ESTHER PHILLIPS-ALL ABOUT ESTHER PHILLIPS.

ESTHER PHILLIPS-ALL ABOUT ESTHER PHILLIPS.

If I was to ask most people, have they ever heard of Esther Phillips or her music, I’m pretty sure that most people would say no, who is she? That to me is a huge shame, because they’re as yet, unaware of one of the most talented, versatile and underrated female vocalists, who possessed a totally unique, voice. During a career that spanned four decades, she sang blues, country, jazz, pop and soul music. Her recording career started in 1950, when aged just fifteen, she released her debut single Double Crossing Blues, which reached number one in the US R&B Charts. After that, she released a number of successful singles, and over a period that spanned four decades, released twenty albums. Sadly, the story of Esther Phillips doesn’t have a happy ending, because in 1984, aged just forty-eight, she died from liver and kidney failure, caused by drug use. However, during her recording career, Esther released many great albums, and today I’ll review All About Esther Phillips, after I’ve told you about the artist that started her career as Little Esther Phillips.

Esther Phillips was born Esther Mae Jones, in Galveston, Texas in December 1935. When she was growing up, her parents divorced, and she had to divide her time between her parents. As she grew up, she sung in her local church, and quickly, gained a reputation as a talented singer. Aged fourteen, her sister made her encouraged her to enter a talent contest at Johnny Otis’ Barrelhouse Club. Reluctantly, Esther agreed. That night in 1949, Johnny Otis was so impressed, he signed her to Modern Records, and she became a member of his California Rhythm and Blue Caravan, where she became Little Esther Phillips.

Quickly, her career took off, and in 1950, her debut single Double Crossing Blues, reached number one in the US R&B Charts. The follow-up, Mistrusting Blues, gave her another number one single in the US R&B Charts. Between 1950 and 1952, Little Esther had eight top ten R&B hits. By the mid-fifties, Little Esther had become addicted to drugs and having to spend time in hospital recovering. This lead to her being short of money, and she moved back into her father’s house. To make ends meet, she sang in small nightclubs around the southern states of the US. It was in 1962, in Houston, that country singer, Kenny Rogers, saw Esther singing. So impressed was Rogers, that he helped her get a contract with his brother Lelan’s Lenox Record label.

By 1962, Esther had overcome her problems, and her career was relaunched as Esther Phillips. Her comeback single Release Me, produced by Bob Gans, reached number one in the R&B Charts and reached number eight in the US Billboard 100. A number of other singles were released on Lenox, before Esther signed to Atlantic Records. 

Now that she’d signed to one of the most famous record labels, this was a huge opportunity for Esther. One of the songs she released was a cover of The Beatles song And I Love Him. It reached number eleven in the R&B Charts, and this resulted in The Beatles bringing Esther over to the UK, which were she gave her first overseas concerts. Esther continued to release singles and albums for Atlantic, but the singles weren’t as successful as earlier ones. There were no further top ten R&B singles after And I Love Him, with mainstream success eluding her. This was the case with her albums, which all failed to chart. As the 1960’s progressed, Esther’s earlier drug problem resurfaced, and she’d to enter rehab again. Whilst in rehab, she met Sam Fletcher which would later prove fortunate.

As she was recovering from her drug addiction, she released some singles for the Roulette label in 1969. After that, she re-signed to Atlantic, and released the album Burnin’ which was a recording of a 1969 concert at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper Club. The following year 1970, the man who originally discovered Esther, Johnny Otis, entered her life. Esther performed with The Johnny Otis Show at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival.

During the seventies, Esther recorded for Kudu/CTI and recorded a number of successful albums, which all entered the Billboard 200 album chart. From A Whisper To A Scream her debut album for her new label, was a both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, reaching number sixteen. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award, but Aretha Franklin won the award. Aretha too, thought Esther deserved to win and presented Esther with the award. Between 1972 and 1976, Esther released a further seven album on Kudu/CTI with the 1975 album Esther Phillips and Joe Beck the most successful, reaching number three. This was the most successful part of Esther’s career since the 1950‘s. However, that was about to change, when Esther changed labels.

In 1977 Esther left Kudu/CTI and singed to Mercury Records, where she released four really good albums. The first was 1977’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, which was followed by the album this article is about All About Esther Phillips in 1978. Her next album was Here’s Esther, Are You Ready in 1979. The final album released in Esther’s lifetime was A Good Black Is Hard To Crack in 1981. Just before Esther’s death in 1984, she’d just completed recording A Good Way To Sat Goodbye which was released in 1986. 

Sadly, Esther Phillips died in August 1984 from liver and kidney failure, caused by drug use. Johnny Otis, the man who discovered Esther, conducted her funeral service, which was held in Los Angeles. Since Esther’s death, a number of her albums have been released, including All About Esther Phillips, which I’ll now tell you all about.

