Esther Phillips

TrackSingle / Album
MiserySavoy 735
Release MeLenox NX-5555
Am I That Easy To ForgetLenox NX-5560
Hello WallsAtlantic 45-2223
And I Love HimAtlantic 45-2281
Try MeAtlantic 45-2370
Please Send Me Someone To LoveBurnin'
Home Is Where The Hatred IsKudu KU-904
Use MeKudu KU-915
What A Diff'rence A Day MakesKudu KU-925

Esther Phillips photo 1

 

 

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Esther Phillips playlist

 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Esther Phillips: forgotten or never encountered or explored soul diva. Dig a little into the facts underlying that statement and you’ll find one Top Ten entry in the US and one in the UK (but with a different disc), a scorching trail of hits in the US R&B Chart in the very early fifties followed by more comebacks than Kylie Minogue. What Esther never had though was anything like the run of gospel-goes-secular records from Aretha Franklin through 1967 and ‘68 which virtually defined female sixties soul music, or the Bacharach-baroque variety from Dionne Warwick which started earlier in the decade, or the only-from-Detroit version from Diana Ross, initially with the Supremes over a similar time frame (and I would in no way ignore the production teams, song writers and session musicians associated with those artists).

By and large these ladies are the ones we associate with the term ‘sixties soul diva’ with Etta James creeping somewhat later into public consciousness. Apart possibly from the output from her stay at Lenox in the early part of the decade, Esther’s records didn’t sound a lot like theirs but I had no hesitation in using the term ‘soul diva’ in my opening sentence. She certainly had soul. Indeed in 1972, when she was nominated for a Grammy as best R&B vocalist and lost to Aretha Franklin, Aretha promptly gave the trophy to Miss Phillips stating that she should have won.

In 1949, “Little” Esther, as she was called then, cut her first record, backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra. I Gotta Guy was a blues, in the tradition of Bessie Smith. Just listen and tell me this young lady didn’t have soul. She was 13 at the time.

Forget the horn arrangement and the guitarist, the main thing you notice about the record is Esther’s voice. ‘Old beyond her years’ is a cliché but it applies. For her age, her control is unbelievable; while her enunciation isn’t quite as precise yet as it would become, she was getting there. She also displayed a tonal quality that some have referred to as nasal – Robert Christgau characterises it as “astringent” – all of which added up to a sound that made her stand out from any crowd.

 

IN THE BEGINNING – MODERN, SAVOY, FEDERAL, DECCA

She was born Esther Mae Washington – not Esther Mae Jones as stated in some biographies – on 23rd December 1935 in Galveston, Texas, to Frank Arthur Washington and his wife Lucille. When Esther was very young, the family moved to Houston and not long after, Frank and Lucille divorced. In 1941 Lucille and her children moved to L.A., and from 1944 Esther spent time shuffling between L.A. and Houston.

In 1949, Esther’s sister persuaded her to enter a weekly talent competition which was run in Johnny Otis’ club, the Barrelhouse. While like many black youngsters she’d sung at church, she hadn’t actually had any formal training. As you would expect from any good story, she won the competition and Otis offered her a singing job.

That’s the story that appears in many biographies (and in the Toppermost on Otis produced in 2017). But since Cal Taylor and I put that together, I’ve read the Marv Goldberg “R&B Notebook” on Esther (dated 2018) and discovered the statement below:

“However, when Esther died, Otis wrote this (which appeared in the 20 August, 1984 Jet): “I’ve lost a daughter … People think I first found her as a singer, that’s not true. I had a chicken ranch and I had little kids in the neighborhood run and catch chickens for me. And Esther was one of the little kids . . . And then one day, we were resting and having some lemonade and she started singing those Dinah Washington songs. And I said, “Girl, I didn’t know you could sing like that””.

While I’m loath to discard the Barrelhouse story, I suspect the persistent Mr Goldberg will have dug a little deeper than most– and I should interrupt myself to put on record the fact that on numerous occasions in the past I have availed myself of Marv’s erudition as contained in his notebooks – so felt, that, at the very least, this version should appear (and I aim to modify the Otis Topper accordingly).

Which brings us roughly up to where we were. I Gotta Guy, the flip side to Thursday Night Blues, an instrumental credited to Johnny Otis, was, as stated, Esther’s debut disc. The other two tracks from the Modern session – Esther (on the A-side this time) with Mean Ole Gal plus another instro from Johnny – were released by the label in the first half of 1950, probably after the Bihari Brothers, owners of Modern, saw the amount of attention Esther and Johnny’s Savoy records were getting.

I’m getting ahead of myself but things were moving very swiftly in the last few months of 1949. Sometime circa September/October of that year, Johnny Otis with his entire show which comprised two male vocalists (one of whom doubled as a comedian/MC), Esther, the Robins vocal group plus the band, signed to Savoy Records owned by Herman Lubinsky, and their first recording session was held on November 10. Five tracks were cut including one from Esther called Get Together, a fine slow blues which didn’t see release till a little further down the track.

