Even at the absolute end, Dusty Springfield knew how to dazzle a crowd. On March 12, under a cold rain in Henley-on-Thames near London, a horse-drawn hearse bearing her coffin made its way to St. Mary the Virgin Church as nearly 1,000 soaked mourners lined the streets. “I think she was up there laughing,” says Pat Rhodes, Springfield’s assistant since 1963. “She always said she would love her funeral to stop the traffic in this town, and she did just that.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Springfield, who died on March 2 at 59 of breast cancer, stopped people cold. Whether it was her taffy-blonde beehive, panda eyes ringed with makeup or the smoky, soulful voice behind such ’60s classics as “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “I Only Want to Be with You” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” Springfield was impossible to miss. “[Once] in Los Angeles when we wanted to go to a club, she said … ‘I don’t look right, my hair looks terrible,’ ” recalled Springfield’s friend, singer Elton John, who inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at ceremonies in New York City on March 15 (see page 66). The two found a drugstore, and Springfield promptly bought a can of hair-spray. “By the time we got to the register [the hairspray] was gone, I swear to God!”
Sadly, Springfield did not live to witness her induction, having finally succumbed to cancer that was diagnosed in 1994. “There was no breakdown, no ‘why me?’ ” recalls Gibb Hancock, a friend and neighbor who visited her often at her country home 35 miles from London. “Just an acceptance and a determination that this would be the fight of her life. She fought so bravely.”
Growing up in London, the youngest of two children born to an accountant and a homemaker, Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien overcame natural shyness through her great passion, singing. By 1963 she had also undergone a major makeover, piling on cosmetics, elevating the hair and renaming herself Dusty Springfield. That year she embarked on a solo career after the breakup of The Spring-fields, a trio she had formed with her brother Tom and Tim Field. With a voice that, according to Burt Bacharach (who penned her hit “The Look of Love”), “made the forearms tingle,” she recorded a string of smash singles culminating in her ’69 tour-de-force album Dusty in Memphis.
After that, the never-wed Springfield seemed to lose her way. She developed a drinking and cocaine problem that she didn’t curb until the early ’80s. (Later, though, she had a surprise hit single, 1987’s What Have I Done to Deserve This, with the Pet Shop Boys.) While musicians admired her perfectionism, they often didn’t like her temperament: Arguing with drummer Buddy Rich in the mid-’60s, she knocked his toupee off. Still, she confessed in a 1995 interview, “I was a frightened soul. Still am.”
That soul has found its peace. “She left us a legacy of beautiful recordings and fabulous memories,” said Elton John. “At her funeral…as the coffin came out of the church, she had a standing ovation.” She would have loved it.
Jennifer Fisher and Liz Corcoran in London, Matthew Chapman in Henley-on-Thames, Sue Miller in New York City and Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles