Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22: Dusty Springfield, "Son Of A Preacher Man"

Artist: Dusty Springfield
Song: "Son Of A Preacher Man"
Album: Dusty In Memphis
Year: 1969

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The idea of “cool” is rarely something that can be defined in words; it simply “is” cool and everyone just “knows” that it is such.  Whether it is a progression from Miles, a lyric from Lou, or Jay-Z simply being Jay-Z, that which is truly “cool” can rarely be argued.  Often times, such feeling comes from unexpected places, and one cannot argue that all of this comes into play when one discusses the woman who can lay claim to being the finest white soul singer of her time, Dusty Springfield.  From her sliding, sultry voice to the amazing melodies created by her band, over the years, Springfield brought an unparalleled level of style and emotion to the world of music.  It was through this uncanny ability to make the listener feel her pain that Springfield was able to create moods that while often heartbreaking, were always portrayed with a level of comfort and “cool” that was not found elsewhere among female performers.  Churning out a staggering ten records in under five years, it was on this tenth record that Dusty Springfield cemented her name among the greatest vocalists in history.  While Springfield had made her name already by singing a soulful, country style, the fact of the matter was that England’s prized voice had never visited.  So her record label flew her to Memphis, Tennessee, and the resulting album, 1969’s Dusty In Memphis, was sheer perfection in every sense of the word.  From the song choice to the orchestration, the album oozed with Springfield’s soulful “cool,” and there is perhaps no better example of this than her classic 1969 single, “Son Of A Preacher Man.”

More than four decades after it was first released, few hooks are as instantly recognizable as that found on “Son Of A Preacher Man,” and the song found a resurgence when it’s “cool” factor was validated when it was a central part of the 1994 film, Pulp Fiction.  The song also proved that it was able to cross genres, as hip-hop legends Cypress Hill looped the hook on their 1993 song, “Hits From The Bong.”  The key to the songs’ longevity and wide appeal is undoubtedly it’s unforgettable guitar introduction that becomes the riff for the entire song.  Played by Reggie Young, the riff proves that there is a certain “magic” to simple, yet sincere musical performances.  The riff is further punctuated by the bright horns, which were arranged by producing legend, Tom Dowd.  The way in which the horns hit gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and offer a fantastic contrast to the almost lulling mood that a majority of the instrumentation brings.  Whether they are adding emphasis to the guitar line or working in opposition to it, it is this interplay between sounds that gives "Son Of A Preacher Man" its distinctive sound.  The song also features a "walking" bassline from Tommy Cogbill that when combined with the horns, gives the song almost a Motown feel, and this aspect surely played a major part in the songs' overall success.  When one considers the state of popular music at the time of the release of "Son Of A Preacher Man," it is almost unthinkable that the song became such a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  Psychedelic music was still dominating the charts, and the "Motown sound" was on its last legs with harder rock on the rise.  The fact that it became a top ten hit serves as proof that regardless of trends, the great songs always find a way to make a splash.

However, one cannot deny the fact that along with superb instrumentation, the voice of Dusty Springfield surely played a massive role in the songs' success.  Filled with an almost uncanny level of emotion and smoothness, there are few U.K. singers of any style who can compare with her sound, and only a handful from elsewhere in the world that are worthy of the same breath.  On "Son Of A Preacher Man," Springfield displays a limitless octave range, as well as putting her full ability to express her deep emotions within a song.  It is amazing to consider the fact that, though every word comes from deep in her heart, Dusty Springfield did not write the song, and one can then deduct that the story of the song had little actual relation to her real life.  The song itself was written by the team of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and one must pause for a moment to consider just how two men were able to pen such a touching and sultry love ballad from a female perspective.  Furthermore, the song was originally offered to Aretha Franklin, but after she turned it down, Springfield was given the tune.  Ironically, after hearing Springfield’s rendition, Franklin made her own recording of “Son Of A Preacher Man” in 1970.  Regardless of who wrote the song, Springfield instantly made it her own, and her performance is so moving, so raw, that one can easily take the story as her own.  Furthermore, few songs have as sensual, yet subtle a phrasing of this "coming of age" tale, and there are not many lyrics in the history of music as truly perfect as when she sings, "...stealin' kisses from me on the sly, takin' time to make time...tellin' me that he's all mine...learnin' from each other's knowin', lookin' to see how much we're growin’..."

Though it is nearly always left out of the "greatest riffs" lists, one cannot argue the significance of Reggie Young's guitar progression that is the core of "Son Of A Preacher Man."  Working in stunning subtlety, it is these light touches that perfectly compliment the singing of Dusty Springfield as well as the somewhat delicate lyrics.  These three aspects work together to create an amazingly intimate mood, and even after more than four decades, this mood remains intact, and few songs can boast such a quality.  The depth presented by the small horn section only help to heighten the mood, and few songs so perfectly capture the entire mood of "teenage innocence."  Taking all this into account, one can easily make the case that in an age when most musicians were "searching" for a new sound, Dusty Springfield had found hers, and had no intention of deviating from a sound she knew and loved.  The manner with which she makes the song sway and swing is nothing short of fantastic, and few artists have achieved this with such a subtle vocal approach.  Furthermore, for a female to take such a bold and straightforward set of lyrics was still largely a risqué musical venture, and one cannot deny that this performance from Springfield still remains one of the most progressive songs in the history of music.  Proving why she was one of th U.K.'s most treasured artists, there are few songs that have become as iconic and proved to have a staying power comparable to Dusty Springfield's 1969 single, "Son Of A Preacher Man."

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