Born Esther Mae Jones on December 23, 1935, in Galveston, TX; died on August 7, 1984, in Carson, CA; daughter of Arthur Jones and Lucille Washington. Addresses: Record companies--Collectables, P.O. Box 35, Narbeth, PA 19072, website: http://www.oldies.com; Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, website: http://www.sonymusic.com.
Whether billed as teen rhythm-and-blues sensation Little Esther or as a crossover pop, country, or soul artist, Esther Phillips created an impressive body of memorable music during the course of her troubled life. In a 34-year career that flourished and ebbed and flourished again, her sinewy vocals--best compared to those of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone--tapped into jazz, boogie, blues, country, and even disco styles.
Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, the singer came from a troubled family. Her parents divorced, and she split her time between living with her mother in Galveston and with her father in Houston. The youngster sang in a Sanctified church until her mother moved her and her sister to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. It was there that she began picking up on the jazzy blues stylings of Dinah Washington, saving her school milk money so that she could play Washington's records on a local jukebox.
She was only 13 years old when her sister Marianna dressed her up to look old enough to participate in a talent contest at the Largo Theater. According to legend, her version of Washington's current hit "Baby Get Lost" not only won her first place, but also caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who asked the youngster to join his popular rhythm-and-blues show at the Barrelhouse Club. It was a big break for Jones. The Greek-American Otis, who had just signed a deal with the newly formed Savoy label, was one of the keenest talent scouts of the postwar era. Among his discoveries were the Robins, Mel Walker, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.
Dubbing his new find "Little Esther," Otis got her into the studio to record two singles for Modern Records in Los Angeles. Then he dressed her in pigtails, bobby socks, and ribbons, follwing the model of another child blues-belter, Little Miss Cornshucks, also known as Mildred Cummings. According to Lee Hildebrand's Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, when none other than Dinah Washington herself saw the results, she confronted the bandleader backstage and demanded, "You take them bobby socks off that girl and little ribbons off them plaits.... Put some curls in her hair and some stockings on her."
Little Esther's breakthrough came at the tail end of a Robins session; teamed with the group's Bobby Nunn, she sang a fiery version of "Double Crossing Blues," one of many Otis-produced recordings that anticipated the coming of rock 'n' roll. Released in 1950, "Double Crossing Blues" reached the number one position on rhythm-and-blues charts for nine consecutive weeks. A prominent feature of the Savoy Records Barrelhouse Caravan of Stars tour, Little Esther proved an overnight sensation. Quickly, Otis paired her with Mel Walker for such hits as "Mistrustin' Blues," "Cupid's Boogie," "Deceivin' Blues," "Wedding Boogie," and "Faraway Blues." With six top ten R&B hits in a row, and three of them rising to number one, she was the hottest young act in the country. However, her good fortune wouldn't last much longer.
Heroin Addiction Ruined Career
In early 1951, Little Esther's contract was shifted to the Cincinnati-based Federal label, although the uncredited Otis still produced and supplied instrumental backing for some of her records. The label switch slowed her commercial momentum substantially, although her collaboration with the Dominoes on the risque "The Deacon Moves In" and the novelty jump-blues piece "Ring-a-Ding-Doo" did decent business. Part of her problem was that Savoy was flooding the market with recordings made before she went to Federal, something her handlers attempted to stop with a lawsuit, claiming unpaid royalties. The lawsuit alienated Otis, and worse, the still-teenaged star had become addicted to heroin.
In his book The Soulful Divas, author David Nathan included liner-note writer Barney Hoskyns's speculation that frequent singing partner Mel Walker--who eventually died of an overdose--introduced Little Esther to heroin. Whoever made drugs available to the singer put in place an addiction that she would struggle with for most of her life. Faced with the constant crush of one-night stands and an absence of other options due to a lack of education, Esther sought relief in drugs and alcohol to the point where her once-promising career ground to a halt.
Little Esther label hopped unsuccessfully from Decca to Savoy to Federal, and finally to the Warwick label. When not undergoing drug rehabilitation--a less respectable alternative during the 1950s than it became later--she performed at increasingly seedier venues until she flat-out hit bottom.
Resurfaced with "Release Me"
Returning to her father's Houston-area home in 1962, she began to perform at Paul's Sidewalk Cafe. There, a young Kenny Rogers heard her perform a soulful version of Charlie Rich's "No Headstone on My Grave." Impressed, he told his brother Lelan Rogers about her and convinced him to start the Lenox Records label, just for her. Now an adult and wanting to discard the Little Esther moniker, the singer was inspired by a Phillips gas station sign to rechristen herself Esther Phillips.
During the early 1960s, Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had already combined soul with pop arrangements of country songs and scored big hits. Lelan Rogers believed Phillips could do the same. Taking her to Owen Bradley's studio in Nashville, where he employed a string section and the Anita Kerr Singers backup vocal group, Rogers had Phillips record a series of sophisticated country music covers such as "Am I That Easy to Forget," "Be Honest With Me," and what would prove to be the biggest hit of her career, "Release Me." Sung with jazzy nuance and understated soul, the record--a 1954 hit for Ray Price--reached number one on rhythm-and-blues charts and number eight on pop charts.
