Tom Springfield, brother of Dusty and singer-songwriter behind some the biggest hits of the Seekers – obituary
Tom Springfield, who has died aged 88, was a singer-songwriter and the brother of Dusty Springfield, with whom he formed the Springfields, the first British singing group to break into the American charts, two years ahead of the Beatles.
He found continued success writing hits for the Australian folk-pop group the Seekers, giving them a more commercial sound, minting their million-selling single The Carnival Is Over and finding himself acclaimed the unofficial “fifth Seeker”.
He formed the Springfields in 1960, the line-up led by his younger sister Dusty on vocals with his friend Tim Feild (later replaced by Mike Hurst) joining him on guitar. Promoted as a British answer to Peter, Paul and Mary, the trio hosted a popular television show and scored several UK hits, beginning with Island of Dreams. For the melody, Springfield borrowed from two traditional folk tunes, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and The Rose of Tralee, a device he repeated, most notably in The Carnival is Over for the Seekers.
Other Springfield hits included Say I Won’t Be There, which Tom Springfield adapted from the traditional French song Au Clair De La Lune. Their cover of Silver Threads and Golden Needles was the first single by a British group to make the Top 20 of the American Billboard Hot 100, although with its “country” sound it failed to chart in the UK.
When the group broke up in 1963, Dusty Springfield began a successful solo career with her debut single I Only Want to Be With You while Tom Springfield became a producer and songwriter. He wrote the Seekers’ first No 1, I’ll Never Find Another You, followed by A World of Our Own (both 1965), but achieved their first million-seller that November with The Carnival Is Over, using a melody adapted from a 19th century Russian folk tune.
His other hits for The Seekers included Walk With Me and the jaunty Georgy Girl, co-written with the Carry On actor Jim Dale, the group’s most successful US release, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100; it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1966, and for the equivalent Golden Globe Award the same year.
Springfield also co-wrote (with Clive Westlake) Frank Ifield’s 1964 hit Summer Is Over, and for his sister Dusty her 1964 British Top 10 hit Losing You.
His other hits included Adios Amor (Goodbye My Love), recorded by José Feliciano and the Casuals (but turned down by the Seekers); Promises, co-written with Norman Newell and a UK hit for Ken Dodd; and Just Loving You, which became a 1967 top 10 hit for Anita Harris, selling two million copies, earning her a double-gold disc and catapulting her to stardom.
The son of a tax accountant, Tom Springfield was born Dionysius Patrick Anthony O’Brien on July 2 1934 and grew up in West Hampstead before the wartime blitz forced a move to High Wycombe, where he attended the Royal Grammar School, returning to London in 1950 and settling in Ealing. His upbringing was chaotic, with their mother in the habit of throwing food around the kitchen.
He and his younger sister Mary began singing together as children in their parents’ garage, where they made their earliest tape recordings. When Tom left school they carried on harmonising together, and began performing at local folk clubs.
Assigned to the Joint Services School for Linguists in Surrey when he joined the Army for his National Service in 1952, he studied Russian language, literature, films and songs. One of these, taken from the Samovar Song Book, was a folk song from 1883 called Stenka Razin, on which he later based the melody of The Carnival Is Over.
He was posted to the Intelligence Corps depot in Sussex where, with two others, he formed a guitar trio playing Latin American songs, singing in Spanish and Portuguese.
He also started a vocal group called the Pedini Brothers, singing mainly Latin American and Russian songs, and on his discharge worked in a bank while in his spare time forming a duo called the Kensington Squares, with a folk musician, Tim Feild.
Having appeared with his sister in 1957 at Butlin’s holiday camps, in 1960 he invited Mary, then performing as one of the Lana Sisters, to join them to form the Springfields, named to sound more American (Springfield is the second most common place name in the US).
Dion O’Brien adopted the professional name Tom Springfield while Mary, then 21, borrowed a childhood nickname to become Dusty Springfield, singing (as she recalled) “incredibly fast, incredibly jolly and often out of tune”.
While the peroxide blonde Dusty always dominated the group as the girl singer in the middle, her biographers noted that Tom (who disliked the limelight) wore a mirthless grin and clenched his teeth.
Signed to Philips Records, the group had minor hits with Breakaway and Bambino and in 1962 Mike Hurst replaced Tim Feild in the line up. Interviewed about their first hit, Island Of Dreams, with its theme of escape from heartbreak, Springfield recalled that he had developed an obsession with Carmen Miranda and “wanted to go to Brazil”.
When his sister broke away to pursue a solo career, she introduced Tom Springfield to the Seekers, recently arrived in London from Melbourne. He immediately “got” the group’s sound, which bore a strong similarity to that of the Springfields, and he was said to have tailored his songs for the voice of the lead singer Judith Durham.
At the EMI studios in Abbey Road he was so meticulous in writing and producing the group’s earliest hits that they often took weeks to record. Although Judith Durham initially thought I’ll Never Find Another You “quite a square song”, she credited him with giving them “a commercial flavour that took us straight to the top of the charts”.
In 1967, with Diane Lampert, Springfield wrote the peace song The Olive Tree, which Judith Durham recorded solo following the break-up of the group.
Following Sun Songs (1968), Springfield’s debut album as a solo vocalist, his second, Love’s Philosophy (1969), featured a duet with his sister Dusty, Morning Please Don’t Come, a meditative ballad released as a single the following year, and which turned out to be his swansong.
Having retired from the music business he formally changed his name by deed poll from Dionysius O’Brien to Tom Springfield in 1977.
An intensely private man, Springfield died in London a few days before Judith Durham. According to a Facebook page devoted to Dusty, “the news somehow went under the radar and has only now come to light”.
After Dusty Springfield’s death from cancer in 1999, her brother scattered her ashes over the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
Tom Springfield, born July 2 1934, died July 27 2022