The second Savoy session for the Otis ensemble was held on December 1. Of the six tracks cut, Double Crossing Blues was something of an afterthought. Johnny asked Esther to sing it with Bobby Nunn, lead singer of the Robins. The record was credited to “The Johnny Otis Quintette (Vocals by the Robins and Little Esther)”. The black audience in L.A. and beyond absolutely loved it to the extent that it became the first R&B Chart #1 for both Johnny and Esther, a position it held for nine weeks.

A couple of comments are in order. Firstly, to say that part of the attraction of the record was the inclusion of some street style dialogue which had been added to the original song by Otis – see the footnotes for a sample. Secondly, to state that I didn’t include this record in the Esther Ten because it already occupies a slot in the Otis Ten (and slots are precious!).

The follow-up disc from the Otis outfit fronted by Little Esther (with her name higher up on the label this time), was greeted with rapturous acclaim by Cash Box (source: the Marv Goldberg R&B Notebook):

“Little Esther is presently hot as a pistol in juke boxes everywhere and you can never tell when one of her platters is going to turn into another smash. ‘Mistrustin’ Blues’ gets an added dash of sauce with a chorus that has Mel Walker joining the thrush in excellent fashion. Disk features a blues intro that is inviting and the strong tempo of a low-down beat winding in and around Little Esther’s vocalizing. ‘Misery’ shows Esther again in a torchy, effective ballad with a lot of shmaltz.”

Mistrustin’ Blues was actually a stronger effort than “Double Crossing” with a backing that showed signs of planning unlike its more ad hoc predecessor. And although Mel Walker gets equal billing on the label (undoubtedly because Otis saw the duet aspect as a major reason for “Double Crossing’s” sales), he doesn’t appear until a minute and a half have flown by, by which time that thrush has captured your heart.

“Mistrustin’” gave JO and Esther a second R&B Chart number one. But this time round the paying punters showed almost as much interest in the flip side, Misery, pushing it to a high of #9. For the first time in Esther’s short recording career she’d recorded a track that wasn’t a blues even if thematically the differences weren’t great – “Can’t you find / a little space in your heart / for a fool like me / I’m in misery” – and if you were after a category, blues ballad might fit the bill. Mel Walker doesn’t appear on the side; his place is taken, even more effectively in my view, by Lorenzo Holden on tenor sax (and I’m grateful to the writer of the Spontaneous Lunacy feature on Esther for the identification).

Savoy disc #3 from Esther, Cupid’s Boogie, a jumper with Mel Walker in tow again, gave her her third top spot in a row on the national R&B Chart, an amazing feat for anyone let alone for someone so young. Flip the record and you got a ballad with blue tinges, Just Can’t Get Free which is of particular interest for its spoken intro, a feature that would reappear on many a track from Esther over the years.

Further top ten placings followed for Deceivin’ Blues, Wedding Boogie and its flip, Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues) with the last named definitely deserving our attention since it’s one that never gets a mention in that glut of records that reappear every time the season rolls around – “Christmas time is here and my baby’s so far away” – though I have to add that Mel makes a predictable appearance to lift Esther’s gloom.

That all happened in 1950, and another Marv Goldberg quotation just can’t be held back:

“The December 9, 1950 Cash Box voted “Double Crossing Blues” the second Best Jazz ‘N Blues Record Of 1950 (Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” was #1). Little Esther was also the #2 Best Jazz ‘N Blues Artist Of 1950, again right behind Ivory Joe (but only by 31 points out of some 45,000). Not a bad present for her 15th birthday,”

… which was due in a fortnight.

As 1951 arrived, something strange happened to Esther in terms of recording: she suddenly started appearing on Federal rather than Savoy while Johnny Otis stuck with Savoy. Or, at least, that was the appearance. In reality, the band backing Esther on her Federal records was still the Otis outfit although on Esther’s Federal record labels it was often billed as “The Earle Warren Orchestra” but Earle was actually still playing alto in the Otis band. Ralph Bass who had been producing the Savoy records continued in the same role at Federal. Almost the only note of reality in terms of label billing during the Federal period is that the Dominoes often appeared as vocal group and (Billy Ward’s) Dominoes certainly had a contract with Federal.

For those curious as to what went on, I’d point them at the Goldberg notebook wherein Marv makes a valiant attempt to get to the bottom of the story. For others merely interested in the music, read on.

In fact the music that emerged from Esther’s Federal period – early 1951 to early 1953 – didn’t sound significantly different to the music recorded at Savoy. However, it’s possible that the public were getting tired of that sound and were spending their money elsewhere since only one of her records for the new label achieved chart status, that record being Ring-a-Ding-Doo which hit the #8 spot in the R&B Chart in early 1952. It was credited to “Little Esther and Mel with the J. and O. Orchestra” and if you’ve been following this story you should be able to work out who “Mel” was. Whatever, it was a good rocker with fine work from the horns and its chart placing was well deserved.

In the summer of 1953, with her two year contract at Federal over, Esther switched to Decca but it only resulted in a few singles. That said, some of those tracks do justify a listen. If You Want Me her first A-side for the new label had a distinctly more commercial sound about it than the Federal records: if want a category, call it R&B blurring into soul, not unlike tracks that Ruth Brown was cutting for Atlantic.

