The Carnival is Over was a million-selling Number One single for The Seekers in 1965 and it owed its success at least in part to a crash course in Russian that Tom Springfield did for work in military intelligence during the Cold War. Springfield watched Russian films, read Russian novels and learned a whole load of Cossack songs. And he drew on one of them for the melody for the Seekers hit.
The Carnival is Over was just one of a string of hits he wrote for The Seekers, for The Springfields, in which he sang and played with younger sister Dusty, and for other stars in the 1960s before disappearing from public view and living an almost reclusive lifestyle.
Springfield was always uncomfortable in the public eye and kept his private life strictly private. He was gay at a time when it was still illegal. Mike Hurst, who completed the Springfields line-up in the early 1960s, said: "I never felt I knew them well, there was always a distance… I had no idea back then that Tom and Dusty were both gay”.
Springfield died in July, nine days before Seekers singer Judith Durham, but it was only several weeks after his death that the news emerged via the official Facebook page of his late sister. The three surviving Seekers, Athol Guy, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, posted online, stressing his importance in their international success: “Tom was our fifth Seeker and we could not have done it without him. He was our creative heart and soul. A truly gifted songwriter, guiding light and powerhouse.”
Springfield was born Dionysius Patrick O’Brien in 1934 in Hampstead in London. He generally went by the name Dion O’Brien in the early days. Dusty was originally Mary O’Brien, but acquired the nickname Dusty playing football in the streets. Their father was an accountant of Irish stock, raised in India. Their mother was from County Kerry.
Dusty recalled that Dion was always beating out a rhythm on something and perfected what became known as “beat boxing”, vocal percussion primarily mimicking drum machines. She described Dion’s performance as “Irish-Scottish, Latin-American mouth music in which he managed to sound like an eight-piece rhythm section all at the same time”.
Called up for National Service, Springfield was sent to the Joint Services School for Linguistics, where he learned Russian folk songs, including a 19th-century song called Stenka Razin about a Cossack leader who captures, marries and then drowns a Persian princess. A decade later Springfield borrowed the melody, but completely rewrote the lyrics for The Carnival is Over, which is also about the end of a relationship, but does not involve Cossacks or drownings. “Though the carnival is over, I will love you till I die.”
Springfield sang in Spanish and Portuguese too, played guitar and piano and began recording while still serving in the Intelligence Corps. He worked briefly as an insurance broker before pursuing music as a full-time career. He and Tim Feild formed a folk duo called The Kensington Squares, which became The Springfields when Dusty joined in 1960.
The origins of the name The Springfields remain a mystery, but Dusty became Dusty Springfield and her brother became Tom Springfield, eventually changing his name by deed poll. They had early chart success with singles Breakaway and Bambino. Dusty’s powerful lead vocal and the group’s tight harmonies found a wide audience. They had their own BBC special in 1961, but enjoyed their greatest success after Hurst replaced Feild. He recalled that Dusty had them rehearsing in front of mirrors for hours.
In 1962 their version of US country song Silver Threads and Golden Needles made history as the first single by a British group to make the US Top 20 and at the end of the year Island of Dreams, a Tom Springfield composition, reached No 5 in the UK. They had only two more hits before Dusty embarked on a solo career.
Tom Springfield had never liked performing in front of a live audience. After concerts, he would use his guitar as a shield and force his way past fans without signing autographs. He decided to concentrate on songwriting and producing and enjoyed his greatest success when he linked up with the Seekers, writing or co-writing their biggest hits.
After arriving in the UK from Australia, the Seekers wound up on a bill supporting Dusty Springfield, a fortuitous booking that led to them meeting Tom Springfield. He liked the Seekers’ pop-folk sound and reckoned they were the ideal group to record his composition I’ll Never Find Another You.
Judith Durham’s clear, confident vocal propelled it to No 1 in the UK and No 4 in the US and it marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the group and Springfield. The Seekers had eight Top 20 hits between 1965 and 1967, including two UK Number Ones. They were the first Australian group to top the US charts, with the theme song from the film Georgy Girl, a song Springfield co-wrote with Jim Dale.
Springfield also wrote or co-wrote Dusty’s hit Losing Youh; Summer is Over, a hit for Frank Ifield in 1964; Promises, which was a hit for Ken Dodd; and Just Loving You, which Anita Harris took into the Top Ten in 1967, as well as the theme tunes for TV drama series The Troubleshooters and Sid James sitcom George and the Dragon.
He released two solo albums in the late 1960s and his final release was a duet with Dusty, Morning Please Don’t Come, in 1970, after which he more or less disappeared. He lived for a while in the US, before returning to London. There was a rare appearance in the media when he scattered his sister’s ashes at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland in 1999.
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