Institute for Studies In American Music
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Inside This Issue
Dusty Springfield and the Motown Invasion by Annie J. Randall
Dusty Springfield and the Motown Invasion
by Annie J. Randall
Martha Reeves and Dusty Springfield in the rehearsal for
"Sounds of Motown" television special, April 1965
While the Beatles were cutting a swath across America and conquering the US pop charts during the mid-1960s British Invasion, another important musical phenomenon was taking place across the Atlantic—the Motown Invasion of Britain. While American teenagers were avidly consuming the Beatles’ records, British teenagers were discovering Berry Gordy’s Motown Revue and forming a fan base for a genre now known as “British Soul.” This devotion to black American artists such as Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin influenced the careers of British artists including Lulu, Tom Jones, and Annie Lennox. The first and perhaps best-known British artist in this long line of “blue-eyed soul” vocalists was the late Dusty Springfield (1939-1999).
Springfield was the most important figure in facilitating the Motown Invasion. In addition to covering many Motown hits herself, she gave the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and many other groups their first television exposure in the UK. The Motown stars’ appearance on Springfield’s television special The Sounds of Motown in 1965 was as significant as the Beatles’ landmark 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, which catapulted them into the commercial stratosphere. The Sounds of Motown was conceived and hosted by Springfield for the express purpose of igniting the careers of the Detroit singers in European markets. Through Springfield’s advocacy, these Detroit artists were transported into the Europop spotlight.1
During The Sounds of Motown, audiences in Britain and across the globe were able to see the singers performing live the songs they had been hearing on their radios—songs such as “Dancin’ in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas, “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, and “Just My Imagination” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The show allowed British and BBC audiences to view an image of African Americans who modeled a hopeful postcolonial vision for the African diaspora. “Detroit” represented the social and political attainment of black, middle-class urbanites, a vision that stood in stark contrast to other contemporary images of African Americans beamed around the world: television footage of black civil rights protesters in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia as they were assaulted by police, harassed by White Citizens Councils, and stalked by the Ku Klux Klan.
This jarring contrast between the images projected on Sounds of Motown and those broadcast on the evening news is key to understanding the reception and lasting importance of the Motown Invasion and, indeed, the reception of their advocate, Dusty Springfield, in both the UK and the US. The widely reported racial violence triggered by the civil rights movement was the ever-present backdrop for the Detroit musicians: their April 1965 UK television appearance with Springfield followed the landmark events of 1964’s “Freedom Summer” and preceded America’s urban riots of 1965 by only a few months. And while Springfield and the Motown artists scrupulously avoided attaching any political significance to their TV special, no one could have missed the message of solidarity it conveyed, following on the heels of Springfield’s front-page deportation from South Africa for her refusal in December 1964 to entertain segregated audiences.2
If the images of Sounds of Motown embodied a rejection of racism and apartheid for an international audience, then the sounds of Reeves, Springfield, and the other Detroit acts singing together enacted the same. This was the first time Springfield’s fans saw their idol in the presence of the singers that she herself idolized, whose sound she emulated in her own performances, and whose cultural background she acknowledged as a principal source of her vocal style. Their musical alliance can be understood as demonstrating an idealized racial harmony during a time of horrific racial disharmony through Springfield’s own persona as the “White Queen of Soul,” which bound together seemingly incongruent racial elements.3
Springfield acquired the title “White Queen of Soul” as a result of her many hit cover versions of songs by African American artists such as the Shirelles, Inez and Charlie Foxx, and Baby Washington.4 Her first album, A Girl Called Dusty (1964), was dominated by such covers. Springfield had internalized the then-current black pop sound so thoroughly that many listeners in the US who had only heard her songs on the radio but had never seen her assumed that she was an African American.5