All About Esther Phillips begins with The Man Ain’t Ready. It starts quickly and brightly with guitars, rhythm and brass section combining, before Esther sings. Her voice as loud and clear, as she sings the lyrics slowly and emotionally. When she sings, it’s apparent she’s about to produce a stunning vocal, one laden with emotion and drama, where she uses her powerful, charismatic voice really well. Behind her, the band match Esther’s performance producing an equally brilliant performance, that mixes jazz, soul and funk. Both rhythm and brass sections help steer the arrangement in a funky direction, but throughout the track, the brass section don’t forget that Esther is a soul singer. They drench her vocal with their beautiful soulful sound, and throughout the track, backing vocalists joyously unite, accompanying Esther. However, as good as the arrangement is, it’s Esther’s vocal that steals the show. It mixes power and passion, and is full of emotion and charisma, as she demonstrates her ability and versatility as a vocalist, using that unique voice brilliantly during this track. 

Native New Yorker is a track originally made famous by Odyssey in 1977, during the disco era, but here Esther sings the track in almost a jazz style, complete with a really full, dramatic arrangement that swings along. It opens with drums pounding, before brass and string section enter, accompanied by guitars and bass. After such a dramatic opening, Esther enters, slowing the song down as she seems to be really taking care with her delivery and diction. Quickly, she unleashes her powerful vocal, really letting her voice soar heavenwards. As she does this, backing vocalists accompany her, as do the brass section, who help to make this one of the best arrangements on the album. Together with the string and rhythm sections, they make it an arrangement that’s dramatic and powerful, yet sometimes lush. Guitars chime brightly, backing vocalists sing sweetly, the brass section interject powerfully, while the strings produce a lovely sweeping lush sound. Together with Esther’s vocal, which veers between dramatic and thoughtful, this is a very different version to Odysseys original. However, although I love the original version, Esther’s version is really good, she manages to almost reinvent the song, bringing new life and drama to the song, and in the process, produces one of the album’s best tracks.

It’s a lovely gentle, lush sound that opens You Think of Her, a track that sweeps into life strings and percussion combining with a bass, before Esther sings. When she sings, she really slows things down, giving a very different type of performance to the previous tracks. Here vocal is much gentler at the start, much more restrained, but still, she demonstrates her power and vocal range, her voice soaring high, powerfully, with backing singers complimenting her voice. Similarly, the arrangement is very different, it’s much more subtle, at the start, with strings playing a big part. Later, like Esther’s vocal, it grows gets much more fuller, heading of into funk territory, with guitars, bass and percussion fulling out the arrangement. Mostly though, it’s a lush, sweeping sound with strings plentiful. This lovely song shows a very different side of Esther, one that’s much more gentle and thoughtful.

There are similarities with the previous track and Pie In the Sky. Both are slower tracks, with lovely gentle introductions, and both contain much gentler vocals from Esther. It’s keyboards, flutes, harp and strings that combine to produce a beautiful, lush sound as the track opens. Then, when Esther sings, her vocal is quieter, gentler and sounds reflective. Behind her, the arrangement meanders along, with keyboards, guitars, brass, string and rhythm sections combining masterfully. Backing vocalists accompany Esther, as flutes, bass and brass sections punctuate the sound, while strings sweep in the background. Later in the track, both the arrangement and Esther’s vocal get stronger and louder. By the end of the track, I realize that this is one of Esther’s best performances on the album, a mixture of restraint, passion and power, which, combined with a fantastic arrangement thanks to producer Wayne Henderson, make this a brilliant track.

After two much slower, thoughtful, tracks, Esther decided to up the tempo and the track bursts into life with brass and rhythm sections and guitars playing. Esther when she sings, gives a much faster and charismatic vocal, that rises and falls, soaring a mixture of power and passion. Throughout the track, the brass section punctuate the track, playing brightly, while a really quick, accurate and funky bass line is played. Harvey Mason’s, drumming as usual, is great, as it is throughout the album. This backdrop of blazing horns, funky bass and chiming guitars is perfect for Esther’s enthusiastic, charismatic vocal, delivered with her unique powerful, rasping vocal. Tracks like this, are a total contrast to the two previous tracks, and demonstrate perfectly, what a versatile vocalist Esther was. She was just as home singing quicker, funkier, tracks as she was singing slower, more thoughtful tracks.

