Son of a Preacher Man full cast

Relive the hits of Dusty Springfield during LGBT History Month

Posted on 8 February 2018

As the UK celebrates LGBT History Month in February, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre will be singing and dancing along to the hits of Dusty Springfield when Son of a Preacher Man – the sparklingly funny new musical by Craig Revel Horwood – comes to town. In honour of the occasion, we’re celebrating Dusty’s own status as both a musical legend and as one of the first major celebrities to publicly “come out” in 1970.

Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in West Hampstead in 1939, Dusty began her musical career singing in folk clubs with her brother Tom, with whom she later formed a successful folk-pop trio called The Springfields. The band soon achieved massive popularity: in both 1962 and 1963, The Springfields were voted Top British Vocal Group by NME readers, their singles “Island of Dreams” and “Say I Won’t Be There” reaching Number 5 in the charts.

It was as part of this group that she would visit Nashville, Tennessee in the early 1960s, where local musical influences helped to shift her style more towards the rhythm and blues sound that would characterise much of her solo work. She left the band in October 1963, just a month before smashing the charts with her first solo single “I Only Want To Be With You”, for which producer Jonny Franz adopted the fashionable “Wall of Sound” effect first popularized by Phil Spector. In January 1964, it became one of the first ever songs to be played on the BBC’s flagship music series Top of the Pops.

Following the release of her debut album A Girl Called Dusty in 1964, she beat the likes of Lulu, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black to the top of NME’s British Female Artist of the Year poll, a title she continued to hold for the next three years. Throughout the 60s, her career skyrocketed, her Motown covers helping to bring the genre to a wider audience.

By the end of the decade, however, the shape of the music industry was beginning to change, with a growing split between progressive music and the fashionable “underground” scene, set against more mainstream pop music. Dusty was difficult to place in either category, her soulful sound falling somewhere between the two.

Though she remained a major star, sales of her records were declining by towards the end of the decade. Things weren’t helped by difficulties in her private life, including struggles with addiction and mental ill health, but in 1968, she attempted to reinvigorate her career and boost her credibility by signing to Atlantic Records and heading out to the States. There, she recorded the critically acclaimed Dusty in Memphis, featuring the seminal, Grammy-nominated track “Son of a Preacher Man”, the title track of Craig Revel Horwood’s new musical. Nevertheless, by the late 70s and early 80s, personal problems had begun to get the better of her, and she was hospitalised on several occasions for self-harm.

Still, for all her insecurities she remained a fierce and formidable presence in the music world, rejecting the idea that she ought to be ashamed of or hide away who she really was. In a famous 1970 interview with the Evening Standard Dusty boldly opened up about her private life in a culture that was in large part still deeply resistant to changing laws and norms around homosexuality.

“I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady,” she said. “But I know that I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

Cultural change in this area was well underway by 1970: a shift in attitudes had already brought about the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which entailed the partial decriminalization of male homosexual acts. But the new law was far from comprehensive, and while things were slightly different for women, an atmosphere of shame and silence around gay relationships was pervasive and persistent. Consequently, the interview was met with an ambiguity that she herself predicted.

“D’you realise what I’ve just said could put the final seal to my doom?” she laughed “I don’t know, though. I might attract a whole new audience.”
In subsequent years, this honesty would come to turn her into something of a hero an increasingly out and proud gay and lesbian audience. But unsurprisingly, her honesty wasn’t immediately embraced by everyone. Scandal-hungry newspapers had already latched onto rumours about her before she decided to respond, and this public coming out did little to satiate them.

Meanwhile, the younger, less socially conservative generation were mostly looking towards the new styles of music which continued to evolve as the decade progressed, leaving Dusty’s signature look and sound starting to seem dated.

Throughout her life, Dusty struggled with romantic relationships, which were frequently short-lived and often tempestuous, affected by her drug and alcohol addictions. From 1972-78, she had an on and off relationship with US photojournalist Faye Harris, followed by a six-month affair with Rough Trade singer-musician Carole Pope.

Perhaps most famously though, in 1982, she began a relationship with the US actress Teda Bracci after encountering her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In April 1983, they moved in together, and seven months later exchanged vows at a wedding ceremony of sorts (one which was of course not legally recognized under California law). But it was a violent affair erupting into fights which ultimately saw both of them hospitalized. Within two years, even this passionate romance had drawn to a close.

In a sense then, it feels oddly apt that, while it doesn’t directly follow Dusty’s story, Son of a Preacher Man does take as its theme the search for romantic fulfillment, following the attempts of three strangers to turn their unlucky love lives around.

Dusty’s legacy continues to live on long after her untimely death in 1999, and not only in stage musical form. Just this year she was nominated for the title of “Most Influential Woman” in a special list celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage put together by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Meanwhile, “Son of a Preacher Man” itself regularly features on lists of the greatest songs of all time, picked out by NME and Rolling Stone among others.

“The Dusty music lends itself to good storytelling, and that’s really important,” said Craig Revel Horwood, of using her music in Son of a Preacher Man. “Her stories always have beginning, a middle and an end. And they’re very soulful. A lot of people will be surprised when they see the songs come to life. Her lyrics are really quite poignant. She tells human stories with amazing rhythms that can be applied to men or women and crosses through to being gay as well. That’s why her music is universal.”

Son of a Preacher Man is at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry during Valentine’s Week from Tuesday 13 until Saturday 17 February 2018.