“Dusty In Memphis” was both the high point and, in some ways, the low point of Dusty Springfield’s career. But this classic album spawned one of Dusty Springfield’s most enduring tracks, “Son Of A Preacher Man”.
Dusty Springfield had been in the music industry for over a decade by the time she recorded “Dusty In Memphis” in 1968.
And she’d enjoyed a fair measure of success along the way…firstly alongside her brother Tom as a member of The Springfields, who had a run of folk-inspired hits, including “Island Of Dreams”, in the early 1960s…and then a run of hits as a solo artist in the mid-60s with songs like “I Only Want To Be With You”.
But the music industry seldom stays in one place for long…
By the late 1960s, psychedelia was the name of the game. Female singers standing in front of an orchestra in an evening gown, wearing long gloves, were out of fashion…however good they were.
So Dusty Springfield decided it was time to try something different.
A long-term soul music fan and a great admirer of Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield managed to get herself signed by Atlantic Records, Aretha Franklin’s record label, under the direction of Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin’s producer.
In 1968 she headed off to the soul music capital of the world, Memphis, Tennessee, to record the album everyone hoped would get her career back on track.
“Son Of A Preacher Man” is probably the most famous track from “Dusty In Memphis”, and it was originally written with Dusty Springfield’s hero, Aretha Franklin, in mind.
Songwriters John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, working out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama…another of my favourite recording destinations…remembered Aretha Franklin’s father had been a preacher, as had Wilkins’ grandfather. That sparked the idea for a song.
Even though Dusty Springfield had the hit with their song, rather than Aretha Franklin, I don’t think John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins would have been too disappointed with the end-result.
It wasn’t an easy gig for Dusty Springfield, though. This was a difficult time. Her confidence had been shaken after her career tailed away from its highs of the mid-60s. That, in turn, led to a level of self-criticism over her own performance which went far beyond any artist’s natural desire to make the best work they possibly could.
Her producers worked hard to get the results Dusty Springfield wanted, leading to take after take in the studio…but she wasn’t happy with the standard of her vocal. This resulted in an intriguing postscript to the recording of the album which we’ll get to in a moment…
Despite the problems recording it, the finished album was well received by the critics. But it didn’t attract the commercial success it deserved.
The lack of commercial appreciation for “Dusty In Memphis” was a disappointment from which she never quite recovered.
Although Dusty Springfield would continue to perform and record in the years to come, she seemed to lose her enthusiasm somewhat and largely faded from public consciousness, except among her legendarily die-hard fans, for many years thereafter.
Dusty Springfield wouldn’t make a Top 10 record for another 20 years after “Son Of A Preacher Man”. That was in the company of the Pet Shop Boys and “What Have I Done To Deserve This”…a great song, but one that’s about as far away from the Memphis sound as it’s possible to be.
Which is a shame. Much as I like the Pet Shop Boys in their own right, I’m an absolute sucker for the Memphis sound.
Nowadays, you can pretty much record a hit song in your bedroom with just a MacBook and a copy of Pro Tools.
That’s technically impressive…thank you Steve Jobs…but as a consequence music has become more anodyne and same-y…over-engineered, some might say, in a quest for scientific perfection, forgetting perhaps that it’s the emotional connection we feel with a great piece of music that gives music its soul.
Long before MacBooks and Pro Tools, each studio had its own distinct sound and feel.
One of the best sounds, infused with gorgeous warm tones…in a city packed full of great recording studios…could be found at American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
Together with Memphis rivals, Stax and Argent, American Sound Studio was one of the premier destinations for recording great music in the 1960s.
But this is more than a historical footnote. The city of Memphis created music that still lives on as the inspiration for…and occasionally as the samples for…our modern world of R&B and hip-hop.
“Dusty In Memphis” was recorded at American Sound Studio, where great songs like “The Letter” by the Box Tops, “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” by BJ Thomas and “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond were also recorded.
Despite the record-buying public’s indifference to “Dusty In Memphis”, the lead single, “Son Of A Preacher Man”, did quite well, reaching the Top 10 in both the UK and the US in 1968.
