Having founded Flying Dutchman and Amsterdam labels in 1969, Bob Thiele set about building a roster that encompassed jazz, pop and experimental music. This was Bob’s musical dream. The inspiration for this was Bob’s former employer, ABC Records. They too, had two labels, Impulse and ABC Records. Impulse was a jazz label, while ABC Records released soul and pop music. Soon, two labels became three, when Bob formed a blues label. To the outsider, Bob Thiele was on his way building a mini musical empire. Just like the Roman Empire, it was a case of the rise and fall of Bob Thiele’s musical empire. Now forty years later, Bob Thiele’s musical empire is best remembered for the jazz music Flying Dutchman released.

Back in 1969, when Bob founded Flying Dutchman, he set about establishing an eclectic roster of artists. One of Bob’s first signing was jazz and soul singer Esther Marrow. Esther however, saw herself as just a singer. She didn’t feel her music fitted into any category.

Born in 1941, in Newport News Virginia, Esther Marrow was discovered by Duke Ellington when she was just twenty-two. She made her debut on Duke Ellington’s 1965 Sacred Concert tour. Touring the world, Esther and Duke formed a lifelong friendship.

During the mid-sixties, Esther played an active role in the civil rights movement. Performing on Dr. Martin Luther King’s World Crusade, Esther met her musical hero, Mahalia Jackson. The pair would later share a stage, before Mahaila’s death in 1972. Fittingly, Esther would later become the heir to Mahalia’s crown as Queen of Gospel. Before that, Esther would released her debut album.

Esther signed to Flying Dutchman in 1969. Later that year, Esther Marrow released her debut album Newport News Virginia, which paid homage to her hometown. Featuring eleven songs, Newport News, Virginia which was recently released by BGP Records, introduced the world to Esher Marrow.

For her debut album, eleven songs were chosen. This combination of new songs and cover versions would become Newport News, Virginia. Esther contributed two tracks. She penned He Don’t Appreciate It and cowrote Walk Tall with Joe Zawinul and James Rein. Bob Thiele and George Weiss cowrote Hello Brother and What A Wonderful World, which gave Louis Armstrong the biggest hit single of his career. Other cover versions included Chains Of Love, originally recorded by J.J. Barnes, Chris Smalls’ It’s Been A Long Night and Jesse Stone’s Money Honey. Accompanied by a tight, talented band, and with Bob Thiele producing Newport News, Virginia, Esther made her recording debut. Once Newport News, Virginia was completed, it was ready for release in 1971.

Released in 1971, Newport News, Virginia was well received upon it release. Critics marveled at Esther’s versatility. Veering between jazz, soul, R&B and gospel, critics found it hard to believe that Newport News, Virginia was Esther’s debut album. It was. Sadly, Newport News, Virginia wasn’t a commercial success. Newport News, Virginia was the latest Flying Dutchman album that failed to chart. This wasn’t neither the start Esther nor Bob Thiele envisaged to Esther’s career. After all, given the quality of music on Newport News, Virginia it should’ve been a commercial success? Why was that not the case? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about Newport News, Virginia.

Opening Newport News, Virginia is He Don’t Appreciate It. A dramatic combination of rhythm section, stabs of blazing horns and percussion set the scene for Esther’s vocal. It’s powerful, full of frustration and anger. Propelled along by the bass, horns growl, while woodwind and percussion combine jazz, funk and soul. They provide a dramatic backdrop for Esther, as she vents her frustration and anger at her man, who doesn’t appreciate her.

No Answer Came has a much more understated arrangement. Esther’s vocal is wistful and full of sadness. Accompanied by melancholy strings and flute, emotion fills her vocal. Then keyboards signal a volte face. Her vocal grows in power and emotion, while horns bray, drums pound and strings swirl. Suddenly, the arrangement swings. One thing that doesn’t change, is the hurt, heartbreak and sadness in her vocal. Defiant and frustrated, Esther wonder “why I didn’t get an answer.”

Hello Brother was written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss. Straight away, it starts to swing. Rasping horns and the rhythm section, driven along by the bass accompany Esther’s vocal. It veers between tender and heartfelt, to powerful, dramatic and filled with sincerity.

Jesse Stone’s Money Honey is given a funky makeover by Bob Thiele. To do this, Bob combines the funkiest of rhythm sections, piano and stabs of braying horns. As for Esther’s vocal, it’s one of her best. Here, her vocal is reminiscent of Marlena Shaw at her very best. Indeed, Esther struts her way through the song, her vocal sassy, sensuous and soulful. 

