Esther Phillips

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"Little Esther" redirects here. For the American stand-up comedian, actress and podcast host, see Esther Povitsky.
Esther Phillips
Esther Phillips 1976.png
Phillips in 1976
Background information
Birth name Esther Mae Jones
Also known as Little Esther Phillips
Born (1935-12-23)December 23, 1935
Galveston, Texas, US
Died August 7, 1984(1984-08-07) (aged 48)
Carson, California, US
Genres R&B, blues, pop, country, jazz, soul
Occupation(s) Vocalist
Years active 1950s–1984
Labels Atlantic, Kudu, Mercury, Lenox

Esther Phillips (born Esther Mae Jones; December 23, 1935 – August 7, 1984)[1] was an American singer, best known for her R&B vocals.[2] She was a versatile singer and also performed pop, country, jazz, blues and soul music.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

She was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas. Her parents divorced when she was an adolescent, and she divided her time between her father, in Houston, and her mother, in the Watts section of Los Angeles. She was brought up singing in church and was reluctant to enter a talent contest at a local blues club, but her sister insisted. A mature singer at the age of 14, she won the amateur talent contest in 1949 at the Barrelhouse Club, owned by Johnny Otis. Otis was so impressed that he recorded her for Modern Records and added her to his traveling revue, the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, billed as Little Esther. She later took the surname Phillips, reportedly inspired by a sign at a gas station.[3]

Early career[edit]

Her first hit record was "Double Crossing Blues", with the Johnny Otis Quintette and the Robins (a vocal group), released in 1950 by Savoy Records, which reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. She made several hit records for Savoy with the Johnny Otis Orchestra, including "Mistrusting Blues" (a duet with Mel Walker) and "Cupid's Boogie", both of which also went to number 1 that year. Four more of her records made the Top 10 in the same year: "Misery" (number 9), "Deceivin' Blues" (number 4), "Wedding Boogie" (number 6), and "Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)" (number 6). Few female artists performing in any genre had such success in their debut year.[2]

Phillips left Otis and the Savoy label at the end of 1950 and signed with Federal Records. But just as quickly as the hits had started, they stopped. She recorded more than thirty sides for Federal, but only one, "Ring-a-Ding-Doo", made the charts, reaching number 8 in 1952. Not working with Otis was part of her problem; the other part was her deepening dependence on heroin, to which she was addicted by the middle of the decade.[4] Being in the same room when Johnny Ace shot himself (accidentally) on Christmas Day, 1954, while in-between shows in Houston, did not help matters.

In 1954, she returned to Houston to live with her father and recuperate. Short on money, she worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, Kentucky, to treat her addiction. In 1962, Kenny Rogers discovered her singing at a Houston club and helped her get a contract with Lenox Records, owned by his brother Lelan.

Comeback[edit]

Phillips eventually recovered enough to launch a comeback in 1962. Now billed as Esther Phillips instead of Little Esther, she recorded a country tune, "Release Me", with the producer Bob Gans. This went to number 1 on the R&B chart and number 8 on the pop chart. After several other minor R&B hits for Lenox, she was signed by Atlantic Records. Her cover of the Beatles' song "And I Love Him" nearly made the R&B Top 10 in 1965. The Beatles flew her to the UK for her first overseas performances.[5]

She had other hits in the 1960s for Atlantic, such as the critically acclaimed Jimmy Radcliffe song "Try Me" (YouTube video), which featured a saxophone part by King Curtis (and is often mistakenly credited as the James Brown song of the same title), but she had no more chart-toppers. Her heroin dependence worsened, and she checked into a rehabilitation facility. There she met the singer Sam Fletcher. While undergoing treatment, she recorded some sides for Roulette in 1969, mostly produced by Lelan Rogers. On her release, she moved back to Los Angeles and re-signed with Atlantic. Her friendship with Fletcher resulted in an engagement at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club in late 1969, which produced the album Burnin'. She performed with the Johnny Otis Show at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970.

