds as fresh to me today as it ever did.

Here’s the track listing (with the songwriters noted in parentheses):

Side 1:

  1. Just a Little Lovin’ (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil)
  2. So Much Love (Gerry Goffin & Carole King)
  3. Son of a Preacher Man (John Hurley & Ronnie Wilkins)
  4. I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore (Randy Newman)
  5. Don’t Forget About Me (Gerry Goffin & Carole King)
  6. Breakfast in Bed (Eddie Hinton & Donnie Fritts)

Side 2:

  1. Just One Smile (Randy Newman)
  2. The Windmills of Your Mind (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman & Michael Legrand)
  3. In the Land of Make Believe (Burt Bacharach & Hal David)
  4. No Easy Way Down (Gerry Goffin & Carole King)
  5. I Can’t Make It Alone (Gerry Goffin & Carole King)

Here it is in full:

The Essentials: Dusty Springfield – Complete A and B Sides 1963-1970

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life. Also, although the primary focus is on unique albums, from time-to-time must-have collections – such as the one below – will be spotlighted.)

By my count, some 34 Dusty Springfield compilations have been released through the years, with about a half dozen still being in print. Most, obviously, collect her hits; others, such as the box sets or double-disc collections, mix in pertinent album tracks and/or rarities; and yet others hone in on specific years or recording sessions, such as the delightful Come for a Dream: The U.K. Sessions 1970-71.

The Complete A and B Sides, which was released in 2006, takes a different tack. Compiled by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, it features Dusty’s original British singles on Disc 1 and the original B-sides on Disc 2 – and most feature the original mono mixes.

Mono, of course, uses one channel so that what one hears out of each speaker will be exactly the same. Stereo, on the other hand, expands the soundscape to two channels – a right and a left. A guitar may be heard coming from the right speaker and not from the left, for example. One isn’t intrinsically better than the other, though – these days – stereo is the norm.

The further back in time one travels, however – like, say, to the 1960s – the more likely it is that the original release was mono; and that stereo versions of the same recordings, if available, were afterthoughts. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is probably the greatest example: John Lennon and Paul McCartney were hands-on for the mono mix, spending about three weeks to get everything exactly right. The stereo mix, however, was created without their input over the course of two days.

While Dusty’s productions never matched that of Sgt. Pepper, one can argue that her emotional acumen did, in fact, rival theirs. And the original mono mixes of her material are – as the back cover says – “punchy.” They just sound more alive. (That’s not always the case, however; though some tracks sound as good as their stereo counterparts, as a whole the mono Dusty in Memphis sounds flatter and duller.)

Anyway, that’s really getting beside the point of this essential pick: Each disc is a great set unto itself. Yes, the A-side half lacks a few of her stateside hits, such as “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” because they weren’t released as singles in Britain; but the B-side half more than makes up for it with such overlooked wonders as “Summer Is Over”…

…“Don’t Say It Baby”…

…and “I’m Gonna Leave You,” the flip side to one of her greatest singles…

…the Goffin-King classic “Goin’ Back.”

(That’s the stereo version above, I should mention; YouTube doesn’t have the mono. For shame, YouTube. For shame!)

Here’s another oft-overlooked A-side:

Here’s the track listing in full:

 

The Essentials: Emmylou Harris – The Ballad of Sally Rose

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.)

In February 1985. Emmylou Harris released her 11th album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. I bought it on vinyl on the 17th of that month, a Sunday, and liked it so much that, a few weeks later, I picked it up on cassette so that I could listen to it while driving my new old car, a ’79 Chevette. I also scored tickets to see her at the Academy of Music in Philly around the same time. In my Of Concerts Past piece about that show, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily her best work. It is, however, one of her most ambitious efforts. A true flawed masterpiece.

A concept album inspired by her relationship with Gram Parsons, the songs – written by Emmy and her husband at the time, Paul Kennerly – chart the story of a young woman who falls for a charismatic singer only to be wooed away from him by the promise of stardom. And just when she realizes her mistake and sets out to rejoin him…he dies in a car crash. Bad news, huh?

The scan, by the way, is of the flyer handed out at that 1985 concert, and it explains the story in a bit more depth.

As with many concept albums, the set’s weakness comes from having to tell a cohesive story over a succession of songs that also need to be able to stand alone. While the music remains strong throughout, lyrically a few tracks fall short. The flip side is this: Many are just plain great. The title cut, which kicks off the album, for instance, would have been at home on any of Emmy’s non-concept albums:

As I note in that Of Concerts Past piece, “Rhythm Guitar” and “Woman Walk the Line” are memorable, too. Likewise, the rest of Side One – up until “Bad News,” which doesn’t quite work. Side Two has its moments, as well, and the closing “Sweet Chariot” is sheer genius.

Here’s a YouTube playlist of the album in full:

Side One:

  1. The Ballad of Sally Rose
  2. Rhythm Guitar
  3. I Think I Love Him
  4. Heart to Heart
  5. Woman Walk the Line
  6. Bad News
  7. Timberline

Side Two:

  1. Long Tall Sally Rose
  2. White Line
  3. Diamond in My Crown
  4. The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  5. KSOS
  6. Sweet Chariot