ESTHER PHILLIPS-BABY I’M FOR REAL!

ESTHER PHILLIPS-BABY I’M FOR REAL!

Despite releasing eighteen albums during a career that lasted thirty-five years, most people haven’t heard Esther Phillips. That’s a great shame, because they’re as yet, unaware of one of the most talented, versatile and underrated singers of her generation. She possessed a totally unique, voice. During her career,  Esther sang blues, country, jazz, pop and soul music. She was a truly versatile vocalist, whose career recording began at an early age.

Esther’s recording career started in 1950, when aged just fifteen. That’s when she released her debut single Double Crossing Blues. It reached number one in the US R&B Charts. After that, Esther released a number of successful singles, and over a career that spanned four decades, released eighteen albums. Sadly, the story of Esther Phillips doesn’t have a happy ending. In 1984, aged just forty-eight, Esther Phillips died from liver and kidney failure, caused by drug use. That was thirty years ago. Now, gradually, a new audience are discovering the music of Esther Phillips.

That’s partly, because  many of Esther Phillips have recently been reissued. This includes Baby I’m For Real!, which was recently released by Raven Records as a double album. It features four of Esther Phillips’ classic albums From A Whisper To A Scream, Alone Again Naturally, Black-Eyed Blues and Performance. This quartet of albums were recorded during Esther’s time at Kudu/CTI. They’re among the best albums Esther recorded. For anyone yet to discover  Esther Phillips’ music, this is the perfect starting point. 

From A Whisper To A Scream was Esther Phillips’ debut album for Kudu/CTI. It was released in 1972, when Esther was thirty-seven. However, by 1972, she was almost a musical veteran. Her career began back in 1949, when Little Esther Phillip was discovered by Johnny Otis.

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 America. 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. It looked like Esther Phillips was on the verge of commercial success and critical acclaim.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Between 1965 and 1970, Esther released three studio albums. Esther’s Atlantic debut album was And I Love Him. Released in 1965, it failed to chart. This, many people thought was just a blip. That wasn’t the case.

A year later, in 1966, Esther released two albums Esther and The Country Side of Esther Phillips on Atlantic Records. Neither album charted. For Esther, this was a huge disappointment. However, The Country Side of Esther Phillips was the finest album of Esther’s sixteen year recording career.

The Country Side of Esther Phillips.

The Country Side of Esther Phillips was very different to Esther’s previous album. It showcased another side of her music. She was better known for singing soul and R&B. Seamlessly, Esther switched to country music on The Country Side of Esther Phillips. It sounded as if Esther was born to sing country music.

Tracks like I Really Don’t Want To Know, Be Honest With Me,  I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know and No Headstone On My Grave came to life in Esther’s hands. When critics heard The Country Side of Esther Phillips, it was hailed the finest of Esther’s career. However, on its release, The Country Side of Esther Phillips failed to chart. Things weren’t looking good for Esther.

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After 1966, Esther never released another studio album on Atlantic Records. 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 live album Burnin’ which was a recording of a 1969 concert at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper Club. 

Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.) 

Three years after she’d left Atlantic Records, Esther Phillips resigned to Atlantic Records. This was just a short stay though. Esther never entered Atlantic Records’ studio. Instead, she released a live album, Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.).

On Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.), Esther works her way through eight tracks. They’re tailor made for Esther. They showcase her versatility, and her ability to make lyrics come to life. This is apparent from the opening track, a cover of Aretha Franklin and Ted White’s Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream. She follows this up with a heartfelt, soul-baring take on Lennon and McCartney’s And I Love Him. Cry Me A River Blues is transformed, as Esther grabs the song and delivers a vocal powerhouse. There’s no stopping Esther now. Makin’ Whoopee takes on a sassy, jazz-tinged sound, as Esther swings and kicks loose. If It’s The Last Thing I Do features a wistful and pensive Esther. It’s a beautiful  version of this track. The same can be said of Esther’s take on Please Send Me Someone To Love. It sees Esther deliver a needy, hopeful vocal, as her band fuse blues and jazz. That’s the perfect way to close Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.), which was the perfect showcase for Esther Phillips. 

When Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.) was released, it was to critical acclaim and commercial success. It reached number 115 in the US Billboard 200 charts and number seven in the US R&B charts. Ironically, Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.) was Esther Phillips’ Atlantic Records’ swan-song. A new chapter in the Esther Phillips story was about to unfold.

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The following year 1970, the man who originally discovered Esther, Johnny Otis, reentered her life. Esther performed with The Johnny Otis Show at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival. This allowed  Esther’s music to be heard by a much wider audience. Maybe her, luck was changing?

That proved to be the case. In 1971, Esther signed to Kudu/CTI began the most successful period of her career. This started with Esther’s  Kudu/CTI debut was From A Whisper To A Scream.

From A Whisper To A Scream.

By 1971, Esther had been through several labels. She still hadn’t found a label she could call home. That was until 1971, when she signed to Kudu/CTI. Esther was hot property. Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.) showed what she was capable of. The only problem was her private life. If Esther could stay free of drugs, the sky was the limit for her.