The 1970s[edit]

One of her biggest post-1950s triumphs was her first album for Kudu Records, From a Whisper to a Scream, in 1972. The lead track, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is", an account of drug use written by Gil Scott-Heron, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Phillips lost to Aretha Franklin, but Franklin presented the trophy to her, saying she should have won it instead.[6]

In 1975, she released a disco-style update of Dinah Washington's "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes", her biggest hit single since "Release Me". It reached the Top 20 in the United States and the Top 10 in the UK Singles Chart.[7] On November 8, 1975, she performed the song on an episode of NBC's Saturday Night (later called Saturday Night Live) hosted by Candice Bergen. The accompanying album of the same name became her biggest seller yet, with arranger Joe Beck on guitar, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, David Sanborn on alto sax, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Steve Khan on guitar and Don Grolnick on keyboards.

She continued to record and perform throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, completing seven albums for Kudu and four for Mercury Records, which signed her in 1977. In 1983, she charted for the final time with "Turn Me Out", recorded for Muse, a small independent label, which reached number 85 on the R&B chart. She completed recording her final album a few months before her death; it was released by Muse in 1986.

Death[edit]

Phillips died at UCLA Medical Center in Carson, California, in 1984, at the age of 48, from liver and kidney failure due to long-term drug abuse.[8] Her funeral services were conducted by Johnny Otis.[6] Originally buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Lincoln Memorial Park in Compton,[9] she was reinterred in 1985 in the Morning Light section at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, in Los Angeles. A bronze marker recognizes her career achievements and quotes a Bible passage: "In My Father's House Are Many Mansions" (John 14:2).

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[edit]

Phillips was twice nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986 and 1987, but was not inducted.[10]

Grammy nominations[edit]

Esther Phillips Grammy Award History[11]
Year Category Title Genre Label Result
1970 Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female "Set Me Free" R&B Atlantic Nominee
1972 Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female "From a Whisper to a Scream" R&B Kudu/CTI Nominee
1973 Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female "Alone Again (Naturally)" R&B Kudu/CTI Nominee
1975 Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" R&B Kudu/CTI Nominee

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

Year Title Label US
[12]
US
Jazz
[13]
US
R&B
[14]
1963 Release Me Lenox 46
1965 And I Love Him! Atlantic
1966 Esther Phillips Sings
The Country Side of Esther
1970 Live at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper
Burnin' (Live) 115 12 7
1972 From a Whisper to a Scream Kudu/CTI 137 16
Alone Again (Naturally) Kudu/CTI 177 15 26
1974 Black-Eyed Blues 15 17
1975 Performance 27 46
Esther Phillips and Joe Beck 3
What a Diff'rence a Day Makes Kudu/CTI 32 13
1976* Capricorn Princess Kudu/CTI 155 23 40
Confessin' the Blues* Atlantic* (1966, 1970)[15] 170 26 35
For All We Know Kudu/CTI 32 33
1977 You've Come a Long Way, Baby Mercury
1978 All About Esther
1979 Here's Esther, Are You Ready 47
1981 Good Black Is Hard to Crack
1986 A Way to Say Goodbye Muse

Singles[edit]

Year Single Chart positions
US US
R&B
US
AC
UK
[1]
1950 "Double Crossing Blues"* 1
"Mistrusting Blues"* 1
"Misery"* 9
"Cupid's Boogie"* 1
"Deceivin' Blues"* 4
"Wedding Boogie"* 6
"Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)"* 6
1952 "Ring-a-Ding-Doo" 8
1962 "Release Me" 8 1
1963 "I Really Don't Want to Know" 61
"Am I That Easy to Forget" 112
"You Never Miss Your Water (Til the Well Runs Dry)"** 73
"If You Want It (I've Got It)"** 129
1964 "Hello Walls" 36
1965 "And I Love Him" 54 11 14
"Moonglow and Theme from Picnic" 115 28
"Let Me Know When It's Over" 129
1966 "When a Woman Loves a Man" 73 26
1969 "Too Late to Worry, Too Blue to Cry" 121 35
1970 "Set Me Free" 118 39
1972 "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" 122 40
"Baby, I'm for Real" 38
"I've Never Found a Man (To Love Me Like You Do)" 106 17
1975 "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes"*** 20 10 29 6
1976 "For All We Know" 98
1983 "Turn Me Out" 85

Notes: *With the Johnny Otis Orchestra. **With Big Al Downing. ***"What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" also reached number 2 on the US Dance chart. Another two-sided single, "Magic's In the Air" / "Boy I Really Tied One On", peaked at number 5 on the same chart in 1976.