The mid to late fifties weren’t great for Esther and I’m not talking about music. At some time in the early part of the decade she became addicted to heroin though this information didn’t move into the public domain until 1954. Marv surmises that Mel Walker was the one who got her into drugs. He reports that Walker had been arrested on drug-related charges on numerous occasions and would eventually be found dead in an alley in 1964.

There were reports in the press in November 1954 that Esther had been arrested in L.A. on charges of prostitution and drug trafficking. Whether she served time or not is unclear but, according to Marv, she was back on the road again in March 1955. There were further press stories of an arrest for drug possession in 1957 but again minimal further information: which is an observation on the lack of validated biographical information in general on Esther other than Marv’s splendid effort which comes to an end after the belittling became historic.

There were a few more records for Savoy and one for Federal in the late fifties and then a couple for a small indie called Warwick in 1961.

 

ESCAPE TO THE COUNTRY – LENOX THEN ATLANTIC

Come 1962 and Little Esther disappeared or at least was banished to the small print. The label on Release Me (from Lenox Records) had ESTHER PHILLIPS in caps and Little Esther in a much smaller font underneath. Future country star Kenny Rogers had seen our lady performing in a club in Houston and was instrumental in getting her signed by his older brother, Lelan, owner of several record labels including Lenox.

Whether it was Lelan or his producer Bob Gans who came up with the idea of having Esther record a country song, we don’t know – and I’ve already had a bitch about lack of flesh on the Esther biography – but it’s abundantly clear that their intention was to copy the approach of Ray Charles on the LP, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, particularly its lead single, I Can’t Stop Loving You, both released in April 1962 (according to 45cat). Play the first verse of the Charles single and then follow it with Esther’s Release Me and the similarity is striking; the form of inverted call and response whereby the massed backing singers perform the first line in a normal choral manner which is then followed by the solo artist with the second line but utilising the vocal tropes that we associate with a soul singer, is common to both. Up to now we’ve tended to think of Esther as a blues singer in the main, not unlike her often quoted big influence, Dinah Washington. But Dinah didn’t limit herself to a blues repertoire; in 1951 she cut Hank Williams’ Cold Cold Heart so there was ample precedent to what Esther was doing. Esther is also unlikely not to have been aware of other black artists covering country material, notably Solomon Burke with Just Out Of Reach in 1961 and Ivory Joe Hunter from as far back as 1957 with Empty Arms.

To anyone out there listening to Esther’s Release Me for the first time, I’d urge you to put thoughts of the Engelbert version or the one from Ray Price (which gave him a good sized Country Chart hit in ’54), right out of your mind – sorry Engel and Ray. This interpretation is totally different and as Wiki rather astutely states, it’s quite likely that it was the Jivin’ Gene version which influenced Rogers or Gans in song selection, though not arrangement, since Port Arthur born Gene was something of a favourite in the Texas Gulf Coast area. In terms of arrangement, let me put it like this: the session guys set the scene, making sure that the user is well aware that this is sweet country music, and then Esther enters with a, possibly harsh, note of reality.

Release Me reached the #8 position in the Billboard Hot 100. I’ll just repeat that, the Billboard Hot 100. She’d never had a sniff of the pop charts before and was unknown to the average white record buyer. The black audience didn’t ignore her either; the record topped the R&B Chart.

The bad news is that the record was near-as-dammit a one-off. The follow-up, I Really Don’t Want To Know c/w Am I That Easy To Forget got to #61 Hot 100, A-side and #112, the flip. Quite why the record virtually flopped I don’t know. Both sides were very good but it’s possible that the flip might have been a better choice as plug side since it bore a greater resemblance to its predecessor only with the intensity level ramped up even higher. As such it stood out from versions in 1960 from Skeeter Davis (country) and Debbie Reynolds (pop) and should have offered a completely new listening experience to buyers who remembered those records. What was noticeable on both sides though was those gaps between the words and phrases, a result of superb timing and precision.

There were to be several more Lenox singles, not all of them plundering the country world for source ideas but they realised little more than very low end chart success. Several of these tracks plus other numbers cut specially were collected together in an LP entitled – you guessed it – Release Me which the public liked enough to give it a #46 chart rating. After Atlantic signed Esther and picked up all her Lenox material, the album was reissued with the new title, The Country Side Of Esther. It’s a fine set and is easily a candidate for a position an all-time top ten of country soul albums.

As stated in the last paragraph, Atlantic bought out Esther’s contract (in 1964) since they evidently felt they could do more with Esther than Lenox had achieved. If I was a betting man. I’d have gone along with that too. They had the biggest soul pedigree of all (including the majors) which relative new boys on the block like Stax and Motown could only ogle at, and the fact that they spanned other genres of music should only have helped, shouldn’t it?

It didn’t. For the seven years she was with the label – March ’64 to April ’71 – she only made the Hot 100 twice (with And I Love Him and When A Woman Loves A Man) and neither of those got above the half way mark. A handful of singles made the R&B Chart, the highest of those being And I Love Him, again, which reached #11 but this in no way matched her success with black record buyers back in 1950/51. In terms of albums, bearing in mind that the dates I quoted span the period when album sales became arguably as important as those from singles, her success was no better; none of her albums registered above the 100 position.

