Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Boys Won't Leave That Girl Alone

Excluding simple, noncommittal terms like singer and musicians, both rarely used, there are three ways to refer to females who sing for a living: girl singer, chick singer, and woman singer. Girl singer used to be the generic term applied to any female vocalist less weighty than Helen Traubel. The advent of counterculture patois popularized the term "chick singer," which already had gained some currency among jazz people. As the women's movement has tried to point out, chick is an even more demeaning term than girl, implying a sexy pet who is ready prey for the cats around her. It is still widely used to describe female rock singers, but over the past few years it has lost favor. Nobody calls Carole King or even Joni Mitchell a chick. Or a girl.

I thought it was significant, therefore, that when I asked Brian Potter about Dusty Springfield he immediately called her his "favorite girl singer." For almost a decade, ever since leaving the British folk group, the Springfields, Dusty Springfield has been a solo performer. She produces her own records in Great Britain. She is 32 years old. And one-third of her new producing team thinks of her as a girl.

Not really, I know. In the ABC-Dunhill hit factory that Potter runs with co-writer Dennis Lambert and producer and co-producer Steve Barri, "girl" is never intended opprobriously or even accurately--it's just what you call chicks. Anyway, as it turned out, Potter/Lambert/Barri probably gave Dusty Springfield a lot more respect than they've given any of their other hit-schlock artists--Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds; the Grass Roots; the Four Tops. But the evidence is that they're so hit-oriented that they don't understand how much a girl singer can mean, that in fact there is something in Dusty's genius that demands a term like girl.

It demands the term in much the same way that it demands that I address her familiarly, by her first name, for her genius is to make me believe, somewhere deep inside myself, that she's mine. More than any other contemporary female singer, even in soul or country-western, she sounds as if she needs me. Simultaneously gushy and lady-like, she sings like the beautiful maidservant of men's vainest and most shameful fantasies--always the supplicant, always in love. Her male fans usually take her at face value, but, since every woman must somehow contain the male-created ideal she embodies, women respond to her with sisterly sympathy--sometimes self-conscious, sometimes not.

Dusty was captured definitively about four years ago by another great producing team--Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tow Dowd--on an LP called Dusty in Memphis. When Brian Potter calls it "the best album by a girl singer in the past 10 years," he's not just being polite to the opposition. Dusty in Memphis is a pop standard and classic, the kind of record that will sell for years because its admirers need replacement copies, and it is the perfect instance of how a production team should work.

The concept originated with Wexler, a vice president of Atlantic records who has been making brave and imaginative music since Atlantic was a tiny r&b label in the '50s. He selected some 40 songs and a complement of studio musicians, then convinced his artist that he had no intention of turning her into a soul singer. This record would exploit what she could do best. Dusty picked about 15 songs, and everyone worked out arrangements in the studio together. Mardin, originally an arranger, orchestrated to cushion emotional highs and shade in the subtler moments. Then Dowd, originally an engineer, mixed down the best takes, bringing every nuance of the voice up front, so that on a good system it sounds as if Dusty is hiding in the speakers.

The result is a tribute to the spirit of the girl singer. The songs--including two moderate hits, "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Windmills of Your Mind," plus many then-obscure compositions by the likes of Randy Newman and Carole King--emphasizes playfulness, sensuality and, of course, vulnerability. The singing makes the emphasis come alive. But for some reason there was no follow-up. Dusty was passed along to yet another great producing team, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who gave her one great single, "A Brand New Me," but blew the album, as usual, by including only songs from their own private hit factor. And then Dusty faded away, only to reappear when her manager landed her a contract with ABC-Dunhill.

The first time I heard the album that resulted, Cameo, I got very angry. The songs sounded banal, lyrically and melodically, and the orchestra was mixed so high that it was impossible to hear Dusty. But as I listened more dutifully I began to change my mind. The voice was there, as subtle as or more subtle than ever, and the songs grew on me. Lambert and Peter specialize in writing simple, repetitive melodies, the kind that stick with you even if you hate them, but these proved more complex and likeable. According to Dusty herself, that's because the songwriting team learned in mid-album that she was not a pop up-tempo singer and changed the songs accordingly. She believes her voice should have more of what she calls "gloss"--mostly a matter of expert engineering--but doesn't complain about the arrangements. Arif Mardin himself thinks the string writing (by Jimmy Haskell) is superb. Who am I to complain?

I guess the answer is that I'm a critic who loves Dusty Springfield. Cameo is a lot better than Dusty's Gamble-Huff album even if it's less tasteful. As Dusty says, the versions of Lambert-Potter's "Of All the Things" and David Gates' "The Other Side of Life" are among her best performances ever, and I believe that the next album will make good some "missed opportunities." I hope the first opportunity gained will cut the number of Lambert-Potter songs down to the two or three best (there are six on Cameo), and the second, I hope, will minimize the instrumentation so that Dusty's voice will radiate through. But I am not encouraged by what Potter responded when I asked him why the orchestration was so prominent on the present record.

"Do you ask Van Gogh why he paints trees yellow?" he asked.

It is such egotism that renders girl singers as vulnerable as they must be, but it won't last--just ask Helen Reddy.

N'day, Feb. 11, 1973