How Dusty Springfield Made Adele Possible

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Somewhere in an early '90s college student's CD collection is the song that gilded Adele's six Grammys and pushed Lana Del Rey onto the Saturday Night Live stage about eight months too soon.
Long before Adele triumphed at the Grammys and even long before Sarah McLachlan and Fiona Apple charted their own successes, there was Dusty Springfield and the original blue-eyed soul.

Long before Adele's album 18 sold nearly 7 million copies, 21 started its push into Diamond record territory and Rolling In The Deep was imbedded in the American subconscious, another voice from across the water wormed its way pleasantly into U.S. playlists. Quentin Tarantino didn't want a score for Pulp Fiction. Instead he turned the breakout 1994 film into a mix tape of inherent cool that synced its track list seamlessly with prescient plot points. When John Travolta's vintage cool hitman Vincent Vega first sauntered into the living room of Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace -- the boss' wife -- it took one song to ignite their slow burn.

Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man had been languishing on oldies radio playlists somewhere between The Hollies' Bus Stop and Petula Clark's I Know A Place. The weight of Springfield's shift from the pop act behind I Only Want To Be With You and Wishin' And Hopin' to the deep soul sound of her 1969 release Dusty In Memphis was a faded footnote in a Timi Yuro or Carly Simon biography.

If Adele's Rolling In The Deep marked the bitter end of a "rubbish relationship," Springfield's backyard walks with young Billy was its giddy, sexy, optimistic beginning. Once the mono-tracked version of Son Of A Preacher Man appeared in Pulp Fiction, it pushed that film's soundtrack into the Billboard 200, saved one of Tarantino's trademark scenes and introduced a generation of dorm room and house party regulars to female blue-eyed soul.

It's not that the concept was completely dead, but aside from the occasional Lisa Stansfield or Teena Marie single, the blue-eyed soul of the '70s and '80s was a boys club -- almost exclusively the domain of Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, Robert Palmer, Phil Collins, Bobby Caldwell and scads of other dental office favorites. When Son of a Preacher Man caught its second wind, however, the ground had already been prepared by ethereal tracks such as Julee Cruise's Twin Peaks theme Falling, Mazzy Star's Fade Into You and just about every track from Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Toward Ecstasy album.

Son of a Preacher Man did them all one better by being sultry enough to make Bonnie Raitt a fan yet bombastic enough to send young listeners digging through mom and dad's crates for Motown records and anything backed by a wall of sound. All the charts had to do was wait for the emulators to take the mic.

Fiona Apple dropped her debut album Tidal two years later in 1996 and needed only one torchy piano-laden single -- Shadowboxer -- to give the world a peek at what was coming down the pike and just one string of lines to foreshadow the success of an artist such as Adele:

"Once my lover, now my friend/what a cruel thing to pretend/what a cunning way to condescend/once my lover ... now my friend."

Another couple that could have had it all. Another wounded heart bleeding into a lyric sheet. Another soul laid bare. Apple made it clear that her brand of blue-eyed soul emphasized the blue and the spurned lover of the album's opening track Sleep To Dream ("I tell you how I feel but you don't care/I say tell me the truth but you don't dare") punched that point home. It wasn't until Apple appeared in her underwear in a drunken-afterparty-themed video for the lamenting single Criminal that she and her sound went mainstream.

The single went Top 40 and earned Apple a Grammy, and Tidal went on to sell more than 3 million copies. Unfortunately, Apple was still too much of a downer for much of the American listening public that bristled at her "This world is bull****" declaration at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards and outwardly sighed at the eight-line title of her album follow-up, holding sales of it to a third of what they were for Tidal. Apple's slide was just beginning, but When The Pawn ... single Fast As You Can cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. and U.K. There was still a market for blue-eyed soul if those blue eyes had a happier outlook

That's where Joss Stone and Mark Ronson come in. Growing up in Dover, England, young Jocelyn Stoker spent her days spinning Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin CDs and singing Jackie Wilson covers. During her earliest auditions in 2001 and 2002, she displayed her deep vocal chops by grinding out versions of (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, (Sittin' On) The Dock of The Bay and Midnight Train To Georgia. When it came time to record her first album, Soul Sessions, she sat in with Miami soul veterans including Betty Wright and Benny Lattimore and Philly neo-soul pioneers Angie Stone and The Roots. The result was an album that sold 5 million copies worldwide, turned the White Stripes' Fell In Love With A Girl on its head and turned Sugar Billy's 1974 Super Duper Love (Are You Diggin' On Me)" into an international hit.

