Born: December 23, 1935
Died: August 7, 1984(Age 48)
Esther Mae Jones, stage name Esther Phillips, would have been 87 today.

To celebrate Esther’s birth day this year I have a track it’s a fair guess you’ve never heard. Also, I have a write-up by the esteemed jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather, from 1970. The connection, the track is from an album called “The Prince Of Peace: A Rock-Jazz Cantata” and performed by the Sounds of Synanon and the Synanon Choir, the interview was Esther’s first major interview having quit Synanon. The interview was syndicated in newspapers across America.

Synanon

Esther’s problems with drugs and alcohol are well known and lead to her early death, age just 48. She’d been in and out of various forms of rehab and treatment many times. In 1967, at the urging of her then manager, she checked herself into the Synanon drug rehab center in Santa Monica, California. There, like many other musicians, Esther found purpose and meaning in the daily tasks and structure.

Synanon[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synanon had been founded in 1958 and during the sixties became world famous for it’s tough-love, group therapy. By the late 1970’s, with Synanon a national movement receiving federal grants, it’s success would start a downward spiral and infamy. Today it sometimes referred to as the most dangerous cult in America. This track, “I Will Greatly Rejoice” is the last track on the 1969 album, recorded just before Esther “resigned” and left.

A color film was produced by Zev Putterman, former Synanon graduate and KTTV Executive Producer, for a 30-minute TV special which was introduced by Leonard Nimoy[2]Lynwood Press, 26 Mar 1970, Thu · Page 10. The album features work composed, arranged and conducted by Greg Dykes; The Sounds of Synanon were an instrumental group and the choir, 32 voices of the Synanon Singers. They were all members of the Synanon Foundation in Santa Monica. Among the instrumentalists is Wendell Harrison[3]https://www.discogs.com/artist/215066-Wendell-Harrison[4]https://cliffbells.com/shows/wendell-harrison-and-tribe/, tenor sax, who was a regular sideman for Hank Crawford during his Atlantic recordings and post his time at Synanon, would go on to be a key player in the seventies Tribe community records.

Victor Feldman, British vibes and percussion player[5]https://www.discogs.com/artist/255752-Victor-Feldman; George Bohannon, trombone; Earl Palmer, drums & R&R Hall of Fame sideman and Paul Humphrey[6]Paul Humphrey – Wikipedia, drums were also in the band[7]https://www.discogs.com/release/7144871-The-Sounds-Of-Synanon-The-Synanon-Choir-The-Prince-Of-Peace-A-Rock-Jazz-Cantata

I will Greatly Rejoice – The Prince of Peace: A Rock-Jazz Cantata. Epic Records BN 26745[8]https://archive.org/details/lp_the-prince-of-peace-a-rock-jazz-cantata_sounds-of-synanon-the-synanon-choir.
The Synanon Choir and Greg Dykes.

She Paid Her Dues on Rainbow Quest

by Leonard Feather, published in the The Los Angeles Times – Sunday – Sept. 13th, 1970

The name of Esther Phillips is not yet likely to strike a familiar chord for the average American ear. It is true her career has been likened to Judy Garland’s, but her small-scale fame never took her within sight of the rainbow. Aside from that, compared with the early years of this bright-eyed, animated, busty black singer, Miss Garland’s childhood was a walk in the sun.

Things are looking up now. Not long ago, Bob Hope introduced her as the opening act on his “Honor America” telecast, seen by tens of millions. Her nightclub bookings are gaining momentum. On Sept. 19 she will get “Extra Added Attraction* billing and star treatment in a Johnny Otis blues revue at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was Otis who discovered her at the Barrelhouse Club in Watts 20 years ago and created an instant child star.

She says she is tired of talking about her past. Understandably, she doesn’t want to look back into that 10-year-long kaleidoscope of terror that began when she was in her teens. The caustic, cutting tones of her blues, the mordant edge she can add to a ballad, are qualities potent enough to establish her on merit, without the need for sob stories.

