“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” was a massive hit for Dusty Springfield in 1966, but it was followed by a fallow year in terms of chart success. So Dusty was looking for a way to regain her popularity in the UK and the USA and came up with the idea of recording an album in the States. She was a fan of Aretha Franklin, she loved Southern Soul, and she admired the work of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. Why not sign for Atlantic Records, team up with Jerry Wexler and go to Memphis? In 1968 the dream came true!
Wexler had booked Wilson Pickett into Stax in Memphis and then Aretha Franklin into FAME in Muscle Shoals, but these arrangements had broken down. He was now working with American Sound Studios in Memphis and that is where he went with Dusty. The support team was strong: engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin, the back-up singers Sweet Inspirations and the “house band” of studio musicians, the Memphis Boys, led by guitarist Reggie Young and bassist Tommy Cogbill. The songs were chosen from a range of well-known experienced song-writers, including Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, Michel Legrand and Randy Newman. Everything looked perfect.
The studio was set up and the tracks recorded. However, Dusty seems to have been a little intimidated by everything and, according to Wexler, she didn’t like any of the initial batch of songs. The final vocal tracks were actually cut back in New York, which was not a good sign. Nevertheless, the album was finished and the first single chosen for release.
In November 1968 the lead single from the album, “Son of a Preacher Man”, was issued. It had been written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins while they were working at Muscle Shoals and was intended for Aretha Franklin. Wexler had recorded the song with Aretha but had not used it. He now passed it to Dusty. It reached number nine on the UK chart and number ten on the Billboard Hot 100. Hurley and Wilkins were probably the least well-known of the album’s song-writers, so greater things could be round the corner.
The album “Dusty In Memphis” was released on 31 March 1969, on Atlantic Records in the US and on Phillips in the UK. It made it to number ninety-nine on the US chart and didn’t make the UK chart at all!
So what went wrong? Wexler felt that Dusty had a “gigantic inferiority complex” and that she felt anxious when she thought of all the great performers who had gone before. She was possibly unnerved by the studio set-up, which put her voice at the very front of the mix with no strings to soften the edges. Dusty said later that she had never before worked with just a rhythm track, nor with outside producers. She had produced herself on many earlier recordings and wasn’t used to the intensity.
But there is one other issue with the album, that may explain its failure. The best track “Son Of a Preacher Man” is one of only two on the album written by people who “got” Southern Soul. The rest are are by big names in other fields. Good show songs, good pop ballads, yes, but good soul songs? Not really. Dusty doesn’t really let her hair down (difficult with a bouffant!) and, although the songs sound really good, they don’t have the edge that good soul songs all have. Ultimately, the album could have been so much better, if Steve Cropper had written the songs and Booker T & the MGs had played them. I think Dusty would have enjoyed it a whole lot more too.
Fortunately, the album didn’t die. It has gradually grown in stature over the years and its qualities are now recognised much more than they were in 1969.
In The A.V. Club magazine, Keith Phipps has written “that Dusty in Memphis developed an elegant and distinct fusion of pop and R&B that predated the Philadelphia soul sound of the 1970s”.
According to Eric Klinger from PopMatters: “Its sophisticated style of music influenced the sound of 1990s trip hop artists who sampled songs from the album and became a blueprint for British female singers of the 2000s, including Adele, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Joss Stone, Paloma Faith and Rumer.”
The album frequently appears on lists of the greatest albums ever made, and was placed at No. 89 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In a BBC Radio 2 documentary about the album in 2006, Wexler said: “The fact that this record has had such a fantastic afterlife…it’s been one of the joys of my life.”