People at Kudu/CTI realised this. They knew that Esther was capable of becoming one of the biggest names in soul, jazz and R&B. By 1971, Esther was in a good place. So, great things were expected of Esther Phillips at  Kudu/CTI. Esther began work on her Kudu/CTI debut album From A Whisper To A Scream.

Time was spent choosing songs that suited Esther, and played to her strengths, her inimitable voice. It was a voice that sounded like it lived a thousand lives. This made it perfect for songs like Gil Scott-Heron’s Home Is Where The Hatred Is, Allen Toussaint’s From A Whisper To A Scream and That’s All Right With Me. They were perfect for Esther, they sounded as if they’d been written especially for Esther. Along with six other tracks, they were recorded at  Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, by an all-star band.

Creed Taylor was brought in to produce From A Whisper To A Scream. Pee Wee Ellis arranged the tracks and conduct the band on  From A Whisper To A Scream. The band included  some of the top jazz and funk musicians of the day. This included a rhythm section of drummer Pretty Purdie, bassist Gordon Edwards and guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale. They were joined by organist and pianist Richard Tee and Dick Griffin, who was part of a horn and string section. Along with backing vocalists, they accompanied Esther on From A Whisper To A Scream. It was released in 1972.

On From A Whisper To A Scream’s release, it was critically acclaimed. Esther had picked up where she left off on  Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.). When From A Whisper To A Scream was released, it reached number 137 in the US Billboard 200 and number sixteen on the US R&B charts. Later, From A Whisper To A Scream 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.  This was the start of one of the most successful periods of  Esther Phillips’ career.

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Alone Again, (Naturally). 

Later in 1972, buoyed by the success of From A Whisper To A Scream, Esther released Alone Again, (Naturally). This was her second album for  Kudu/CTI. Again,  Alone Again (Naturally) was produced by Creed Taylor. Again, everything was put in place for Esther. Songs that suited Esther, and a a band of top  musicians accompanied Esther.

Among the songs chosen for Alone Again, (Naturally), were Use Me, where Esther’s at her sassiest. Ballads Let Me In Your Life and I’ve Never Found A Man (To Love Me Like You Do) showcases Esther’s soulful side, allowing her to live lyrics. She sounds as if she’s experienced the loneliness and emotion she sings about. On Alone Again (Naturally), a despondent Esther unleashes a cathartic outpouring of sadness and pain. Then there’s Esther’s cover Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. She gives the song a new twist, before closing Alone Again, (Naturally) with her take on Alone Again, (Naturally). Accompanying her, are a crack band of musicians.

This includes many of the same musicians that featured on From A Whisper To A Scream. This included a drummer Pretty Purdie, bassist Gordon Edwards and guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale. Bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist George Benson were brought onboard. Organist and pianist Richard Tee also returned. He was joined by percussionist Ralph MacDonald and Maceo Parker, who was part of the horn section that featured on Alone Again, (Naturally). It was produced by Creed Taylor, and released later in 1972.

On its release in 1972, Alone Again, (Naturally) was well received by critics.  No wonder. The album featured some of the best musicians of the seventies. They provided the perfect backdrop for Esther. Elements of blues, funk,R&B and soul framed Esther’s vocals, on another critically acclaimed album. It was a commercial success, reaching number 177 in the US Billboard 200 charts and number fifteen in the US R&B charts. Esther Phillips’ career, it seemed, was entering a golden period.

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Black-Eyed Blues,

After releasing two albums in 1972, Esther returned in 1973, with Black-Eyed Blues. It was produced by Creed Taylor, with Pee Wee Ellis arranging and conducting Black-Eyed Blues. Just like Esther’s two previous albums, recording took place at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Black-Eyed Blues only featured six tracks. However, they were a compelling collection of tracks.

Just like her two previous albums, a lot of thought went into the tracks on Black-Eyed Blues. It featured just six tracks. This included Bill Withers’ Justified, Carolyn Plummer’s I’ve Only Known A Stranger, Carolyn Franklin’s and Leonard Feather’s You Could Have Had Me, Baby. The other two tracks were covers of Duke Ellington and Paul Webster’s I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good and Chris Stainton and Joe Cocker’s Black-Eyed Blues. These six tracks were recorded by a new band.

Unlike her two previous albums, Black-Eyed Blues featured a very different band. The rhythm section featured drummer Ian Wallace, guitarist Charlie Brown and bassists Boz and Ron Carter. Pianist Tim Hinkley and percussionist Arthur Jenkins were joined by backing vocalists plus a horn and string section. They accompanied on her third album for Kudu/CTI, Black-Eyed Blues.

When Esther released Black-Eyed Blues in 1973, it was well received by critics. They were won over by this compelling mixture of ballads and uptempo tracks. Esther was at her best laying bare her soul during wistful, heartfelt ballads. Then she kicked loose on the uptempo numbers. Accompanied by a tight, talented band, musical genres melted into one. Jazz, funk, R&B and soul combine throughout Black-Eyed Blues, which reached number seventeen in the US R&B charts. For Esther this was a disappointment.