There You Go Again (There She Goes/Stormy Weather) sees Esther deliver a medley of songs, which the first time I heard them, made me wonder just why, was this album not a bigger commercial success, when it featured tracks as good as this. Here, she gets the opportunity to slow things down, and reacquaint the listener with the soulful side of Esther. When the medley begins, Esther just slowly half-sings, half-speaks the vocal to There She Goes, before starts singing the lyrics to Stormy Weather. Here, the tempo is slow, the arrangement subtle and lush, strings, piano and bass accompanying Ester, who is accompanied by backing vocalists, who gently accompany her. When she sings, it’s a heartfelt, emotional outpouring of the lyrics that the listener is privileged to hear. Later, the brass section interject, their contribution subtle, somehow managing to improve the arrangement even further. Strings sweep, their sound lush, as her vocal drops out, while Harvey Mason keeps time, and the horns interject. Then, There You Go Again reenters, flute string, brass and rhythm section playing behind Esther. Together, they produce the perfect backdrop for her vocal. She doesn’t disappoint, keeping up the same emotional, heartfelt and drama laden vocal as before, with the backing vocalists uniting beautifully, the perfect foil for Esther’s vocal. Music has the power to move people. It changes your emotions and moods. Once you hear this track, you too, will be moved, by Esther Phillips’ stunning performance, during the album’s best track.

After such a fantastic track, the problem is, how do you follow it? Here, Esther follows it with Ms., where Esther sings about never having to depend on any man, how she’s independent, not a Mrs or Miss, but a Ms. It begins with guitars, string, rhythm and brass section combining, before a flute plays. When Esther sings, her voice is loud and strong, as she proudly and charismatically, sings the lyrics. Behind her another beautiful arrangement emerges, one which mixes soul and funk. Again, backing singers accompany her, as guitars chime and soar, horns enter, disappear and reappear, as strings sweep, lushly in the background. During the track, Esther almost growls as she sings, her voice veering from a a subdued and gentle, to a proud, loud and powerful vocal. It was always going to be difficult following such a fantastic track as There You Go Again (There She Goes/Stormy Weather), but Ms. was a good attempt. Although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous track, it features both a confident and charismatic vocal from Esther, and a beautiful arrangement.

All About Esther Phillips closes with If I Fall In Love By Morning which begins with guitar, rhythm and brass sections and a hugely powerful and emotional vocal from Esther. It’s a track that is reminiscent of Southern Soul because of the arrangement and vocal. The arrangement is slow, atmospheric and drenched in some beautiful brass playing. Combined with a vocal from Esther that’s heartfelt, emotional and passionate, it brings to mind some of the great Southern Soul that emerged from Memphis in the sixties and seventies. One thing that shouldn’t be underestimated are the lyrics and music, which are written by Otis Blackwell and Jonah Ellis. They’ve written some wonderful lyrics, and Esther sings them brilliantly. In the lyrics she sings about love from a woman’s point of view, and asks whether her partner will respect her in the morning, as they’ve only just met. Personally, this is the perfect song to end the album. It’s a slow song with thoughtful lyrics, that are delivered emotionally and passionately by Esther, and producer Wayne Henderson ensured that the arrangement was sympathetic to Esther’s brilliant vocal.

Over the years, I’ve let a huge number of people hear Esther’s music, and every one of them has loved it, and became a fan of her music. Thankfully, since then, it’s much easier to buy her albums as they’re gradually being reissued. This has stimulated interest in her music. Sadly, a music press that are fixated on rock bands from the sixties and seventies, continue to ignore her music, together with much of soul, funk and jazz music. Even when her albums were reissued recently, the review wasn’t much more than one hundred words. That to me is not only unfair, but makes me wonder what certain music magazines have against certain types of music? However, hopefully having read this article, you’ll know much more about one of soul music’s greatest, yet hugely underrated female vocalists. Esther Phillips recorded about twenty albums, and All About Esther Phillips, was one of her later albums. However, on this album, she sings eight songs brilliantly, and is fortunate to have Wayne Henderson, formerly of The Jazz Crusaders, producing the album. Together with an experienced and hugely talented band, which included drummer Harvey Mason, Henderson brought out the best in Esther, and helped her to recapture former glories. Sadly, the album wasn’t a huge commercial success. It has now been rereleased by soulmusic.com with both You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby and All About Esther Phillips on the same disc. Two other of Esther’s albums Here’s Esther, Are You Ready and Good Black Is Hard To Crack have been released on one disc. If you just want to hear some of her best music from this time, Anthology released by Soul Brother Records is a good introduction to Esther Phillips’ wonderful music. Standout Tracks: Native New Yorker, Pie In the Sky, There You Go Again (There She Goes/Stormy Weather) and If I Fall In Love By Morning.

ESTHER PHILLIPS-ALL ABOUT ESTHER PHILLIPS.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_9f9LieNF4

2 Comments

  1. Good article, very interesting

    • Hi Matt,

      Glad that you liked the article. As you know, Esther Phillips is one of music’s best kept secrets. Hopefully by writing about her and her music, it will find a wider audience.

      Incidentally, there’s a really good CTi Records box set CTi Records: The Cool Revolution. It features some of Esther Phillips’ music.

      I had a look at your website. You’ve some good articles. Good luck with it.

      Regards,
      Derek.

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