Ronson, meanwhile, was a sponge of music knowledge after his days as a New York City club DJ. With Dusty Springfield just a part of his lengthy playlist, Ronson blended East Coast soul and hip-hop with U.K. rock and soul to produce the distinct tech funk swager of Nikka Costa's album Everybody Got Their Something in 2000. When he used connections with the Hilfiger brand to get Costa's track Like A Feather into commercials later that same year, he took blue-eyed soul straight to the American consumer's shopping center.

U.S. listeners were finally ready to pick up what Dusty and her young cohorts were putting down. As Ronson worked with soul artist Macy Gray on her 2003 release The Trouble With Being Myself and hip-hop notables Mos Def, Nate Dogg and Ghostface Killah on his own record, a young woman named Amy Winehouse was taking her love of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn and '60s girl groups into the studio. Her first album, 2003's Frank, had potential but was a bit too jazz-heavy and label-polluted for the pompadoured Winehouse's liking.

When she and Ronson teamed up for her follow-up, Back To Black, she and Ronson agreed to ditch Frank's stiffer sound for a little bit of soul. They brought in soul singer Sharon Jones' band The Dap Kings in for backing vocals, lifted the backing from Ain't No Mountain High Enough for Tears Dry On Their Own and turned Winehouse's dark and ultimately fatal back story into her greatest strength. On the back of the irresistibly catchy Rehab, Winehouse took home Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 2008 Grammys while Ronson won Producer of the Year honors for his efforts. Though Winehouse would record only a handful of songs and covers before her untimely death last year, she, Ronson and Rehab captured Springfield's soul and spirit while turning her sound into a template.

The same year of Back To Black's release, Christina Aguilera enlisted Ronson's services for her album Back To Basics. Though Aguilera's vocal chops were never in question and her soulful edge was on full display in her contribution to the 2001 cover of LaBelle's Lady Marmalade and 2002's Beautiful, her throwback work on Ronson's Slow Down Baby and the rambunctious Ain't No Other Man evoked another era. The album ended up selling more than 5 million copies.

That's all it took to keep the register bells ringing. By the time Welsh singer Duffy released her bass-heavy anthem to sexual freedom Mercy in 2007, the public was so enamored of blue-eyed soul that the single sold 1 million copies in the U.S. alone and more than 5 million copies worldwide. Her 2008 debut album Rockferry, meanwhile, sold more than 6.5 million copies around the globe.

Ronson, meanwhile, found another kindred spirit in a 19-year-old from Tottenham who looked up to Destiny's Child and Mary J. Blige, but started singing because of the Spice Girls. Adele Adkins got some help from Ronson on her debut album 19 when he produced her song Cold Shoulder. The single was never big in the U.S., but Adele's pure delivery and the album's soul-imbued tone eventually made it a success here.

What would Springfield make of this little family tree? We're guessing not much. Springfield recorded Dusty In Memphis with Atlantic Records because it was Aretha Franklin's label. She used Cissy Houston's Sweet Inspirations as backup singers because they also backed up Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. She used the Memphis Cats as her band because they were Pickett and King Curtis' band.

Much like many of the blue-eyed soul artists that followed her, Dusty Springfield didn't take a whole lot of her cues from the blue-eyed. While Springfield may rate as an influence for many of the artists mentioned above, she's not the common thread running through the whole lot. Like Duffy's love of Al Green and Burt Bacharach and Stone's affection for Springfield and Franklin, the common denominator among all of these artists is a connection with soul music that spans from Goffin and King to Gamble and Huff.

Blue eyes aren't a prerequisite to that love, even if those artists' album sales and a Billboard album chart that puts Adele and Lana Del Rey at 1 and 2, respectively, indicate otherwise.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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