Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged?
The song was a hit for British singer Noel Harrison in 1968, the vocalist who is featured on the movie soundtrack. It was written by French composer Michel Legrand, with lyrics by husband and wife team Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman. The three songwriters were hired to write the song for the soundtrack that was to give away no plot, but was rather to set a scene of contemplation for McQueen’s character, a typically a taciturn and tough figure of the type he was known for playing, and who’s still waters run deep. This is the song they wrote, after experimenting with a few combinations of lyrics and melodies. Legrand created a series of melodic concentric circles, and the Bergman’s reflected those musical patterns with striking lyrical precision. On this structural level alone, this song is extraordinary. By the time Springfield got a hold of it in May of 1969, she’d made hers the gold standard version.
In some ways, this was all a part of the idea of cutting a soul record, even if as mentioned this isn’t strictly a soul song. What Springfield’s contemporaries were able to do on those classic Atlantic sides recorded in Memphis and in other parts of the American South was to find the heart of every song they sang and bring it out for listeners. That was Springfield’s mission too. And the results speak for themselves here, as she spins out the flurry of simile and symbolism, with hints of the quiet spiritual anguish that they evoke. And like the best soul singers, we believe her every word.
The melody was always referential to the lyrics (and vice versa!), being sympathetically flowing and cyclical, with those important seventh chords thrown in there that creating an aural shadow of portent along the way. Yet, Springfield’s seemingly effortless voice brings all of this to its fullest realization, in turn almost supernaturally sympathetic to that very French melodic sense with appropriately existential lyrics. A big part of her strength as a vocalist was understanding her material in its finest detail before she sings a note. On this, she proves that strength on one of the best songs in her catalogue. Maybe it was some of her own inner turbulence that helped her to achieve this better than anyone else, struggling with demands placed on her due to her sexual orientation during an era when open dialogue about that sort of thing was not an option.
Dusty Springfield would continue to distinguish herself as one of the best interpreters of pop music on any continent before her death in 1999. “Windmills Of Your Mind” would become a pop standard, covered extensively by singers ranging from Barbra Streisand to Sting. But, every version must bow to this one.
Find out more about Dusty Springfield’s soaring career and troubled life by reading this article.