Although she and Big Al Downing later hit the lower reaches of the pop charts with their duet on "You Don't Miss Your Water," the Lenox label was not a great success. Before 1963 was over, Atlantic Records had bought up her contract and all the Lenox masters. Atlantic seemed like a perfect fit for Phillips, but in truth the label had a tough time finding a hit formula for their new artist. They had her record blues, jazz, pop, and anything else they could think of, but it wasn't until 1965, when they matched her with the Beatles' ballad "And I Love Her," that she would achieve her second major hit. Retitled "And I Love Him," the single rose to number 54 on the pop charts and number 11 on the R&B charts. The Beatles loved her rendition and invited Phillips to England to appear with them on the BBC television program Ready Steady Go.
The heady days at the top would not last, however, as drugs began to rule the singer's life once again. After a few minor hits, most notably "When a Woman Loves a Man," a remake of Percy Sledge's signature hit, Atlantic dropped the troubled singer. By the end of the 1960s, Phillips had entered the Synanon drug rehabilitation program, where she would remain until 1969. Still an interpretive talent to be reckoned with, the feisty, plain-spoken singer had one final run left in her.
"What a Difference a Day Makes"
Even while cleaning up her act, Phillips kept busy recording tracks for the Roulette label--where she charted with a version of Glen Campbell's "Too Late to Worry, Too Blue to Cry"--and for Epic. But it was after her emergence from Synanon that her career took off again. Signing anew with Atlantic, she made some highly regarded but unsuccessful jazz and blues recordings before latching on with Creed Taylor's Kudu label in 1971. The aggressive young company provided the singer with a socially relevant context for her sound. Indeed, her debut disc on the label, From a Whisper to a Scream, featured one of the undisputed highlights of Phillips's career. Her uncompromising rendition of Gil Scott-Heron's anti-drug rant "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" was nominated for a Grammy award in 1972. When Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted, and Black won the award, Franklin herself validated Phillips's achievement by personally handing the award to Phillips, saying she deserved it more.
Phillips' years at Kudu produced her best mature work, including a panting, sexy disco rendition of Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes," a number one disco single and top 20 pop record, in 1975. Equally fine was her sensitive rendition of "For All We Know," a minor pop and adult contemporary hit. Producer Creed Taylor's song selection formula wasn't much different from Atlantic's, but he knew how to frame her vocals with atmospheric production that added a shade of urban toughness to her work.
On the strength of her run with Kudu, the artist was able to sign the most lucrative contract of her career with Mercury Records in 1977. However, despite a free hand creatively, Phillips's blend of commercial jazz and pop didn't stir up much interest, and soon her days as a hitmaker came to a close. In 1983, Phillips charted with "Turn Me Out" on the small Winning label and released an album on Muse. She was still a major figure at jazz festivals and other concert venues, but her health--undermined by years of drug abuse and heavy drinking--began to fail. On August 7, 1984, at the age of 48, she passed away due to complications of cirrhosis of the liver and a kidney infection.
by Ken Burke
Esther Phillips's Career
Performed as "Little Esther" with the Johnny Otis Revue, 1949-1952; made first recordings for Modern Records, 1949; recorded several hits for Savoy label, 1950-1951; recorded for Federal, 1952-1954; recorded for Decca, Savoy, Federal, and Warwick labels, 1955-1960; took name Esther Phillips, made comeback singing the hit "Release Me" on Lenox label, 1962; signed to Atlantic Records, released hit soul version of Beatles song, "And I Love Him," 1965; recorded briefly for Roulette before returning to Atlantic, 1970; signed with Kudu label, 1972; signed with Mercury Records, 1977; made final recordings for Muse label, 1984.
Esther Phillips's Awards
Rolling Stone magazine, Best R&B Vocalist, 1974-75; Ebony magazine, Best Female Blues Vocalist, 1974, 1975; NATRA (National Association of Television & Radio Announcers), Best Female Jazz Artist, 1976.
- Selected discography
- (With the Johnny Otis Revue) Hollerin' and Screamin' Yorkshire, 1951.
- Release Me Lenox, 1963.
- And I Love Him Atlantic, 1965; reissued, Collectables, 1999.
- The Country Side of Esther Phillips Atlantic, 1966; reissued, Collectables, 2001.
- Esther Phillips Sings Atlantic, 1966; reissued, Collectables, 1999.
- Live at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper Atlantic, 1970.
- Burnin' (live), Atlantic, 1970; reissued, Collectables, 1999.
- Alone Again (Naturally) Kudu, 1972.
- From a Whisper to a Scream Kudu, 1972.
- Black-Eyed Blues Kudu, 1973.
- Performance Kudu, 1974.
- Esther Phillips and Joe Beck Kudu, 1975.
- What a Difference a Day Makes Sony, 1975; reissued, 2002.
- Capricorn Princess Kudu, 1976.
- For All We Know Kudu, 1976.
- Confessin' the Blues Atlantic, 1976; reissued, Collectables, 1999.
- You've Come A Long Way, Baby Mercury, 1977.
- All About Esther Mercury, 1978.
- Here's Esther: Are You Ready? Mercury, 1979.
- Good Black Is Hard to Crack Mercury, 1981.
- The Best of Esther Phillips (1962-1970) Rhino, 1997.
- Stambler, Irwin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Hildebrand, Lee, Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, Billboard Books, 1994.
- Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom Du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, editors, MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1997.
- Gregory, Hugh, The Real Rhythm and Blues, Blandford, 1998.
- Nathan, David, The Soulful Divas, Billboard Books, 1999.
- "Esther Phillips," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 14, 2003).
- "Esther Phillips," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (November 14, 2003).