- by Brian Thompson Rating:9 Release Date:1969-03-31 Label: Atlantic
It’s virtually impossible to understate the power of Dusty Springfield in the world of music at the end of the sixties, but she was also an artist who was always pushing herself to find something new. Up to this point, nearly every single she released had landed on the charts all over the world, but she was ready to create a singular, cohesive piece of work. So, she turned to the American South to catch some of the potent energy of the soul singers she idolized so dearly, calling upon a tremendous array of talent – including producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin, backup singers Sweet Inspirations, and the session band Memphis Cats (known for backing Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley), prominently featuring guitarist Reggie Young and bassist Tommy Cogbill – to help craft what would become the definitive statement of her career. Proof that art often takes time to digest and appreciate, Dusty in Memphis sold relatively poorly upon its initial release, but the album would go on to receive almost universal acclaim, often regarded as the most accomplished work of one of the 20th century’s most indelible voices.
Right of the bat, traces of the Memphis soul ooze out of the album, as smoky opener "Just a Little Lovin'" capitalizes on a swaying, symphonic hopefulness led by a rattling drum kit. Invoking so many timeless R&B singers that came before, Springfield swaggers through heartbreaking Gerry Goffin and Carole King numbers, like "So Much Love" and "Don't Forget About Me," ensuring that they would always be hers. In between the bluesy guitar riffs and haunting gospel chorus, Springfield pushing her voice to its limits, barely keeping it together as she hits those emotional, penetrating high notes. She was no stranger to sentimentality, but here, she truly bares all, bleeding her heart out on devastating, expansive ballads like "I Can't Make It Alone" and "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," a Randy Newman-penned sweeping declaration of self-affirmation.
While Dusty in Memphis wasn’t quite the hit factory her career had been up to this point, the album did produce some of Springfield’s most beloved standards. Although it topped out a number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, the smooth and sensual "Son of a Preacher Man" would be the song that would encapsulate a career, elevated by its soulful yet understated horn section, ghastly backing chorus, and infectious bass groove. The album gave birth to another inescapable Springfield classic, "Breakfast in Bed," calling upon the musical specters of the American South in a turn that seems predestined to become a soul standard.
On the record’s back half, many tracks feel in line with the previous entries in Dusty Springfield’s catalog. From the jazzy, melodramatic ”The Windmills of Your Mind" to the exotic island breezes of "In the Land of Make Believe," several of these songs abandon the sultry R&B atmosphere for a more pop-oriented sound. As we reach "Just One Smile," another track written by Randy Newman, folksy acoustic guitars and cinematic strings continue to build and blossom into a booming decree of emphatic admiration. But the album’s second side isn’t without its exploration of blue-eyed soul, as the affecting background vocals and impassioned instrumentation of "No Easy Way Down" bring us back home to Memphis.
With Dusty in Memphis, Springfield was able to expand upon her established sound and delve into new genre ventures. At the height of her popularity, she opted for experimentation over simply sticking to the proven formula, and the results truly speak for themselves. Heartbreaking, soulful, and one of a kind, this record is a testament to a great legacy, highlighting both her immense talent and masterful ability to translate emotion into song.