Complete singles for Federal, 1951–1953[edit]

All released on 45- and 78-rpm records

1951

Federal 12016, "The Deacon Moves In" (with the Dominoes) / "Other Lips, Other Arms"
Federal 12023, "I'm a Bad, Bad Girl" / "Don't Make a Fool Out of Me"
Federal 12036, "Lookin' for a Man to Satisfy My Soul" / "Heart to Heart" (with The Dominoes)
Federal 12042, "Cryin' and Singin' the Blues" / "Tell Him That I Need Him"

1952

Federal 12055, "Ring-a-Ding-Doo" (with Bobby Nunn) / "The Cryin' Blues"
Federal 12063, "Summertime" / "The Storm"
Federal 12065, "Better Beware" / "I'll Be There"
Federal 12078, "Aged and Mellow" / "Bring My Lovin' Back to Me"
Federal 12090, "Ramblin' Blues" / "Somebody New"
Federal 12100, "Mainliner" (with 4 Jacks) / "Saturday Night Daddy" (with Bobby Nunn)

1953

Federal 12108, "Last Laugh Blues" (with Little Willie Littlefield) / "Flesh, Blood and Bones"
Federal 12115, "Turn The Lamp Down Low" (with Little Willie Littlefield) / "Hollerin' and Screamin'"
Federal 12122, "You Took My Love Too Fast" (with Bobby Nunn) / "Street Lights"
Federal 12126, "Hound Dog" / "Sweet Lips"
Federal 12142, "Cherry Wine" / "Love Oh Love"

Taken from the original logbooks of the defunct Federal Records, which I copied decades ago.I?

Filmography[edit]

Television

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records. p. 425. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  2. ^ a b Santelli, Robert (2001). The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Penguin Books. p. 376. ISBN 0-14-015939-8.
  3. ^ Freeland, David (2001). Ladies of Soul. University Press of Mississippi. p. xxiii. ISBN 1-57806-331-0.
  4. ^ Larkin, Colin (1995). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. p. 3246. ISBN 1-56159-176-9.
  5. ^ McCartney, Paul; Lennon, John; Harrison, George; Starr, Ringo (2000). The Beatles Anthology by Beatles. Chronicle Books. p. 196. ISBN 0-8118-2684-8.
  6. ^ a b O'Neal, Jim; van Singel, Amy (eds.) (2002). The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews from Living Blues Magazine. Routledge. p. 376. ISBN 0-415-93653-5.
  7. ^ Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness. p. 3247.
  8. ^ "Blues Singer Esther Phillips Dead at 48", Baltimore Afro-American, August 4, 1984.
  9. ^ "Esther Phillips' Remains Reinterred At Forest Lawn", Jet, September 2, 1985.
  10. ^ "Complete List of Nominees and Inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame". 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2012. 
  11. ^ "The Envelope, Awards Database". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times Magazine. Retrieved July 7, 2012. 
  12. ^ Steve Huey. "Esther Phillips biography". All Music. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 7, 2012. 
  13. ^ Steve Huey. "Esther Phillips biography". All Music. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 7, 2012. 
  14. ^ Steve Huey. "Esther Phillips biography". All Music. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 7, 2012. 
  15. ^ The wrong date is often given for this album, on the Internet and on LPs. The original recording dates were in 1966 and 1970. The album was reissued in 1976 under the 1966 title. Some of the personnel on the album were no longer alive in 1976, so the album could not have been recorded that late.
  16. ^ "Full cast and crew for The Music of Lennon & McCartney (1965)". Internet Movie Data base. IMDb.com, Inc. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  17. ^ "Biography for Little Esther Phillips". Internet Movie Data base. IMDb.com, Inc. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 

External links[edit]