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, United States
Died August 7, 1984(1984-08-07) (aged 48)
Carson, California, United States
Genres Pop
Occupation(s) Vocalist
Years active 1950s–1984
Labels Atlantic

Esther Phillips (December 23, 1935 – August 7, 1984)[1] was an American singer. Phillips was known for her R&B vocals,[2] but she was a versatile singer, also performing pop, country, jazz, blues and soul music.


Early life[edit]

Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas. When she was an adolescent, her parents divorced, and she was forced to divide her time between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Because she was brought up singing in church, she was hesitant to enter a talent contest at a local blues club, but her sister insisted and she complied. 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 Phillips" (she reportedly took the surname from a gas station sign).[3]

Early career[edit]

Her first hit record was "Double Crossing Blues", recorded in 1950 for Savoy Records. After several hit records with Savoy, including her duet with Mel Walker on "Mistrusting Blues", which went to number one that year, as did "Cupid Boogie". Other Phillips records that made it onto the U.S. Billboard R&B chart in 1950 include "Misery" (number 9), "Deceivin' Blues" (number 4), "Wedding Boogie" (number 6), and "Faraway Blues" (number 6). Few female artists, R&B or otherwise, had ever enjoyed 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. Although she recorded more than thirty sides for Federal, only one, "Ring-a-Ding-Doo", charted; the song made it to number 8 in 1952. Not working with Otis was part of her problem; the other part was her drug usage. By the middle of the decade Phillips was chronically addicted to drugs.[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 to recuperate. Short on money, she worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, Kentucky, stemming from her addiction. In 1962, Kenny Rogers re-discovered her while singing at a Houston club and got her signed to his brother Leland’s Lenox label.


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

She had other hits in the 1960s on the label, such as the critically acclaimed Jimmy Radcliffe song "Try Me" (YouTube video) that featured the saxophone work of King Curtis and is often mistakenly credited as the James Brown song of the same title, but no more chart toppers, and she waged a battle with heroin dependence. With her addiction worsening, Phillips checked into a rehab facility where she met fellow vocalist Sam Fletcher. While undergoing treatment, she cut some sides for Roulette in 1969, mostly produced by Leland Rogers. On her release, she moved back to Los Angeles and re-signed with the Atlantic label. Her friendship with Sam Fletcher resulted in a late 1969 gig at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club that 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 in 1972 with her first album for Kudu Records. The song penned by Gil Scott-Heron, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" - an account of drug use — was the lead track on From a Whisper to a Scream, which went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award. When Phillips lost to Aretha Franklin, the latter presented the trophy to Phillips, saying she should have won it instead.[6]

In 1975, she scored her biggest hit single since "Release Me" with a disco-style update of Dinah Washington's "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes". It reached a high of a Top 20 chart appearance in the U.S., and Top 10 in the UK Singles Chart.[7] On November 8, 1975 she performed the song on an episode of NBC's Saturday Night (Now 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, and Randy Brecker on trumpet to Steve Khan on guitar and Don Grolnick on keyboards.

She continued to record and perform throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, completing a total of seven albums on Kudu and four with Mercury Records, for whom she signed in 1977. In 1983, she charted for the final time on a tiny independent label, winning with "Turn Me Out," which reached No. 85 R&B. She completed recording her final album a few months before her death, but it was not until 1986 that the label (Muse) released the record.


Phillips died at UCLA Medical Center in Carson, California in 1984, at the age of 48 from liver and kidney failure due to drug use.[8] Her funeral services were conducted by Johnny Otis.[6] She was buried in the Morning Light section at Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. The bronze marker recognizes her career achievements, as well as quoting a Bible passage: "In My Father's House Are Many Mansions" - St. John 14:2

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[edit]

Phillips has been twice nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and 1987 without getting in.[9]

Grammy nominations[edit]

  • Career Nominations: 4[10]
Esther Phillips Grammy Award History
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



Year Title Label Billboard Chart[11]
1951 Hollerin' and Screaming Yorkshire
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) 7
1972 From a Whisper to a Scream Kudu/CTI 16
Alone Again (Naturally) Kudu/CTI 15
1974 Black-Eyed Blues 15
1975 Performance 27
Esther Phillips and Joe Beck 3
What a Diff'rence a Day Makes Kudu/CTI 13
1976* Capricorn Princess Kudu/CTI 23
Confessin' the Blues* Atlantic* (1966/70)[12] 26
For All We Know Kudu/CTI 32
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


Year Single Chart positions
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

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

All Little Esther Federal singles 1951–1953[edit]

(All released on 45 rpm and 78 rpm records)


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"


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)


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 defunct Federal Records log books which I copied decades ago)I?




  1. ^ a b Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 425. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  2. ^ a b Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, p. 376 (2001) - ISBN 0-14-015939-8
  3. ^ Freeland, David. Ladies of Soul, University Press of Mississippi, p. xxiii (2001) - ISBN 1-57806-331-0
  4. ^ Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, p. 3246 (1995) - ISBN 1-56159-176-9
  5. ^ Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. The Beatles Anthology By Beatles, Chronicle Books, p. 196 (2000) - ISBN 0-8118-2684-8
  6. ^ a b O'Neal, Jim. The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews from Living Blues Magazine, Routledge, p. 376 (2002) - 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. ^ "Complete list of nominees and inductees to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame". 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  10. ^ "The Envelope, Awards Database". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times Magazine. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  11. ^ Steve Huey. "Esther Phillips biography". All Music. Rovi Corp. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  12. ^ The dates for this album are wrong for the most part on the web and on LPs. The original recording dates for this are 1966 and 1970 and then the album was re-issued in 1976 under the 1966 title. There are personnel on the album who were not alive any lopnger in 1976, the LP could not have been recorded that late.
  13. ^ "Full cast and crew for The Music of Lennon & McCartney (1965)". Internet Movie Data base., Inc. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  14. ^ "Biography for Little Esther Phillips". Internet Movie Data base., Inc. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 

External links[edit]