Still, it is both relevant and remarkable that only a year has passed since this young woman with the glowingly wholesome air made her apprehensive return to society. Before that, she had been sequestered in the protective and rehabilitative environment of Synanon. The only singing she had done in two and a half years had been a role in “Prince of Peace,” a cantata written and sung by and for fellow addict-residents.

Back to the Garland analogy. In both lives it was a case of too much, too soon. Frances Gumm was 12 when she and her sisters were a smash at the Oriental in Chicago and, at George Jessel’s suggestion, Frances became Judy Garland. Miss Phillips was 13 when her elder sister put makeup on her, dressed her like an adult, and slipped her into Otis’ club to enter a contest. She won the $10 first prize .her sister and a friend took 90% commission). At Otis’ suggestion, Esther Phillips became “Little Esther.”

Blues Sold a Million

“One day,” she says, “Johnny was leaving Watts to record a session with the band. I called out ‘Hey, wait for me!’ At the end of the date they had 20 miutes left, so he wrote out this song about ladv bears in the forest, ‘Double Crossing Blues.’ We only had time to make one take. It sold a million.”

The rest of her adolescence is a blurred, scorched memory. There were a couple of yeais on the road with Otis’ band; more hit records; a tour as headliner of her own show in sleazy theaters and ghetto night clubs where the dressing room was a toilet; promoters who ran off with her money.

“A schoolteacher traveled with me at first, and my mother was with me all the time, until I bought her a home. After that, I was just kind ot out there alone.”

Alone, but jostling in the band bus with pot-smoking musicians. Somewhere along the way, curiosity got the better of her. Predictably, she followed the script: “As the pressure got heavjer I used more and stronger stuff. I would take what 1 called ‘a little poke’ and laugh it away.” Soon the endless monotonous trip from hotel to club to bus to hotel became (he excuse for more perilous regular trips. Esther was mainlining heroin.

Headlong into an escape from reality, she missed jobs or left them midway. The habit cost her up to $100 a day. The hit records had long since stopped rolling. A new kind of journey became the life-style: from work to jail to home to hospital to desperation. For three years she lived in Houston with her father, her career at an almost total standstill. Temporarily recovered, she sang in local clubs, no longer as Little Esther, but as Esther Phillips. In 1963 she recorded a country music song, “Release Me,” for a small company. It became her biggest hit as a solo performer and was followed by a top-selling version of Lennon-McCartney’s “And I Love Him.” In 1965 she sang with The Beatles on BBC-TV.

The peddlers wouldn’t leave her alone; soon she was in deeper trouble than ever. By 1967 her manager suggested Synanon as the last hope. She entered, skeptical but resigned.

“It turned out to be the most educational experience of my life. Playing the ‘Synanon Games’ (group-action self-revelation sessions) we talked and hollered and screamed at one another. It was worth the embarrassment to find out about myself. People told me I was hostile and egotistical. “My only regret is that I can never go back to Synanon. Because I left of my own volition, they consider me a splittee.”

“I divided my residency between four of their centers at San Diego, Santa Monica, Tomales Bay and Oakland. In Oakland I was a ‘tribe leader,’ in charge of 80 young users. That was a shattering ordeal; I was the target for all their hostilities, but the more I had to deal with them, the more I learned about who Esther Phillips was.

“I want to pass along whatever I’ve gained from my experience. I hope soon my manager will start setting up speaking-and-singing engagements at schools and colleges, where I can tell it like it really is.

“When I started using drugs, nobody was trying to do much to prevent it. You got caught, you went to jail and that was it. No understanding; nobody want ed to know about it, especially the middle class with their it-can’t-happen-here attitude. Well, it’s happening at every level of society now, and if today’s kids can profit by my speaking to them, perhaps they won’t have to live it in order to learn about it, like I did. I never believed I could get hooked. “Looking back at the years I lost—including just about all my teen years—I can really identify with Judy, particularly with everything she said about being underpaid and used by people. With her it was a movie company; with me it was record companies that sold millions of copies and just literally took your money. One time I sued and won the case, but even then they never paid off. Judy turned to drink and pills for the same reasons I turned to drugs.”

