Wednesday, April 16, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 106): "SON OF A PREACHER MAN" (1968), Dusty Springfield

Today is the birthday of Dusty Springfield who died in 1999 at age sixty, living long enough to see a revival of interest in today’s song, due to its evocative use in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). It’s one of those things, y’know? If you’re watching the film and that song starts—do you recognize it immediately? If yes, then you experience that scene much differently, I believe. This song goes back to 1968 and I remember when it was on the radio. I was nine then and don’t know if it made that big an impression on me then. I seem to recall it from summertime which was probably the following summer, when I turned 10.

The song is from the point of view of a young girl fixating on a guy, “the son of a preacher man.” The preacher calls on the family and Billy Ray, the boy, sweet talks and romances the girl who is the speaker of the song. And she’s thrilled. And what’s more Dusty’s vocal expresses all that adolescent thrill without irony or any sense of “if I knew then what I know now.” She’s telling us the story of her sexual awakening and even if you haven’t had one yourself, yet, you get the idea loud and clear.

If you were my age, having an older sister might help. I remember mine in her teens. There was a lot of attention to boys and, if you listened, you could pick up on how a guy “reaches” a girl. This song zeroes in on that. The refrain of the song keeps insisting that “the only one who could ever reach me” was this preacher’s kid. It’s a succinct idea. A preacher’s boy, we assume, would be as wholesome as milk. But not this guy. “And can you get away again tonight?” he asks. She also points out, gleefully, that they take time to make time. Cozy.
The part that gives a very palpable sense of the adolescent thrills this song turns into the stuff of mystery and dream is: “Learning from each other’s knowing / Looking to see how much we’ve grown”—and the way the music and Dusty’s voice mounts there creates that kind of tension you can hardly bear, just as she can’t bear the suspense of waiting to see how much he’s grown, and it also shows the thrill of knowing he’s noticing what precisely has grown on her. This is a song for that change that hits around sixth grade, seventh grade, when suddenly the adult shapes begin to manifest themselves on the bodies of children.

The song came along just a little ahead of that change in my own life, so I always associate it with the mysterious change that was taking place in my elders, when suddenly boys and girls, vaguely antagonistic up till then, start looking to spend time together, to take walks like the couple in this song.

The song, recorded for the album Dusty in Memphis, was indeed done in Memphis by Atlantic Records, taking Brit singer Springfield into the fold that had produced the landmark records by Dusty’s heroine, Aretha. Indeed, Aretha was offered the song first and turned it down. There’s a story, whether true or not, that, after the song was out and a Top Ten hit, Aretha ran into Dusty in the elevator at Atlantic Records and said just one thing, “girl!” It’s a fitting tale because it indicates, I think, that Aretha heard and admired how Dusty put it out there, putting sweet heat into the beds of teens everywhere.

It’s a sly and sensual song, a key example of what is often called blue-eyed soul, and I have come to love it more as the years go by and not least because of how Uma Thurman, as Mia Wallace, bends her bare foot as she lifts the needle before going off on her platonic date with Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately, the needle is lifted before the bit I always listen for, when Dusty talk-sings the line (with almost Dylanesque intonation) “I was kissed by the son of a preacher man.”  Smack.

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