Ever since the release of  Burnin’ (Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A.), every Esther Phillips’ album entered the US Billboard 200 charts. Not Black-Eyed Blues. Despite its undoubted quality, it seemed to pass many people by. As a result, it’s one of the hidden gems in Esther Phillips’ discography. However, back in 1973, Esther must have wondered if  Black-Eyed Blues failure to enter the US Billboard 200 charts, was merely a blip, or was her luck changing?

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Performance.

After  1974s Performance failed to enter the US Billboard 200 charts, everyone at Kudu/CTI worked towards getting Esther’s career back on track. Producer Creed Taylor, along with associate producers Eugene McDaniels and Pee Wee Ellis, put together an all-star band. They would record seven songs that were chosen carefully. They were tailor made for Esther Phillips.

The seven songs on Performance were a compelling collection of tracks. Esther drops the tempo and delivers a slow, sultry, take on I Feel The Same. The title track Performance, is another slow, melancholy track. It’s also a reminder that Esther was a talented songwriter. Sadly, that’s often overlooked Esther then gets funky and sassy on Doing Our ThingEugene McDaniels’ Disposable Society is another song full of social comment. Esther nails a vocal that slow, feisty and funky. She seems to be relishing the opportunity to reflect on the way society is heading. Living Alone (We’re Gonna Make It) is a beautiful ballad, where Esther is at her melancholy, thoughtful best. Then Esther romps her way through Dr. John’s Such A Night. Living Alone (We’re Gonna Make It) heads in  the direction of gospel. Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s Can’t Trust Your Neighbour With Your Baby oozes social comment, and is a reflection of American society circa 1974. During the seven tracks on Performance, Esther releases a series of vocal masterclasses. She’s helped by an all-star band of session musicians.

This includes a rhythm section of Prety Purdie and Steve Gadd, bassists Gordon Edwards and guitarists Eric Weissberg, Jon Sholle and  Charlie Brown. They’re joined by percussionist Pee Wee Ellis, flautist Hubert Laws and pianists Bob James, Richard Tee and Richard Wyands. Patti Austin and Deniece Williams were among the backing vocalists that joined the string and horn section on Performance. It was released in 1974.

Later in 1974, Performance was released to widespread critical acclaim. Performance featured Esther at her best, as she combined ballads and uptempo tracks. Accompanied by a crack band, Performance was one of Esther’s best albums. Sadly, it stalled at just number forty-six in the US R&B charts. For Esther and everyone at Kudu/CTI, this was hugely disappointing. Performance should’ve fared much better. However, this was a sigh of  the direction Esther Phillips’ career was heading.

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After 1974s Performance, Esther Phillips released three further solo albums on Kudu/CTI. These albums all reached the top forty in the US R&B charts. They didn’t enter the US Billboard 200 charts though.

The first of these three albums was What a Diff’rence a Day Makes. Released in 1975, it reached number thirteen in the US R&B charts. On What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, Esther, like many other soul singers, toyed with disco. She enjoyed a brief dalliance with disco, becoming a strutting disco diva. This resulted in What A Difference A Day Makes, giving Esther a number one single in the disco charts in 1975.  The following year, 1976, was Esther’s final year at Kudu/CTI.

During 1976, Esther released two albums. Capricorn Princess  reached number twenty-three in the US R&B charts. For All We Know was Esther’s Kudu/CTI farewell. It stalled at just number thirty-two in  the US R&B charts. After this, Esther left Kudu/CTI and signed to Mercury Records, where she released four albums.

The first was 1977’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. It was followed byAll 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 Say 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, her albums has been reissued. This includes From A Whisper To A Scream, Alone Again, Naturally, Black-Eyed Blues and Performance. These four albums feature on Baby I’m For Real!, which was recently released by Raven Records. It’s the perfect introduction to one of the most underrated singers of her generation, Esther Phillips.

During a career that lasted thirty-five years, Esther Phillips’ passed most people by. Many music lovers were unaware of one of the most talented, versatile and underrated female vocalists. Esther possessed a totally unique, voice. It was able to breath life, meaning and emotion into lyrics. Whether it was blues, country, jazz, pop, soul or disco, Esther made music come alive. She was a truly versatile vocalist, whose career recording lasted thirty-five years. However, Esther’s career should’ve lasted longer. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

Esther struggled throughout her life with drug addiction. This interrupted Esther’s time at Atlantic Records. As a result,  she never had the opportunity to fulfil her potential. If things had been different, Esther Phillips could’ve and should’ve become one of the most successful singers of her generation. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Esther Phillips died thirty years ago, in 1984. She was just thirty-eight. However, Esther Phillips left behind a rich musical legacy, that includes the four albums that feature onBaby I’m For Real!

ESTHER PHILLIPS-BABY I’M FOR REAL!

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent blog very informative.

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