The lushest of strings, melancholy horns and rhythm section set the scene for Esther’s vocal on Peaceful Man. Her vocal’s deliberate and impassioned. Quickly, it grows in strength and emotion. She’s almost pleading as horns growl, drums pound and searing guitars add to the drama. Meanwhile, Esther breathes life and meaning into the lyrics. It’s as if they’re personal, and mean something to her. This is the sign of a good storyteller, someone who brings the lyrics to life, and sets your imagination racing.

Mama written by Sammy Taylor, is an oft-cover classic song. Straight away, you realize Esther’s vocal is filled with hurt and heartbreak. As she unleashes her vocal, it’s h eartfelt and impassioned. Strings sweep, horns growl and drums provide the heartbeat. Having set the scene, Esther delivers a soul-baring version vocal. Her vocal is emotive, you can share and experience her hurt, as she transforms this track, making it her own.

Satisfied allows Esther to demonstrate her versatility. Her vocal’s needy and sassy. Quickly, it grows in power and sass, as she struts her way through the song. Accompanying her, are the rhythm section, meandering flute and blazing horns. They provide the backdrop for Esther, as she unleashes a powerful, sassy vocal.

What A Wonderful World gave Louis Armstrong the biggest hit of his career. Since then, it’s been covered by many artists. Bob Thiele decided that Esther could bring something new to the track. He wasn’t wrong. The song is much slower and much more dramatic, combining pop, jazz, and soul. Blazing horns set the scene, before the rhythm section and guitars accompany Esther. Horns rasp and strings sweep, while Esther vocal is dramatic, deliberate and determined to bring something new to the track. This she does. What she brings to the song is emotion and drama, something other versions of the song lacked.

As horns rasp and blaze, it’s obvious Walk Tall will allow Esther and her band to kick loose. They relish this. While her band provide a funky backdrop, Esther’s feisty, half-spoken vocal is assured and confident. Soon, she’s unleashes a vocal that’s a mixture of controlled power, emotion and soulfulness. Spurred on, her band lift their game. Horns growl, guitars chime and drums pound as Esther vamps her way through what’s one of the highlights of Newport News, Virginia.

It’s Been a Long Night sees a change of style. The arrangement is much more understated and spacious. Esther’s vocal is much tender. Sometimes it’s just a whisper. Percussion, meandering bass and rasping horns accompany her, as her vocal grows in power and emotion. Soon, Esther and her band are kicking loose. She revisits the power and emotion of Walk Tall, while her band produce a suitably dramatic backdrop.

Closing Newport News, Virginia is Chains Of Love. Originally recorded by J.J. Barnes, what was a Northern Soul classic is transformed. Esther delivers it with jazzy swing, allowing her to demonstrate her versatility and full vocal range. Meanwhile, grizzled horns, chiming guitars and rhythm setting provide a dramatic arrangement that fuses jazz, soul, funk and rock. This proves a fitting finale to Esther Marrow’s debut album Newport News, Virginia.

Although Newport News, Virginia, may not have been the most successful debut album in musical history, it launched the career of Esther Marrow, the future Queen Of Gospel. A versatile singer, blessed with a wide vocal range, Esther can transform songs and make them her own. Examples of this are Esther’s soul-baring version of Sammy Taylor’s Mama and What A Wonderful World, where she fused pop, soul and jazz. Best described as a truly eclectic album, Newport News, Virginia veers between funk, jazz, pop, R&B, soul and gospel.  Whether it’s adding soul, or making a song swing Esther does all that and more on Newport News, Virginia. Maybe that was the problem with Newport News, Virginia.

After all, Newport News, Virginia isn’t an album that neatly fits into one musical genre. It’s neither a jazz album nor a soul album. Instead, it’s an album that encompasses musical genres and influences. So marketing Newport News, Virginia wasn’t easy. It couldn’t be marketed as a jazz, soul or funk album. They might enjoy some of the songs, but not all of them. Instead, Newport News, Virginia is a truly eclectic album. Newport News, Virginia would suit people with eclectic musical tastes. Maybe that’s why thirty-two years after its release it’s stood the test of time. A truly timeless album, Newport News, Virginia which was recently released by BGP Records, launched the career of Esther Marrow. Sadly, her career in secular music didn’t last long.

Following the release of 1971s Newport News, Virginia, Esther Marrow released just one more secular album, 1972s Sister Woman. Since then, she’s forsaken secular music and concentrated on gospel music. Gospel music was where Esther Marrow made her name. She became the heir to Mahalia Jackson’s crown. This is fitting, as Esther and Mahalia once shared a stage. Now seventy-two, Esther Marrow tours the world with the Harlem Gospel Singers. Crowned the Queen Of Gospel, Esther Marrow is now into her sixth decade in music. The album which launched the Queen Of Gospel, Esther Marrow was the timeless Newport News, Virginia, a true musical treasure. Standout Tracks: No Answer Came, Peaceful Man. Mama and It’s Been a Long Night.


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