Hard words and probably a big surprise to someone who knows relatively little about Esther’s history. What I must add is that none of her records were bad; that sort of thing didn’t happen at Atlantic; indeed, I doubt whether any of them would be classed as anything other than good or even fine by an objective listener. It’s just that very few of them were fantastic and by that I mean as fantastic as that hot streak from Aretha Franklin from exactly the same stable from the start of ’67 right through 1968.

Why?

The simple answer is that the men that mattered at Atlantic, i.e. the Erteguns and Jerry Wexler, clearly saw Esther as a singer of standards or similar ‘classy’ songs often with something of a jazz flavour; only relatively rarely did they venture into other generic settings like country, Memphis style soul or softer soul e.g. Warwick like. They didn’t even play up the blues aspect of Esther’s past until her later stint at the label when the album Confessin’ The Blues was released (1976). Add into this the fact that productions and arrangements for much of the timeframe tended not to have much of the sparkle that one might have expected from Atlantic.

Those are harsh words. Set against them is the fact that Esther herself never disappointed whatever setting she was given. And I can assure the reader that all her Atlantic albums are worth investigating.

Esther’s first single for her new label in spring ’64, coupled a revisit to Double-Crossing Blues with Jimmy Ricks standing in for Bobby Nunn and the Atlantic rhythm section getting into their normal groove, with the Willie Nelson written Hello Walls, which had been a hit for Faron Young a few years earlier. The varied facts that the A-side was blues/R&B, that the flip was country sourced and that producer was Bert Berns, were distinctly promising.

The massed choral ranks that opened Hello Walls strongly suggested that Atlantic were aiming at becoming Lenox Part 2 but the next few bars pushed that thought right out of your mind (and no they weren’t). A great oomph hit you on the first beat of each bar in one of those latin style rhythms that Berns (and Atlantic in this time frame) so loved, making the record something of a marmite affair since I suspect there are as many people out there who regard it as messing with their heads as ones, like me, who just love it. Needless to say, Esther soared above it all.

According to the discography on the Bert Berns site, he only contributed to three more tracks from Esther so any hopes that he would form a back room wizard role as he did with Solomon Burke at Atlantic are effectively dashed. Of the three, my preference is for I Saw Me, a very fine soul ballad, released in September 1965.

As I hope I’ve already implied, my selections from Esther’s Atlantic period will tend more towards the exceptions to the output rather than tracks that typify it. The Jimmy Radcliffe and Buddy Scott written Try Me from 1966 is one such. It’s a pop soul ballad and the sort of thing one could imagine someone like Irma Thomas, Barbara Lewis or even Ms Warwick singing, or to turn that round, not the sort of thing you associate with Esther Phillips and Atlantic.

If you really wanna know
I can stand your brand of love
Try me, why don’t you try me

My final Esther Phillips Atlantic track should need no introduction: And I Love Him from 1965 was Esther’s female version of And I Love Her, “a song recorded by English rock band the Beatles, written primarily by Paul McCartney and credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership” (Wiki). It didn’t sell anywhere near as much as you would have thought at the time but it has endured. Should be in any self-respecting list of best-of Beatles covers.

As the introduction to that clip reveals, the popularity of And I Love Him brought Esther to the UK in ’65 for an appearance on Ready Steady Go! and, in the following year she starred at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Not counting the rebadged Lenox set there were two Atlantic Esther Phillips albums during this period with the label. Both And I Love Him and Esther were predictable mixes of singles tracks plus others recorded for the respective albums But things weren’t going as smoothly as my last few sentences might have indicated. In the second half of the sixties her drug dependency worsened and she spent time at the Synanon drug rehabilitation centre in Santa Monica, California. This helped to make her recording career during this timeframe tortuous to follow (and often simplified in biographic essays).

In 1967, Esther said goodbye to Atlantic, or they said goodbye to her; accounts vary. But perhaps ‘goodbye’ wasn’t the right word; au revoir would have been more fitting because she did briefly return, not once, but twice. In between she got involved with Lelan Rogers again, this time working as a producer for Roulette Records. She cut three singles for the label with Rogers in control for the first two: these were I’m In The Mood For Love (also known as Moody’s Mood For Love) which Esther certainly seemed to enjoy, and Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You which warrants a mention when the subject of Bob covers comes up.

The Creed Taylor Produced blog “Remembering Esther Phillips” tells us that: “During her spell in rehab at Synanon, Esther met singer Sam Fletcher, after her release, Fletcher got Esther a regular set at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper club, in Los Angeles, late 1969, early 1970.”

The essay then goes on to quote Esther from an interview contained in Blues And Soul, 15th December 1972, written by David Nathan:

“It was King Curtis who first got me to re-sign with Atlantic and we cut a live album together, Burnin’ at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper in L.A. where I’d been playing. The album did quite well – but when it came to a second album, we just couldn’t seem to find the right material, they wanted to try some real pop kinda things, so one day, they called me in and said, ‘look we’ve lost quite a bit cutting things on you’ and they gave me a release from my contract.”

