February 28-March 6, 2006

home | north bay bohemian index | music & nightlife | essay

Dusty Springfield

Look of love: Dusty deserves a new audience.

Second Listen

Rediscovering Dusty Springfield and Ruthann Friedman

By Sara Bir

The factors that form things we come to know as masterworks are often pretty arbitrary; happenstance can be the one thin line between artistic immortality and dust-covered obscurity. Of course, this obscurity is what keeps record labels in business. The more obscure the tracks are that surface, the more creative and revealing reissues and box sets can be. When they're good, they're the stuff that every crate-digger and pop-music sleuth lives for.

Dusty Springfield: Complete A and B Sides 1963-1970 is on Eclipse, the label founded by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of British indie dance band Saint Etienne. Though dozens of collections out there competently survey Dusty's career, Complete A and B Sides presents lesser-known recordings from her heyday alongside her hits. In this refreshing context, the material is on a level playing field, allowing B-side gems to shine equally bright and proving there's a lot more to Dusty Springfield than what we know from movie soundtracks and oldies radio.

Dusty was a singer of high drama through and through. She didn't save her emotional onslaught just for her prime material, infusing every song with an emotional commitment that's palpable in tracks like the Bacharach-esque "Summer Is Over," in which her vocals masterfully convey the utter loss of control a broken relationship delivers. In the much more upbeat Goffin-King "I'll Love You for a While," she swings effortlessly, while "Earthbound Gypsy" shows us the jazzy side of Dusty, who sings so naturally with a small combo that it momentarily seems ridiculous that she found fame as a pop singer. Her assuredness carried her through every genre, making her recordings first and foremost Dusty Springfield songs; everything else was secondary.

Ruthann Friedman was a contemporary of Dusty Springfield, but while many of Springfield's songs are rife with symphonic bombast, Friedman's are the cozy, impressionistic reflections of a vagabond. Water Records' Hurried Life: Lost Recordings 1965-1970 reveals to us not only Friedman's confident, easygoing songwriting, but her warm and honest delivery.

Friedman is best known as the composer of the Association's biggest hit, the infectiously buoyant "Windy." Though a long-standing urban myth established her as a teenybopper fan of the Association, in truth Friedman was their colleague, a fellow hippie happily caught in the whirlwind of mind-blowing drugs and creativity that flared up in canyon bungalows across L.A. in the late 1960s. Friedman grew up in the Bronx and came to California during what she calls the "great hippie migration" to pal around with Van Dyke Parks, live in David Crosby's spare room and get high on nitrous oxide with Ken Kesey. In 1969, she released her only album, Constant Companion.

Hurried Life exists in part due to the surge of interest in obscure artists of the '60s that present-day folk-fringe darlings like Devendra Banhart have cited as influences. The songs and liner notes of Hurried Life present us with a true free spirit; Friedman was the essence of the era in her lifestyle and art. Most of the songs on the album are home-recorded demos, intimate and small by nature.

Friedman's version of "Windy" is a revelation; while the Association's classic is all sunny Baroque frippery, Friedman's is affably straightforward and casual--as if she herself were this mysterious, floating and whooshing Windy. But Friedman's Windy is a he, not a she, and it's fun to re-imagine Windy as a blissed-out slacker dreamboat of a man walking down the streets of the city.

Thinking about these great songs sitting around in Ruthann Friedman's attic or basement for decades is both amazing and scary: it delivers a promise that, yes, there must be more great stuff out there, songs by musicians we have and have not heard of. But with that knowledge also comes the sting that much of it will remain rotting in storage, while a steady stream of the latest disposable mediocrity will rocket to the sky only to burn out in mere moments. Perhaps ultimately, greatness has nothing to do with what's forgotten or remembered, but what one person gets around to appreciating.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.