Springfield’s covers of songs by African American singers ranged from close copies of the original versions to clever reworkings. Springfield faithfully copied the interpretations of black female artists—her covers of The Shirelles’ “Mama Said [There’d be Days Like This]” and the Velvelettes’ “Needle in a Haystack” are similar to the originals in most respects—but showed no comparable fealty to interpretations of black male singers. For example, her cover of Garnett Mimms’s “It Was Easier to Hurt Her” omits the gratuitous, spoken opening lines (“Give her some hard times, treat her mean/that’s what all the guys say/It’ll only make her love you more/but it just don’t go down that way”), and then shapes the song from an emotional position that is more complex and conflicted than Mimms’s. Springfield insisted that her white British session musicians copy precisely the instrumental playing styles of black American musicians. She even paid for her backing band, The Echoes, to hear concerts by James Brown and the Famous Flames to facilitate the exact reproduction of the sound of Brown’s band on her recordings.6
Though A Girl Called Dusty includes remakes of songs by white US singers such as Lesley Gore and Gene Pitney, Springfield made no attempt to copy their singing styles. Springfield’s “You Don’t Own Me” bears little vocal resemblance to Gore’s perfect rendition of a New Jersey teenager’s first petulant attempt to establish social and sexual autonomy. Similarly, her cover of Pitney’s “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa,” a song in which a man runs off with a new girlfriend, adopts a humorous, protofeminist stance as the protagonist who dumps her Tulsa boyfriend for a man she has just met at a truck stop. To the delight of her teenaged female fans, Springfield succeeded in regendering such songs and turning the usual male-female dynamic on its head.7 One wonders how audiences might have read the pattern of Springfield’s preferences, including her reverence for vocal interpretations of African American female artists and instrumental styles of African American male artists, and her willingness to invert power relationships in songs by black and white American male singers.8
In all of its racial and gendered complexity, the reception of US pop in Britain during the mid-1960s was a phenomenon of considerable significance both within the confines of pop music and within the broader sphere of pop culture. The Motown Invasion reflected and contributed to the evolving shifts in social and political power relationships that marked this period in the US and Britain. The lasting cultural impact of this transatlantic moment and its extraordinarily rich music are undoubtedly as important as the endlessly analyzed social phenomena associated with the Beatles and the British Invasion.
—Annie J. Randall
1 Martha Reeves and Mark Bego, Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva (Hyperion, 1994), 124. Vicki Wickham, producer of the show, gives an account of Dusty’s role in the creation of “Sounds of Motown” in Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, Dancing With Demons, The Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 69.
2 The much publicized expulsion of Britain’s top female singer from South Africa occupied the front pages of UK newspapers for days. Springfield received support from members of Parliament and from Prime Minister Harold Wilson. As a result of Springfield’s stance, most British singers touring South Africa after this incident also refused to entertain segregated audiences. See Lucy O’Brien, Dusty: The Queen Bee of Pop (Pan Books, 1999), 64-77.
3 Britain too was plagued by racism as a result of large-scale immigration from its former colonies in the Caribbean and Asia.
4 The origin of the phrase “White Queen of Soul” is unknown, though the British pop singer Cliff Richard is credited with first using the expression “white negress” in reference to Springfield sometime in the mid-’60s. See O’Brien, Dusty: Queen Bee of Pop, 61.
5 Martha Reeves was among those who had made this assumption and had even wondered why Berry Gordy had not yet signed such a talented black singer to the Motown label. Quoted in O’Brien, Dusty: Queen Bee of Pop, 59.
6 According to Derek Wadsworth, trombonist and arranger for The Echoes, Springfield was obsessed with getting the right instrumental sound, and demanded countless takes during extremely expensive recording sessions until she was satisfied with the sound. Interview with Wadsworth by the author (June 2004).
7 Journalist Ray Coleman wrote in a 21 November 1964 article for Melody Maker that “Her gay, dashing image clicked with thousands. And girl hit parade fans, notoriously apathetic towards girl singers until now, accepted her as the symbol of a new ‘mod revolution.’” Quoted in The Dusty Springfield Bulletin (March 1997), 10.
8 Paul Howes traces the origins of all of Springfield’s known recordings, including foreign language releases, in The Complete Dusty Springfield (Reynolds and Hearn, 2001) while Patricia Juliana Smith examines Springfield’s “resignified” cover versions in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”: The Camp Masquerades of Dusty Springfield,” in The Queer Sixties, ed. Patricia Juliana Smith (Routledge, 1999), 105-126.
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