Not that I was acquainted much with her in the first place, but she was sort of on my radar, although I occasionally probably confused her in my mind with Little Eva.
For Little Eva, that former babysitter for songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Eva's ride pretty much starts & stops at "The Locomotion". While Little Esther manages to grow up and get caught up in a bigger, meaner & much funkier world with far more transportation options. From Jump Blues to Disco, the girl saw some things on her journey through the showbiz canyons, mighty mountains and lonesome valleys...
Little Esther Phillips debut as a recording artist occurred when band leader Johnny Otis discovered her circa 1949 singing in an L.A talent show, and soon she was 14 hitting the R&B charts after Otis hooked her up with the Bihari's Modern label. Then it was onto Savoy, and despite little regional R&B hits here and there, she was dropped and recorded for numerous other labels like Federal, Regent, and even Decca.
Here is a side she released on a one off single for the Warwick label in 1961, a possibly self reflective sorta number called Wild Child.
Esther Phillips - Wild Child
Here's another track she did on a single in 1964 for Atlantic, it was written by a future Disco king, a talented and hustlin' young Howard University grad named Van McCoy.
Esther Phillips - Something's You Never Get Used To
Of course Esther's Atlantic version didn't get far, but Irma Thomas recorded it soon after, while Cilla Black had a hit in the UK with it, and stateside The Supremes took it up the charts in 1968 on Motown.
Here's Esther recorded live doing an old 50's hit called "Misery" excerpted from a 1970 tv special taped with Johnny Otis in Los Angeles that attempted to recreate the atmosphere at his old Barrelhouse Club where a 13 year old Esther first strolled into his life.
Of course, no longer a teenager, one can hear the great vocalists' many years of living on the road in her voice on this track as well...
Esther Phillips - Misery ( live 1970 w/ Johnny Otis)
She bounced around from label to label in the mid sixties including Lennox, and Roulette, but finally emerged, a road weary chanteuse on the Kudu label for a 5 album run in the early to mid-'70s. For me, her undoubtable Pièce de résistance and landmark of that period must be the 1972 release "From A Whisper To A Scream". It was a collection recorded in a chilly New York winter just prior to the holidays, and named for an Allen Toussaint composition within.
Actually despite the two Toussaint compositions on the album, the disc leads off with a stark, emotionally raw & strikingly done track from a Harlem based musician named Gil Scott Heron, a song called "Home Is Where The Hatred Is"...
This beautifully bleak track really scrapes the emotional barrel, and leaves the listener agape, wallowing in a beatific agony as we eavesdrop on Esther singing an all too true sorrowful tale of love, addiction, inevitable betrayal and the disturbing ever present aftermath.
This particular take on this song is truly one of the greatest musical interpretations of the dark side of life, and unlike many tunes by artists that attempt to paint such stylized portraits, Esther's is amazingly personal & real without ever being cloy, preachy, aggrandizing or awkward. One can tell she is familiar in some way with the subject matter, as it resonates quietly in a confessional, fragile and vulnerable wave over the listener.
It was after all the early 70's, with Vietnam still raging and Nixon poised to win re-election by any means necessary, while America's inner cities were slipping ever further into a horrific period of neglect & decline. Heroin was plentiful, coming into the country through various means, some of which we now know was shipped in body bags from the South East Asia. Esther herself had been dabbling in the drug since the early 1950's, long before the early 70's urban epidemic.
Esther Phillips - Home Is Where The Hatred Is
The arrangements were made and conducted by ex-James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis, and he has an excellent cast to work with. Amongst the players are stellar guitarists Eric Gale & Cornell Dupree. Bernard Purdie & Airto Moreira handle the rhythm sections percussive side of the things, playing against Gordon Edwards subtle but deeply grooved bass lines. Richard Tee mans the keys, saxophonists galore including including Hank Crawford on Alto Sax who is oined by full orchestral style string sections working in tandem with the affair. The album had some 9 violinists working on it, along with another half dozen folks on harp, violas, cellos etc.
This is one richly steeped audio stew, captured to tape by the peerless Rudy Van Gelder at his personal studio for Creed Taylor's Kudu label circa December 1971.
In 1972 when Esther lost the Grammy she was up for to the so-called "Queen Of Soul" Aretha Franklin, the modest Franklin actually presented the trophy to Phillips, saying she really should have won it instead.
Enjoy another selection from the "From A Whisper To A Scream" album and tell me you can't hear "it". Here's another Allen Toussaint composition, a little bit lighter fare than the title cut.
Esther Phillips - Sweet Touch of Love
Sadly, Esther is no longer with us.
After the Kudu period, she went and worked with Atlantic again, doing some material with The Dixie Flyers under ol' Tom Dowd in Miami. She managed to get a few diva-esque numbers recorded during the late 70's disco era, but later stints on Mercury and other lesser known labels did not chart outside the dance circuit, or amount to much cash. Esther continued to struggle with drink & drugs, and eventually her frazzled liver & kidneys gave out.
The southern girl born Esther Mae Jones the 23rd of December 1935 in Galveston, Texas died 23 years ago on August 7th 1984 at U. C. L. A. Harbor Medical Center in Carson, Ca.
R.I.P Little Esther