Over Labor Day weekend of 1969, Esther Mae Phillips left Synanon. She has since worked around Los Angeles at black, white and plaid clubs, landed a Tonight TV shot on an evening when Bob Hope happened to be a guest (“He called me the next day and asked me to do the ‘Honor America’ show”) and has been reunited on several occasions with Johnny Otis as part of the current blues renaissance. Last spring she re-signed with Atlantic, one of the companies that had gambled with her in a pre-cure LP.

Esther Phillips – “I’m getting along all right” – Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Day to Day Battle

“I’m getting along all right,” she says, quoting the title of a song in her new album. “Still people don’t realize that when you’ve stopped using narcotics, it’s always a day to day battle. Nothing is guaranteed.

“In the old days, anything that upset me would be an excuse to escape by getting high. Well, those things are still happening, but I’m learning to cope. Like the other day I went to Atlanta to sing at a disc jockey promotion, and there was no piano player, not even a piano. One dressing room, two bands, I was the only girl on the show, and instead of asking the guys to let me use the room, they told me they had another dressing room—and took me to a toilet. It brought back terrible feelings of the days when I’d have blocked it all out by getting stoned. Instead, I just stayed depressed for a few days. So I came through that test all right, thank God.”

The stabbing irony of it all is that no matter what achievements await her, interviewers will forever emphasize the extraneous aspects of the Esther Phillips story. What should be stressed is that there is no other vocal sound today like her tart, waspish attack on an old blues by Dinah Washington, her first idol; or her version of Percy Mayfield’s venerable “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” spiced up by her unique soul-sauce recipe.

Paying dues is rough enough in itself, but spending the rest of your life being reminded of it is no morale-booster. Let it be said for her, loud and proud: musically, as well as morally and spiritually, Little Esther is a big girl now.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Esther Phillips— “Burnin’— Live at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper L.A. ‘ (Atlantic 1565). Contents include Aretha Franklin s “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” new versions of “And I Love Him” and “Release Me,” and two out of-sight excursions into blues territory.

Footnote

During her spell in rehab at Synanon, Esther met singer Sam Fletcher, after she left, Fletcher got Esther an a regular set at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper club, in Los Angeles, late 1969, early 1970 which led to the Feather album of the week.

There is a 1964 Columbia Pictures feature film of life at Synanon[9]https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059774/?ref_=ttpl_ql directed by Richard Quine. It shows a highly sanitized dramatization of life in Synanon and was filmed at one of their locations in Santa Monica. Charles Dederich Sr., the founder of Synanon is credited as a writer and stars Edmond O’Brien, Eartha Kitt, Stella Stevens, Chuck Connors and Alex Cord. In the film, the only black female part is that of “Betty” played by Eartha Kitt. While Esther Phillips was colloquially known as Betty, this isn’t Phillips. Rather, it is Betty Dederich, who entered Synanon 1959 as a heroine addict and later married the founder, Charles Dederich Sr.

A Charles Haden, possibly Charlie Haden[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Haden double bass player, has an uncredited credit on IMDB the Columbia pictures film. I couldn’t see him. In real life Haden left Ornette Colman’s band in September 1963 to do rehab at Synanon houses in Santa Monica, California and San Francisco, California.

The full Synanon dramatization can be seen here[11]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PNfMYlHRMU, with a trailer here[12]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MytNvs3qJos. It really isn’t worth watching though, except for the Neil Hefti soundtrack[13]https://www.discogs.com/master/656602-Neal-Hefti-Synanon-Original-Sound-Track-Recording-Of-Music-From-The-Motion-Picture[14]https://archive.org/details/lp_synanon-original-sound-track-recording-o_neal-hefti.

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