ESTHER PHILLIPS-YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY.

ESTHER PHILLIPS-YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY.

Not only did Esther Phillips have one of the most distinctive voices in music, but she was one of the most versatile vocalists of her generation. Whether it was soul, jazz, blues or even funk or disco, she could handle a song with aplomb, and deliver it with her own unique style. During a recording career that spanned four decades, Esther she recorded twenty studio albums, for labels that included Atlantic,  Kudi and Mercury, where she recorded the album this article is about You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. Sadly, during her career, Esther suffered from drug abuse, which eventually contributed to her death in August 1984, when she died aged just forty-eight. 

By the end of the sixties, Esther’s music had fallen out of favour. She’d recorded at total of five albums for Atlantic, during two periods with the label. Only her 1970 live album Burnin’, released during her second period with Atlantic charted, reaching number seven in the US R&B Charts. After leaving Atlantic for the second time, Esther would record for Kudi where she’d experience an upturn in her fortunes, and record some of the best and most successful music of her career.

Between 1970 and 1976, there was a resurgence in Esther’s career when she recorded some of her best and most commercially successful work for the Kudi label. Albums like 1972s From A Whisper To A Scream and Alone Again (Naturally), 1974s Black Eyed Blues and What A Difference A Day Makes in 1975, saw Esther’s music reach the top twenty in the US R&B Charts, becoming the most successful period of her career. After leaving Kudi, Esther recorded four albums for Mercury, which although they feature some great music, weren’t as commercially successful as the music she recorded for Kudi. 

The first of four albums Esther recorded for Mercury was You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, which was released in 1977. Although the music on the album was different to that of the last couple of albums she’d recorded for Kudi, one constant was arranger and producer Alfred Pee Wee Ellis. He’d previously, arranged Esther’s debut album for Kudu, From A Whisper To A Scream and played on two tracks on her final Kudu album Capricorn Princess. With Alfred arranging and producing Esther’s debut for Mercury, Esther, Alfred and her band headed to The Hit Factory, in New York. Among the musicians that played on You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, were drummer Harvey Mason, whose distinctive drum sound features on so many albums of this time. Along with bassist Nathan Phillips a tight and experienced rhythm section born, and joined by a horn and string section. With the rest of the band, nine tracks were recorded. These were a mixture of uptempo, disco style tracks and beautiful ballads. One of the ballads was In A Soft and Subtle Way, while Somewhere Along the Way, co-written by Dinah Washington with Walter Merrick has a lovely bluesy style. On the album were cover versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein If I Loved You and Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic. You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby truly was an album full of variety, with something for everyone. 

When You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby was released, it failed to chart and neither did the single Love Addict. This must have come as a huge disappointment to everyone involved, given the standard of music on the album. Sadly when Esther released her other three albums for Mercury neither 1978s All About Esther nor 1981s Good Black Is Hard To Crack charted. Only 1979s Here’s Esther, Are You Ready charted, reaching just number forty-seven in the US R&B Charts. After the commercial success of her albums for the Kudi label, it seemed that Esther couldn’t replicate this success for Mercury. Why is that? That’s what I hope to discover when I review You’ve Come A Long Way.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby opens the only single released from the album Love Addict, co-written by Denise La Salle and James Wolfe. Straight away, when the track opens a punchy rhythm section, guitars, keyboards and blazing horns accompany Esther, whose voice is laced with humor as he delivers the lyrics about being a love addict. Later strings sweep in joining the arrangement, helping the track to swing along. With chiming guitars, swirling strings and braying horns combining with the tight but punchy, rhythm section and Esther accompanied by backing vocalists, a hugely catchy, hooky track unfolds that sounds great.

After such a great opening track, the quality continues on You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon, a much slower track. Chiming guitars and piano open the track, before Esther’s sultry, bluesy vocal enters. Esther interprets the song that Bessie Smith cowrote with John Henry, Perry Bradford and Stuart Balbomb, thoughtfully, while an organ adds a atmospheric sound. This track perfectly suits Esther’s voice, with her delivers of the lyrics in a slow, dramatic bluesy style quite beautiful,especially with the piano and guitar playing such an important role in the track.

If I Loved You is an uptempo, almost disco version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, with the piano, rhythm section and guitar combining, before Esther’s sassy vocal enters. As the arrangement sweeps along, with strings playing an important role in the track with the rhythm section and piano. Later in the track, the band combine jazz and funk, before driving the track along in a dance-floor friendly direction. By the end of the track, you realize that you’ve just heard Rodgers and Hammerstein arranged and sung in a way you’d never, ever have imagined. Although it sounds a good enough track, to me it just doesn’t quite work, the song neither suiting the arrangement, nor Esther’s vocal style

When the jazzy Somewhere Down the Line opens, a piano meanders beautifully along before Esther’s vocal enters. She delivers the song with a lovely jazzy style bringing to life Dinah Washington with Walter Merrick’s lyrics. Rasping horns enter later, adding to the song’s beauty, and not spoiling the understated quality of the arrangement. This song is much more suited to Esther’s voice, and her delivery of the lyrics is not only quite beautiful, but subtle and thoughtful, resulting in the best track on the album.

