Born: December 23, 1935 | Died: August 7, 1984 Primary Instrument: Vocal
The late Esther Phillips unquestionably falls into the realm of great singers who never received recognition for what was a lifelong contribution to contemporary music.
Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, she began singing in church as a young child. When her parents divorced, she divided time between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles, in 1949, that her sister entered her in a talent show at a nightclub belonging to blues man Johnny Otis. So impressed was Otis with the 13-year-old that he brought her into the studio for a recording session with Modern Records and added her to his live revue. Billed as Little Esther, she scored her first success when she was teamed with the vocal quartet the Robins (who later evolved into the Coasters) on the hit single Double Crossin' Blues.”
It topped the R&B charts in early 1950 and paved the way for Mistrustin' Blues, Misery, Cupid Boogie, and Deceivin' Blues. In 1951, Little Esther and Otis had a falling out, reportedly over money, which led to her departure from his show, In 1954, she returned to Houston to live with her father, having experimented with hard drugs developing a definite addiction to heroin. Short on money, Little Esther worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, Kentucky, stemming from her addiction.
In 1962, Kenny Rogers got her signed to his brother’s Lenox label rediscovering her while singing at a Houston club. She re-christened herself Esther Phillips, choosing her last name from a nearby Phillips gas station. Phillips recorded a country-soul rendition of the soon-to-be standard Release Me, which was a smash, topping the R&B charts and hitting the Top Ten on both the pop and country charts. Back in the public eye, Phillips recorded a country-soul album of the same name, but Lenox went bankrupt in 1963. Thanks to her recent success, Phillips was able to catch on with R&B giant Atlantic.
Her remake of the Beatles song And I Love Him (naturally, with the gender changed) nearly made the R&B Top Ten in 1965 and the Beatles flew her to the U. K. for her first overseas performances. Encouraged, Atlantic pushed her into even jazzier territory for her next album, but none of the resulting singles really caught on and the label dropped her in late 1967. With her addiction worsening, Phillips checked into a rehab facility; while undergoing treatment, she cut some sides for Roulette in 1969 and upon her release, she moved to Los Angeles and re-signed with Atlantic.
In 1971, she signed with producer Creed Taylor's Kudu label, a subsidiary of his hugely successful jazz-fusion imprint CTI. Her label debut, “From a Whisper to a Scream”, was released in 1972 to strong sales and highly positive reviews, particularly for her performance of Gil Scott-Heron's wrenching heroin-addiction tale Home Is Where the Hatred Is. Phillips recorded several more albums for Kudu over the next few years and enjoyed some of the most prolonged popularity of her career, performing in high-profile venues and numerous international jazz festivals.
In 1975, she scored her biggest hit single since Release Me with What a Diff’rence a Day Makes (Top Ten R&B, Top 20 pop), and the accompanying album of the same name became her biggest seller yet. She did some great performances in this period with Pee Wee Ellis as her musical director of a top tier band. In 1977, Phillips left Kudu for Mercury, but none matched the commercial success of her Kudu output and after 1981’s “A Good Black Is Hard to Crack,” she found herself without a record deal.
Esther Phillips was the embodiment of a soulful R&B singer; performing was the only endeavor she undertook in life, and she revealed it all in her songs. She died in Los Angeles on August 7, 1984, of liver and kidney failure.
Source: James Nadal