Before pondering the second half of that quotation let us stick for moment with her earlier words. Burnin’ was/is arguably Esther’s best Atlantic album. King Curtis not only persuaded both Atlantic and Esther to make it, he took the production role and played tenor sax. He was ably assisted by Donald Bailey (drums), Chuck Rainey (bass), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Joe Gentle (flute), Paul Griffin & Richard Tee (organ) and Jack Wilson (piano).

It was good. Lend an ear to Esther wrapping her tonsils round the lyrics of Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone To Love – “doggone, doggone shame”. It’s a great song of course and one that’s attracted several great covers (and Wiki doesn’t include all of them). Esther’s live take is up there with the best including the one from Dinah Washington.

 

 

POETRY, SOUL JAZZ, FUNK AND DISCO – KUDU (CTI) AND MERCURY

Esther’s next port of call was Creed Taylor’s Kudu Records, part of his CTI empire. A close listen to single #1 from Kudu reinforces/reveals a couple of things: (a) the habit she seemed to have of coming up with a great record as her debut with a new label, and (b) that bass, be it double or Fender or even both as was sometimes the case. And the single in question this time was Home Is Where The Hatred Is / Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone; the bolding indicating which track I’ve gone for but I could just as easily have continued the stroke ‘til the end of that bone, such was the strength of the flip, the slow funk of which causes instant capture of both brain and limbs. Instead, I’ve stuck with the more celebrated A-side, a slow seventies soul record with more than a nod to disco and what seemed to be painfully autobiographical lyrics from Esther. In fact, Home Is Where The Hatred Is appeared on the debut album from Gil Scott-Heron in spring ‘71 – this is his original – and later that year saw single release. For someone coming at both versions cold, I’d warn that they vary considerably with Gil’s vocal being semi-chanted and the backing more intimate.

Stand as far away from me as you can and ask me why
Hang on to your rosary beads
Close your eyes to watch me die
You keep saying, kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it
God, but did you ever try
To turn your sick soul inside out
So that the world, so that the world
Can watch you die

Esther (or her management) went to Bill Withers for inspiration more than once and with 1973’s Use Me as with the bulk of her covers, the Kudu team used the original (pun unintended) as little more than a skeleton on which their version was brought to life. I’m often critical of seventies soul or soul funk in comparison to its equivalent from the previous decade, but on this track the elegance and originality of the horn arrangements blend with the fire of the backing ladies to give Esther a magnificent platform on which to strut her stuff, and I have to add that it’s just great to hear her on a (relatively) cheerful song for a change.

Whether to include What A Diff’rence A Day Makes caused me as much head scratching as all the other songs put together. It reached the #6 spot in our chart and stuck around for a total of 8 weeks making it far and away the best-known Esther Phillips record in this country so over familiarisation could well have taken over. But every time I play it just to be sure that I could safely leave it out and use the vacancy for another wonderful record from EP, after ten seconds or so of the disco effects and the panting/groaning/etc., in comes that voice with its millisecond perfect enunciation – “What a difference a day makes / twenty-four little hours” – and I’m slayed again, just wanting more. In many respects I actually prefer the Dinah Washington version, in part because it’s the song that first comes to mind when I think of Dinah, with its subtle changes of tense on that verb in the first line and, yes, that precision of vocal delivery. But I see the Phillips version as both a highly affectionate tribute from Esther to her idol and another step on that journey the song has travelled – see footnotes.

In 1977, after eight albums – that’s a heck of a lot of music and I’ll address at least a fraction of it under Honourable Mentions – Esther got restless and moved to Mercury where four more albums followed and not such a high percentage of singles. Although stylistic change wasn’t massive and standards were kept up particularly on the first album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, which received industry plaudits, in chart terms Mercury wasn’t good news for her; while Kudu singles and albums often registered in the R&B Chart with similar but less marked impact on the Hot 100, the Mercury equivalents didn’t do a lot. Mind you, she still managed quite a corker with her first single Love Addict which was aimed solidly at the disco audience. Another effort, Esther and the band’s take on Ruby & the Romantics Our Day Will Come has to go down as a good try – Esther does her usual great job but the band do go on a bit.

Slightly out of the above sequence, an Esther album (Confessin’ The Blues) was released on Atlantic – in 1976 we’re informed – and I took this to represent the third coming together of the label and the lady. It wasn’t that simple but for more, see Footnotes.

Esther died on 7th August 1984 of liver and kidney failure brought on by long term drug abuse. Johnny Otis conducted the funeral service.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

I Paid My Dues – Federal Single (1959) – Medium tempo blues absolutely typical of the period.

I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know About Him – Lenox album Release Me (1963) – Originally sung by Skeeter Davis when she was still half of the Davis Sisters for whom this was the breakthrough single. Like many of her records it always seems to be the spaces between words or phrases that make this one stand out with a whole load of them in the title line. In contrast she deliberately rushes portions within part of an ebbing and flowing monologue.

After Loving You – Lenox album Release Me (1963) – Little-known song which would achieve much higher visibility when it appeared on the excellent From Elvis In Memphis LP in 1969. First cut by an obscure gent called Joe Henderson in ’62 with covers from more conventional names like Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves. Esther’s cut isn’t quite up there with the Elvis version but its unusual format still makes it stand out on the album.