In A Soft and Subtle Way is by far the fastest song on the album, and sees a combination of tinkling keyboards, thoughtful rhythm section and gently, chiming guitars accompanying a restrained and subtle vocal from Esther. As the song meanders and floats along gentle, backing vocalists accompany Esther, before rasping horns enter. By then the track quickens, guitars chiming and shimmering, combining with keyboards and the rhythm section while horns punctuate the track, and Esther’s vocal occasionally grows in strength. However, mostly, her vocal has a subtlety and restrained delivered against a beautiful meandering arrangement from Alfred Pee Wee Ellis.

Unselfish Love bursts into life with swirling strings, a driving rhythm section and blazing horns accompanying Esther’s emotive and powerful vocal. Backing vocalists accompany her throughout this fast, furious and driving track. With horns braying, lush strings sweeping and swirling and flourishes of piano all playing important roles in the arrangement, this provides the perfect backdrop for Esther to be transformed into a disco diva. With the help of her backing vocalists, swathes of strings and blazing horns, this transformation is soon complete on what’s a hugely, catchy and great sounding, driving track.

During I’ve Never Been A Woman Before Esther ad-libs her way through the song, turning back the clock to remember her younger days and her first love, against a backdrop of soaring, chiming guitars and rhythm guitars. The track has a spacious sound, the band playing around and above Esther’s vocal as the song gradually reveals itself. Her half-spoken vocal gives way to a heartfelt delivery of the lyrics that sees keyboards join the guitars and rhythm section as Esther sings about her love for partner. Her voice soars, full of emotion, while the arrangement meanders along slowly. The interplay between Esther and the band works really well, they provide the perfect backdrop for her vocal to take centre-stage and shine during a heartfelt, emotive delivery of Ron Miller and Tom Baird’s lyrics. The result is one of the album’s highlights.

Demonstrating the sheer variety of music on the album is a cover version of Van Morrison’s Into the Music. It’s a very different version of the track, delivered thoughtfully by Esther, against a backdrop of slow, lush strings, blazing horns, chiming guitars and rhythm section. Although the arrangement stays true to parts of the original track, the two vocal styles are very different. Here, the arrangement veers between a slow, gentle style, to brief bursts of drama, while Esther’s sultry, searing vocal reinterpreting the track sympathetically. She doesn’t resort to any dramatics or theatricals, instead, giving an interesting and sometimes poignant and slightly jazzy delivery of Van Morrison’s track.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby closes with My Prayer. This isn’t the original track that was on the album, instead, it’s a nine minute extended version. When the track opens, a funk drenched rhythm section and guitars drive the track quickly along. Against fast drumbeats, a lilting, gentle vocal from Esther is joined by subtle, strings and rasping horns. A rock style guitar plays a prolonged solo when Esther’s vocal drops out, but is replaced by horns, strings and rhythm section when Esther’s vocal returns. Over nine minutes, this really catchy song sweeps along, with Esther’s voice growing in power. With backing vocalists accompanying her, this fast disco track sweeps brilliantly along, and by the end of the nine minutes you’re not only left with a smile on your face, but you want to hear more of its catchy, hook laden sound.

Like All About Esther, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby is an album full of some great music. Sadly, it failed to match the commercial success of the albums Esther Phillips released for Kudi Records. With Alfred Pee Wee Ellis arranging and producing the album, and a talented group of musicians backing Esther, there was nothing wrong with the quality of music on the album. There’s everything from blues and jazz to ballads and disco on the album, even a cover of a Van Morrison track. Maybe the sheer variety of music on the album was part of the problem, because who was the album aimed at? Usually an artists can be categorized as a jazz, soul or blues singer, but here, Esther was trying to appeal to a number of different types of record buyer. The problem was though, if you’re a jazz fan, would you buy an album that only had a couple of jazzy tracks on it, especially when there was several disco tracks. Maybe the answer would’ve been to record an album of say jazz tracks, and appeal to fans of jazz music. After all, how many music fans have eclectic tastes that range from jazz, blues and disco? Regardless of why the album wasn’t a commercial success, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby is still a great album, albeit one of the underrated Esther Phillips albums. Now it had been rereleased by soulmusic.com as part of a two albums on one disc series, with another disc featuring Here’s Esther, Are You Ready and Good Black Is Hard To Crack. This allows anyone who never heard these albums the first time round, to hear the majestic music of one of the most talented and versatile vocalists in the history of music, Esther Phillips. Standout Tracks: You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon, Somewhere Down the Line, In A Soft and Subtle Way and I’ve Never Been A Woman Before.

ESTHER PHILLIPS-YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY.

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