My Queen. Why I love Esther Phillips.
I first heard of Esther Phillips courtesy of my Dad’s record collection – he had some of her early 1950s rhythm and blues cuts on some compilations. Once I discovered her sixties and seventies catalogue however I was hooked. There’s something about her phrasing, delivery and attitude that has moved me so many times. She never composed but she didn’t need to. She had a way of interpretation like no other.
“I sing about things that first of all that I can relate to. And then I sing the things that most women can relate to because women can’t say what they really want to say – so when they get mad at their man they put my record on”
It is hard to find much information on the woman born Esther Mae Jones in 1935. There is a stock standard biography floating around that is repeated on many music websites. They all describe her beginnings as ‘Little Esther’, a 14 year old girl who won a talent show in 1949 and went on to tour with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. Her first year as a professional singer saw her hit number one in the US with hits “Double Crossing Blues” and “Cupid Boogie” for the Savoy label. After years of touring with Otis, she famously became Esther Phillips (apparently re-naming herself Phillips after a nearby petrol station) and branched out as a solo artist, hitting number one again with ‘Release Me’ on the Lenox label. She went on to record for the Atlantic, Kudu and Mercury imprints throughout the sixties and seventies creating a stunning cross over discography spanning sweet sounding soul, country, Beatles covers, big band swing, funk, jazz and disco. What I love about Esther is her bold creative choices, fighting spirit and incredible way of making each song her own.
“I sing the way that I feel and the way that I think”
Unfortunately like her friend Etta James and her idol Billie Holiday, Esther suffered from heroin addiction, which ultimately led to her premature death in 1984 at age 48. This sadly dominates a lot of the biography information you can find on Esther. We know her addiction created years of problems with her career as she was in and out of rehab and incapable of touring and recording and different times in her life. There is little information about Esther the woman, her personal life, family or lovers. I did however strike gold finding an incredible long form radio interview with professor and author Angela Davis from 1977 in San Francisco as part of a series titles ‘Blues Legacy and Black Feminism’ available via Pacifica radio archives. This interview is extremely rare for the era as it allowed Esther to open up and speak freely about her music and experiences. Esther touches on her struggles with racism and sexism as a black American woman and doesn’t hold back with her responses. Throughout the interview she talked about how she set up her own production company and how much she wanted to sign and help young new talent. She reminisces about how she bought her mother a house when she was seventeen so her mum could stop doing her cleaning jobs however paying a mortgage as a seventeen year old was a huge financial stress. She goes on to imply that the stress of the industry, her move to New York asa teenager on her own and impending financial strain led her to her problems with drugs. It is an interview well worth listening to. Check it out here.
“There’s never anything in your album liner notes about you” – Angela Davis
“Yes that’s true, I cut out the liner notes, they talk about the same old thing all the time.., I’m a private person and being involved in drugs [in the past] people always hold that against me and that makes me withdraw and just focus on the music. It’s my life, whatever I choose to do with that it’s my business.” – Esther Phillips.
Nominated for a Grammy award four times during her career, Esther never won a trophy. However when her incredible jazz funk album ‘From A Whisper To A Scream’ was nominated for a Grammy award in 1972 and lost to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’ album, Franklin handed her trophy to Phillips, saying she deserved it more. I adore this story. It says so much about Aretha Franklin, the friendship and sisterhood between soul vocalists and the respect that fellow musicians had for such an under recognized artist. I find it incredibly heart warming.
Esther was a feminist, a strong believer in equal rights and a loyal friend.
“..it’s a trip because when you get with your man you can’t be too weak but you can’t be too strong. So I really don’t know what you’re supposed to be. Because if you weren’t strong in the first place they wouldn’t have paid any attention to you in the first place so I don’t understand what’s going on.. it’s a real dilemma”.
In Etta James’s autobiography ‘ Rage To Survive’ Etta describes how Esther Phillips got Etta back on the live circuit. Etta had been in and out of jail and rehab and hadn’t performed for over seven years until Esther called her up and booked her a residency club show in L.A, rebooting Etta’s career and enabling her to clean up her drug addiction and start recording again. Subsequently Etta James wrote a letter to the Olympic Games council asking to perform at the L.A Olympic games opening ceremony in 1984 and managed to get the world televised gig. The story goes that when Esther Phillips was enduring her last days before her death she watched Etta’s Olympic performance on her hospital television pointing at the screen telling the nurses ‘that’s my friend Etta James’.
I sincerely hope someone writes a book about Esther. She certainly deserves one. She says in her interview with Angela Davis that she wanted to write a book about her life, which sadly she never got to do. (If no one writes one I might just research and write one myself!) She also hoped someone would do a movie about her and talks quite passionately in the interview that she felt the movie on Billie Holiday was poorly done.
Esther seems largely unrecognized and completed underrated in music history particularly in Australia. I don’t believe she ever toured her nor did she ever have any hit songs on Australian charts. But you can find some of her albums in our record stores and I’ve been lucky to pick up a few. If you can find any of her 45s on the Savoy, Federal labels I would snap them up pronto!
If you can only afford one Esther record pick up this compilation!
Look out for these incredible titles. The arrangements and production is sublime, song choices are always interesting and Esther’s vocal delivery is quirky, flawless and irresistible.
I’m excited to announce I will be doing a special show at Uptown Jazz Café on September 28 as a special dedication to Esther. Details on the show here. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite Esther Phillips tracks and clips to check out.
The !!!! Beat (TV Program) Vol 1 # Show 3
Recorded February 1, Year 1966 featuring Esther Phillips and Etta James. Love this! Check out the out of time and awkward go go dancing during Etta’s ballad. So characteristic of the time.
“Just Say Goodbye” listeners of Vince Peach’s “Soul Time” weekly radio show on PBS 106.7FM will recognise this song as the closing song to the program.
Performing ‘Misery’ Live year unknown. Love this stunning yellow frock!
Performing with Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Morgana King and Maxine Weldon at the 1979 tribute to Billie Holiday. Perhaps not the best stage management in the world, the entrances are a little messy. It reminds me of Women of Soul group songs which is probably why I love this clip so much ha! I adore how Nina bows so graciously to the other women. Soul sisterhood at its finest.
The incredible version of Gil Scot Heron’s “Home is Where The Hatred Is” from her 1972 grammy nominated album “From A Whisper to A Scream”
The sexiest version of “What A Difference a Day Makes” ever recorded and one of Esther’s biggest hits. Disco fabulous.
RIP Esther Phillips.