I Can’t Help It – Lenox album Release Me (1963)– The Hank Williams number and a version that owes nothing directly to anyone. Its slightly jazzy feel is at the same time, something of a lookahead to Atlantic and reminiscent of Patsy Cline on numbers like Crazy.

Too Soon To Know – Atlantic single (1964) – A number originally performed back in 1948, by the Orioles, often referred to as the first of the doo wop groups or alternatively the first of the bird groups. The version from Dinah Washington is likely to have been the one that captured Esther’s attention (though she opens it in the I Can’t Stop Loving You Ray Charles style). Among the many versions of the number, there’s even one from the Johnny Otis Show but with alternative vocalist, not Esther.

Just Say Goodbye – Atlantic single (1966) – A flip side and not a version of the Petula Clark song from broadly this time. Instead, it’s a soft soul item and evidence if anyone needed it that Esther could hold her own in this arena.

When A Woman Loves A Man – Atlantic single (1966) – The jury is out on whether the world needed another version of the Percy Sledge masterpiece but I include it mainly to show how well she could handle this sort of thing.

Let There Be Love – Atlantic album Esther (1966) – Big and brassy.

A Taste Of Honey – Atlantic album Esther (1966) – The original source of this song was the instrumental theme from a British play which had spawned a vocal version which almost everyone you could think of seemed to want to cover, from the Beatles (on their first album) to Sarah Vaughan. Esther’s version is jazzy with clipped brass.

I’m Sorry – Atlantic single (1967) – Her final single for the label and probably an out and out attempt at 45RPM success with Messrs Moman and Penn sharing the producer’s console. Countrypolitan strings and femme singers but Bobby Emmons was on churchy organ, and yes, this was the Brenda Lee song. Maybe with determined plugging this one might have made the charts and history might have been different.

Crazy Love – Atlantic single (1970) – I could have come up with my first sentence on When A Woman Loves A Man only with Van instead of Percy, but I haven’t. That’s because what she and the Dixie Flyers produce here isn’t a great Van track, it’s a great soul track. From a handful of singles made after the spell with Roulette.

Cry Me A River Blues – Atlantic album Burnin’ (1970) – A punchy jump blues from the Freddie Jett’s club gig which initially seems to bear no resemblance to the ballad usually associated with Julie London, but if you hang on for a good two minutes, those famous lines appear – “Come on and cry me a river, cry me a river / I cried a river over you”.

That’s All Right With Me – Kudu single (1972) – Slow and tender ballad with hints of funk and a delicious ascending riff from the strings at the end of each verse.

Sweet Touch Of Love – Kudu album From A Whisper To A Scream (1972) The name “Allen Toussaint” in the composer credits is the cue for arranger Pee Wee Ellis to include some tantalising rhythms from the Crescent City in what is otherwise as close to Memphis Soul as anything from Esther at Kudu.

Scarred Knees – Kudu album From A Whisper To A Scream (1972) – The song was a cover, but from a lady who doesn’t grace all that many rock history books, Janice Tyrone, originally from Kingsville in SE Texas but on her bluesy platter she appeared as Little Miss Janice. The Phillips version adds sophistication plus a pianist (Richard Tee) who sounds as if he might have heard Ray Charles circa Genius Sings The Blues (and Esther matches Ray for intensity).

Alone Again (Naturally) – Kudu album Alone Again Naturally (1972) – The O’Sullivan fellow’s song goes up tempo and disco but it’s strangely delicate and understated disco. Probably not for Gilbert’s fans but it’s a grower.

Do Right Woman, Do Right Man – Kudu album Alone Again Naturally (1972) – What a song to tackle (again) – the slow-it-down to just about as slow as it can get approach and pile on the intensity right from the start, just about works – it’s certainly listenable but doesn’t compare with the original or the Burritos’ country version.

Justified – Kudu single (1973) – Strutting funk, mainly single chord stuff but with a satisfying turnaround – the often present spoken intro has been transplanted into a mid-song rap session wherein she leaves him in no doubt what she’s gonna do.

Black-Eyed Blues – Kudu album Black-Eyed Blues (1973) – One wonders, did Joe Cocker and Chris Stainton realise what a great vehicle they had (inadvertently) written for Esther? Initially the new arrangement doesn’t differ drastically from Joe’s original – it’s even in the same key – but the differences creep in and they’re welcome. A fine track. Esther’s recitation starts somewhere around the 4 minute mark.

You Could Have Had Me, Baby – Kudu album Black-Eyed Blues (1973) – Seven and a half minutes of medium tempo blues accompanied by not a lot more than Charlie Brown’s guitar. Could have been boring. It’s not.

Such A Night – Kudu single (1974) – Is it as good as the Rebennack original? Does it matter? Just enjoy.

Turn Around, Look At Me – Kudu single (1974) The inclusion of pedal steel on this is probably a knowing nod in the direction of Glen Campbell under whose name this song first appeared though I hasten to add that steel guitars were noticeable by their absence in Glen’s Turn Around which was more of an easy going, made in L.A., strings-driven ballad. Esther adds some bite though she’s considerably more restrained than usual.

I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do – Kudu album Capricorn Princess (1976) – Song associated with Astrud Gilberto but treated as a ballad – it’s that line “I think about him on alternate Thursdays when I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do” that always floors me.

There You Go Again (There She Goes Again) / Stormy Weather – Mercury single (1978) – Everyone had done Stormy Weather, including Dinah, but Esther kind of sneaks up on the song.

Into The Mystic – Mercury album You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby (1977) – Esther had delved into Morrison’s Moondance whilst at Atlantic and one of that pair of efforts is featured above. This one isn’t quite as celebratory as Van’s magnificent original but it’s up there in the mystical stakes.

 

AND?

“Esther was probably the best early-teen singer of all time. Her voice was simply phenomenal, especially after it had matured and deepened in the 1960s. Perhaps she was too versatile for her own good, at least commercially speaking. She paid her dues for stardom in a way very few performers would ever be required to.” (Source: Dik de Heer writing in “This Is My Story”)

“Esther’s mid-fortyish voice is more alley-cat than kittenish, which was Dinah’s trademark. Her timbre is nasal, sometimes astringent and worn through in parts, but she decorates it with its own limitations: gutturals, honks, clicks, croaks, burps, and squeaks so far-fetched and cunningly placed that they recall Leon Thomas, Miriam Makeba, or Yoko Ono as readily as Lorraine Ellison or Bobby Bland. On her 1980 album, Good Black Is Hard to Crack, she may set her vibrato against a clean-cut instrumental riff, as on the discoish “Pull Yourself Together,” or against sweet vocal backups, as she did at last week’s shows in the “Cry to Me” duet with keyboard player George Spencer. Or she’ll squeeze degrees of intensity from a sustained click, like some inside-out version of a gospel finale.”Source: Robert Christgau writing in the Village Voice, 30th Mar 1982 on an Esther Phillips performance “at Fat Tuesday’s last week” when Esther was asked “Do you consider yourself a jazz singer?”)

“I just consider myself a singer. I’m not locked in any one particular category, I like it better like that. I like good songs, that I can relate to, and it doesn’t have to be a … whatever it is; if I can relate to it, and I think I can do something with it, I do. I don’t ever want to be locked in just one position of just singing the blues or just singing jazz or just singing rock ‘n’ roll. I like to be able to do a variety of songs, ballads and things.” (Source: “The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews from Living Blues Magazine” conducted by Peter Guralnick)

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I made mention of some risqué dialogue in Double Crossing Blues. This is the relevant quote from Marv Goldberg:

“It features repartee between Little Esther and Bobby Nunn, bass of the Robins, culminating in:

Esther: You belong out in the forest fighting a big old grizzly bear.
Bobby: How come you ain’t out in the forest?
Esther: I’m a lady!
Bobby: They got lady bears out there!

Of course, to fully understand why the song was as big a hit as it was, you need to know that ‘lady bear’ was black slang for an ugly woman who was sexually aggressive!”

2. The ‘christening’ of Esther as Little Esther occurred in the very early days at Savoy. This is evidenced by the fact that the Modern side I Gotta Guy was originally credited to Esther Jones but on later releases of the record this was changed to “Little Esther”. The Spontaneous Lunacy feature on Esther tells us that it was the lady herself who found the Phillips surname: apparently she took it from a Phillips Gas Station sign.

3. Pete Lewis, the guitarist who appears on Esther’s Savoy (and some Federal) singles almost demands a few words. He was there on I Gotta Guy and he’s prominent on Looking For A Man another of the little lady’s Savoy records which I’m rather partial to. I wrote about him in the Johnny Otis Toppermost and below are the key chunks from that essay slightly edited:

“In 1947, along with band leader and friend Bardu Ali, Johnny opened a new night club called the Barrelhouse in the Watts district of L.A. One of their innovations in the club was a Thursday night talent competition. On a night later that same year a guitarist from Oklahoma turned up, as also did a vocal outfit, the A Sharp Trio who’d got together at Alameda High School. The guitarist, Pete Lewis won the first prize plus a place in the Johnny Otis band. The singing threesome picked up the second place plus a slot in the club on weekends (and got rechristened the Robins).

“Pete Lewis (originally from Louisiana but transplanted to L.A.) might just be the most unsung guitarist in the history of the blues. Otis took him into a recording studio, and, amongst other songs, recorded two numbers which were tributes to the Barrelhouse club, one with Lewis and one without. Neither was anything like Harlem Nocturne (the Otis signature number, a jazzy instrumental which did very well for him in 1945). The distort at the start of Midnight At The Barrelhouse was almost the Lewis trademark though he could do soft and pretty when it was called for. Such sounds had not been heard before. Many assume that it was guys like Willie Johnson and M.T. Murphy working with Howlin’ Wolf in Memphis in ’51/’52 who pioneered such techniques. I don’t want to detract from those gentlemen. They were great. But they weren’t first. Take a listen:”

4. A notable feature of the Little Esther Federal Records is that composing wise, several of them were credited to Leiber & Stoller (or Leiber & Stroller in the first instance as the transcriber hadn’t picked up Mike’s surname correctly). These would have been among the earliest L&S songs to be recorded. The last one that Esther did was a cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog which stuck pretty closely to the striking arrangement of the original, which arrangement was put together by a certain Johnny Otis.
This is Esther’s version.

