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Randee St. Nicholas

In 2000, the chanteuse you see here released an album titled I Am Shelby Lynne. It correctly identified her. But Lynne seemed less certain in 2003 when she put out Identity Crisis. That ambiguity continues this month with her new CD, Just a Little Lovin’. On it, she croons the tunes of ’60s songstress Dusty Springfield. Rumor has it Lynne’s next disc will be titled Seriously, Who Am I?

 


[dl] Music

A Musical Memorial

Shelby Lynne sings Dusty Springfield, thanks to Barry Manilow.
By Bob Mehr


Jackson
, Alabama, and London, England, could hardly be more different. One is a tiny town of about 6,000 in the American South; the other, a major metropolis of more than seven million inhabitants. But the two locales will come together this month, musically at least, when Jackson-born Shelby Lynne releases a tribute album to Dusty Springfield. Called Just a Little Lovin’, the album is arguably the biggest risk the 39-year-old Lynne has taken in her career. Springfield is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was widely regarded as one of the greatest pure vocalists of the postwar era. She enjoyed an eclectic, four-decade run of hits, which included such successes as 1963’s “I Only Want to Be with You” and a comeback collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys in the late ’80s, before her untimely passing from cancer in 1999 at age 59. In other words, she’s a legend.   Then again, Lynne is no slouch herself. Over the course of a 20-year recording career, she’s sung everything from hard-core country to jazzy Western swing to gritty soul to glossy pop. Her very first single, a duet with George Jones, charted in the top 50 in 1988. And in 2001, she won a Grammy Award as best new artist (odd, considering she had already released eight albums by that time).   Still, you don’t try to capture a legend without a little legendary help. So Lynne enlisted noted studio guru Phil Ramone — who has also helmed albums for Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Barry Manilow, among others — in the making of Just a Little Lovin’, which hits the highlights of Springfield’s massive catalog. The tracks are built with spare simple arrangements, letting the focus remain on the songs and on Lynne’s own voice, an instrument as distinctive and powerful as Springfield’s. “This is not just a covers record and not just a tribute record,” Lynne says. “It’s also a reminder record — a reminder of how great these songs are and how great Dusty was.”

Barry Manilow writes the songs, and he’s also the one who inspired his pal Shelby Lynne to cover Dusty Springfield. “It was his idea,” Lynne says. “A couple of years ago, he sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Have you ever considered doing an album of Dusty’s songs?’ I thought, God, that’s a little scary. I’d never covered her stuff in concert or even messed around with the songs for fun. I’d always figured it was sacred ground. There was such an incredible feeling when she sang. The way she would glide through vocally — it’s such a female sensibility on things. To me, as a fan, she’s the greatest. But there is a time and place for everything. So, eventually, it came time to do a new record, and I thought, Yeah, maybe it’s time for people to remember Dusty and these songs.”

It’s not easy to cover a legend, especially when that legend has recorded hundreds of songs. “Phil and I compared lists. We probably started with 20 songs and [then] narrowed them down a little at a time. For me,” says Lynne, “the important thing in choosing was that it couldn’t just be stuff from Dusty in Memphisor Dusty in the ’80s; it had to span her entire career. Also, I had to choose the songs I knew I could sing well and some that people would recognize as hers. But I think first and foremost, I picked songs that I really loved. This is a Shelby Lynne record too. That’s the biggest fear when you cut covers — finding a way to make the songs your own.”

The best way to make the songs your own? Record them fast. “We recorded the whole thing in five days,” Lynne recalls. “We cut two songs a day, and that was it. The cool thing about making the record is we didn’t have any arrangements. We went into the studio with the musicians, picked a key, and played the songs like a band would and until it felt right. Some things happened quickly; some things took a bit longer. But as a whole, it started just melding together. It turned out to be more of a soul record than anything. And keeping Dusty in mind as one of my favorite soul singers, I think she’d be really happy with it.”
 

Musical Math
Five other great artist-to-artist tribute albums.

Merle Haggard + Jimmie Rodgers = Same Train A Different Time, 1969: Haggard, the Poet of the Common Man, pays loving homage to the Singing Brakeman as he updates Rodgers’s train songs and hobo laments with a touch of the Bakersfield Sound.

Harry Nilsson + Randy Newman = Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970: Coming off the success of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” his Midnight Cowboy soundtrack smash, Nilsson flipped the classic tribute record formula by recording an album not to a known star but to Newman, who, at the time, was an undiscovered talent.

Jennifer Warnes + Leonard Cohen = Famous Blue Raincoat, 1987: A former backup singer for Cohen and a folksy ’70s hit maker in her own right, Warnes turned heads with this powerful, modern take on the catalog of the poetic Canadian. The record’s success helped spark a critical reappraisal and career comeback for Cohen.

Irma Thomas + Dan Penn = My Heart’s in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn, 2000: New Orleans vocal queen Thomas samples the best sides from Southern soul man Penn — author of hits for Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops, and James Carr — on this contemporary R&B classic.

Robyn Hitchcock + Bob Dylan = Robyn Sings, 2002: British postpunk/ psych-folk icon Hitchcock indulges his Dylan obsession with a two-CD set of covers, including a live disc that re-creates the Great White Wonder’s historic 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert.