By Annie Randall
As I celebrate the late Dusty Springfield’s 74th birthday on the 16th of April, I am struck by the number of singers who choose to perform as Dusty—complete with wigs, costumes, and the trademark hand gestures—rather than singing Dusty’s hit songs as themselves. It’s no surprise that ambitious and confident singers want to sing Dusty’s hits; many of the songs, like “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” and “The Look of Love,” are not only beautifully crafted, they’re vocally challenging. Assuming that she can meet the steep vocal challenges, the singer is well rewarded for her efforts: these songs are proven crowd favorites, guaranteed to elicit passionate applause, if not standing ovations for those brave enough to try singing them. For these reasons, most serious female pop singers know, and even closely study, the Dusty canon of classic recordings from the 1960s and 1970s. Some of them take it a step farther and, in addition to interpreting the songs as Dusty would, they want to look and act like Dusty as well.
The most recent singer to take a crack at “doing Dusty” is Kirsten Holly Smith in her now-playing off-Broadway show, Forever Dusty. Smith is one in a long line of excellent singers (and some, not so great, let’s be frank) who have attempted to portray the now legendary life and sound of 1960s White Queen of Soul, Dusty Springfield. Others include Suzanne Fletcher, Tamsin Carroll, Sheena Crouch, Karen Noble, Wendy Stapleton, Emma Wilkinson, Katy Setterfield, and drag performers like Lori Le Verne and Jayne County.
Each of these performers is to be admired not only for trying to scale the Mount Everest of female pop singing, but for subjecting themselves to the often withering critique of Dusty fans who insist that no one ever has, or ever will sound like Dusty. As the singers soon learn, after the final chords have faded and audience endorphin levels have returned to normal, some serious grumbling begins: “Poor thing, her singing’s not half bad but she’s nothing like our Dusty.” Consult any website or blog devoted to Dusty fandom (my favorite site is Let’s Talk Dusty) and you will see such reactions, largely negative, in response to the latest attempt to portray Dusty Springfield’s sound, look, and presence onstage.
Fan critique has not only been reactive, but proactive, in response to rumored film portrayals that have not yet even taken place. Again, go to any of the Dusty fansites and you will find discussion threads—some dating back many years—concerning Variety’s latest article on a much hoped-for but also much dreaded film biography of Dusty Springfield. Fans, generally, want a biopic to be made but one that celebrates Dusty’s stardom and not one that dwells on her often unhappy personal life. They fear that a narrative fig leaf or two will soon be stripped away by Hollywood or London’s prurient gaze.
Indeed, as rumors continue to fly about a Dusty Springfield biopic à la the award winning Ray Charles film, Ray, Patsy Cline’s Sweet Dreams, or Kevin Spacey’s homage to Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea, the burning question is: Who should play Dusty? Given Dusty’s musical, theatrical, and personal complexities, perhaps the question should be Who can play Dusty?
Annie J. Randall is Associate Professor of Musicology at Bucknell University. She is the author of Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods. The coauthor of Puccini and ‘The Girl’: History and Reception of Girl of the Golden West and editor of Music, Power, and Politics, she is Vice-President of the International Society for the Study of Popular Music-US branch and Co-Editor of the Music/Culture Series of Wesleyan University Press.