As it should. “Son Of A Preacher Man” is, for my money, one of the most beautifully-produced songs of all-time.
Jerry Wexler, Arif Marden and Tom Dowd all shared the production credit. And they did something that’s very hard to do…they followed the “less is more” approach to production.
The instrumentation is, for much of the track, sparse to the point of near-invisibility.
There’s an iconic bass in there, courtesy of Tommy Cogbill.
Reggie Young plays a slightly eerie guitar part which seems to symbolise the emptiness of a dark night, far out in the country somewhere.
Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, latterly of the Mar-Keys and the Memphis Horns, lead one of the most sublime horn sections in recorded music history…which is quite high standard as there aren’t too many of the great tracks recorded in 1960s Memphis that Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love don’t feature on.
Then there were backing vocals from The Sweet Inspirations, an R&B group formed by Emily Houston, whose daughter Whitney would go on to do great things of her own in the years to come.
And, of course, there’s Dusty Springfield’s voice…
She sings with a cool detachment which belies the earthy sound of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love’s horn section alongside Tommy Cogbill’s languid bass, Reggie Young’s eerie guitar and the gospel overtones of The Sweet Inspirations.
Putting all those elements together, “Son Of A Preacher Man” captures the feeling of sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening somewhere up-country, enjoying the last of the sun’s warmth as dusk approaches.
The singer recalls when she was a young girl, a long time ago, and her parents were visited by the local preacher. He’d brought his son along with him and while the preacher talked to the adults, his son and the daughter of the family go for a walk and get to know one another.
In Dusty Springfield’s hands, we believe every word of the story…
Billy Ray was a preacher’s son
And when his daddy would visit he’d come along
When they gathered around and started talkin’
That’s when Billy would take me walkin’
Out through the back yard we’d go walkin’
Then he’d look into my eyes
Lord knows, to my surprise
The only one who could ever reach me
Was the son of a preacher man
The only boy who could ever teach me
Was the son of a preacher man
Yes he was, he was, ooh, yes he was
From the lyrics, I’m guessing that the preacher’s son was a good deal more of a cad than his father was.
He took her love but never gave his love in return. He moved on to other pastures, leaving just the memory of their time together behind him. But I guess that’s the way life goes sometimes…
How well I remember
The look that was in his eyes
Stealin’ kisses from me on the sly
Takin’ time to make time
Tellin’ me that he’s all mine
As you’ve probably guessed by now, this preacher’s son was only sweet talking so he could get what he wanted from her.
Now he’s gone…and he’s not coming back.
He left behind not just the memories of those times together, but also the memory of the heartache which has been her companion since those stolen evenings together long ago.
Normally, we’d leave things there. “Son Of A Preacher Man” is recognised as one of the greatest songs of the 1960s, and it made Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004.
And the album from which it came, “Dusty In Memphis”, stands proud as one of the classic albums of all time.
However, there’s a twist in our tale…
Despite the album’s strong association with the city of Memphis…not least of which is in the title of the album itself…it’s perhaps ironic that the lead vocal on “Dusty in Memphis” wasn’t recorded in Memphis at all.
The track was recorded there, at American Sound Studio, and Dusty Springfield tried to perfect her vocal in Memphis several times, but just couldn’t hit her groove.
So the lead vocal was in fact recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York a little while later, and then mixed in Memphis with the music recorded there first time around to create the masterpiece we know today as “Dusty in Memphis”.
But this article isn’t about geography, it’s about music. And wherever the different bits of it were recorded, “Dusty In Memphis” is one of popular music’s most iconic albums.
And its launch track, “Son Of A Preacher Man”, was a splendid example of Dusty Springfield’s vocal skills, and a fine example of what top-notch musicians and producers could achieve in 1960s Memphis. An example, I have to say, that’s rarely been bettered since.
No wonder “Son Of A Preacher Man” was voted one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time…here’s Dusty Springfield…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0scrtPmtlIVwwk9s4LXJ8n