5. If the albums discography in Wiki is to be believed, Esther’s Release Me was her second most popular album in terms of chart rating, bettered only by the Kudu/CTI set What A Diff’rence A Day Makes in 1975. That’s based on pop album ranking rather than the specialist heading for Jazz and R&B.

6. Esther’s track Try Me was used in the sound track of the 2002 French film, La Bande Du Drugstore.

7. Georgie Fame recorded Moody’s Mood For Love on his Fame At Last album. I wrote the words below about the song in my Toppermost on Georgie:

“The rather ponderously titled I’m In The Mood For Love (Moody’s Mood For Love) took the whole vocalese thing back to its roots. In this case the lyrics which were written by singer and lyricist, Eddie Jefferson largely ignore the original words to I’m In The Mood For Love, instead they’re based on the melody line from a tenor sax solo by James Moody from a 1949 recording of that song. While Eddie Jefferson wrote the number (and got himself into legal trouble with the I’m In The Mood For Love writers), the first recorded version came from King Pleasure in 1952.”

8. My reference to poetry in the heading was in relation to Gil Scott-Heron who was regularly referred to as a soul or jazz poet. I also found an analysis of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, treated as a poem by Eagle Poetry who also give three other songs/poems from Gil the same treatment.

9. The What A Diff’rence A Day Makes song or, in initial translation, What A Diff’rence A Day Made, came into being in Spanish in 1934, as Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado. The writer was a lady called Maria Grever. This is her version and you’ll note that there’s quite a lead-in before she sings the title line. According to Wiki that title line translates as When I Return To Your Side. The Wiki author goes on to say:

“The English lyrics were written by Stanley Adams, and was played by Harry Roy & his Orchestra. It was published in late 1934. The most successful early recording, in 1934, was by the Dorsey Brothers, although it was first recorded in English by Cleveland crooner Jimmie Ague.”

These are the Dorsey Brothers featuring Bob Crosby on vocal, with Bob – who does eventually appear – being the younger brother of Bing.

10. In the main text I stated that, in 1976, Atlantic released an album (entitled Confessin’ The Blues). Sight unseen, it appeared to be a new album from our lady from what I had referred to as her third stint with the label. The appearance also was that it might be zeroing in on the subject of blues which Atlantic could be said to have not given loads of attention to previously. It wasn’t really either. The sleeve notes to the set from Leonard Feather tell us that side 1 consisted of the output from two sessions with a sizeable band arranged by Onzy Matthews (who had worked with Ray Charles) and produced by Nesuhi Ertegun, from 1966, and, the results of work with a studio band in 1970 with that band being the same one that supported Esther on the 1970 live Burnin’ LP with King Curtis in charge of production. On the subject of content, the bulk of side 1 was blues but of a jazzy nature while side 2 was the opposite: 3 of the 4 tracks were clearly not blues but the 4th (and final album track) was more than just a blues, it was a medley of three (Blow Top Blues, Jelly Jelly Blues and Long John Blues (about a dentist)) which ran for a generous 10 minutes plus. Add in the fact that two of these numbers were associated with Dinah Washington and you had a track that for me, was clearly the best in the set.

11. Esther’s final single was a heavy disco affair entitled Turn Me Out for the tiny indie, Winning Records and, just prior to her death she was in the process of cutting tracks for the New York based Muse label which had been founded in 1972 and was mainly known for jazz records. The output from the Muse sessions was released posthumously on an album entitled A Way To Say Goodbye. (The contents of that album can be found on Spotify under the title Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)). Due to the high reliance on synthesiser this isn’t a set I’d recommend but would put forward the Otis Redding originated alternative title number as one of the better tracks present.

12. Esther’s last single for Mercury released in 1981, was Cry To Me / Crazy. The A-side wasn’t the Solomon Burke song with that name but the flip was the song penned by Willie Nelson and sung by Patsy Cline (and this is the second time it’s been name checked). That B-side isn’t on YouTube but it is on Spotify and I can tell the reader that although it doesn’t suffer a major tempo or rhythmic change it does have a synth riddled backing which doesn’t (for me) enhance the effect of a well sung song.

I wanted to close with a live clip so here’s Esther singing I Ain’t Good Lookin’ and Lover Man at the Billie Holiday Tribute Concert held in the Hollywood Bowl in 1979.

 

 

Esther Phillips poster 1

 

Esther Phillips (1935–1984)

 

Esther Phillips poster 2

 

Esther Phillips Discography (Wikipedia)

Esther Phillips at Discogs

Esther Phillips at SoulWalking

Esther Phillips biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #935

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 13, 2021

    What a fabulous voice – will be digging deeper.

  2. John Chamberlain
    Feb 16, 2021

    This has made me realize how little I knew about Esther Phillips. Very enlightening. So good at 13! I loved the version of “Use me”.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Feb 17, 2021

    Andrew, John, many thanks. It’s hard to think of many singers who’ve covered the range of styles/genres as Esther did very successfully, in addition to having a highly distinctive voice.

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