Esther Phillips died 36-years ago today, on August 7th, 1984, aged just 48.
Esther lead a storied, and troubled life. Aged just 13, Esther Mae Jones won an amateur talent contest in 1949 at the Largo Theatre in Watts on 103rd St, she was seen by Johnny Otis who almost immediately signed Esther and put her on at the Barrelhouse Club in Los Angeles, at 107th in Watts that he owned.
That started an on, off troubled working relationship between Otis and “Little Esther”. Over the next 5-years, Esther had a number of R&B chart successes, including a number-1 as a member of the Johnny Otis Quintet and the Robins with Double Crossing Blues in 1950. She was both shipped around venues, and shopped labels to exploit her talent.
Christmas Day 1954, Esther was in Houston, between shows at the City Auditorium, she was backstage with Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton, and her band, when Ace accidently shot himself in the head. She stayed on in Texas for the next 8-years, living with her Father, and doing gigs at small clubs in between stints in a Lexington Kentucky addiction hospital where she was treated for a heroin addiction.
By 1962 she was clean enough to launch a comeback. Aided by Kenny Rogers, she got a contract with Lenox Records, owned by his brother Lelan. Now billed as Esther Phillips, once again she had a number of hits, including and R&B number-1 with “Release Me” and went on to sign with Atlantic Records, and record a cover of The Beatles song, “And I Love Her” which also became the title track for her 1965 album. The liner notes for which, are possibly one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, written in the form of a letter from Jack “Pearshape” Walker of WLIB, to Atlantic Records founder, Ahmet Ertegun, it included:
We’ve seen Little Esther come from “left field” into stardom and then drift again into near limbo to absorb her lumps and knocks and come back againJack Walker, cover notes for Atlantic 8102 – Esther Phillips, And I Love Him
The album itself was arranged and conducted by Ray Ellis, who at the time was working with Lena Horne, Ben E. King, and Herbie Mann among others.
The Beatles were so impressed the organised for Esther to fly to the UK to appear in a 1965 TV show(see the link below for Esther with John Lennon introducing.)
Sometime after that, Esther ended up back in rehab. This time at the Synanon drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, California. Esther would make intermittent appearances over the next 3-years, including a 1968 episode of The Rosey Grier show.
She did manage to record three singles in 1968 for Roulette through her earlier Lelan Rogers connection. [See copy from Cash Box – January 18, 1969]. The tracks would be released in 1969 and included “Nobody But You” that would go on to make the (UK) Northern Soul pantheon, along with the earlier “Just Say Goodbye“.
She would record “Moody’s Mood” aka “I’m In The Mood For Love” as a B-side for Roulette, almost completely overlooked, Ether glides through the song which George Benson would again popularise on his 1980 version with Patti Austin, on his “Give Me The Night” album. It also appeared on Benson’s (retreads and rereleases) album “Pacific Fire” album released by CTI to capitalize on Benson’s Warner Brothers success. The latter being a substandard performance and production.
In her biography “A Woman Like Me”, Bettye Lavette recalls a “life lesson” encounter with Esther. Lavette describes an evening in 1964 at Small’s Paradise, a club/bar at 135th and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, New York. Esther was hanging out with Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s big sister.
Esther had been drinking that night and getting high. She and Erma were wearing their little mink coats. I hadn’t gotten mine yet, but I was eager to do so. New York is cold in the winter. I joined them at the bar, and men started buying us drinks. We were chatting up a storm when suddenly Esther falls into a junkie nod. Her eyeballs disappear, her head sinks down, and her big fat lower lip practically hangs on the bar. She looks like a derelict.A Woman Like Me – LaVette, Betty; Ritz, David – ISBN 978-0-399-15938-1 (2012)
Clean At Last?
During her spell in rehab at Synanon, Esther met singer Sam Fletcher, after her release, Fletcher got Esther an a regular set at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper club, in Los Angeles, late 1969, early 1970.
It was King Curtis who first got me to re-sign with Atlantic and we cut a live album together, Burnin’ at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper in L.A. where I’d been playing. The album did quite well – but when it came to a second album, we just couldn’t seem to find the right material, they wanted to try some real pop kinda things, so one day, they called me in and said, ‘look we’ve lost quite a bit cutting things on you’ and they gave me a release from my contract.David Nathan, Blues & Soul, 15 December 1972
Esther Phillips failed to receive the acclaim she so richly deserved – and it hurt. Somehow, she shrugged off the disappointment.
“I’m getting along all right,” she once said. “But people don’t realise 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.”Quoted by Fred Dellar, New Music Express, 25th August 1984
Ode For A KUDU
The “Burnin” live album had been Esther’s biggest seller from her time with Atlantic. Their loss, was to be Creed Taylors gain.
Released from her Atlantic contract, Esther was signed to KUDU, Creed’s new funkier sub-label. Initially for a one album deal that turned into “From A Whisper To A Scream” and it did so well, Creed extended her contract to a 3-year deal.
I think it would be true to say that I am happier with Kudu than with any other company – they are interested in making good records and they won’t spare any expense in the effort.David Nathan, Blues & Soul, 15 December 1972
Esther didn’t feel corned or controlled by what was believed to be a jazz label, she was given a lot of freedom to choose songs she felt matched her then style. One exception to that, in stark contrast to her later, more popular numbers like “What A Difference A Day Makes“, “For All We Know“, “Unforgettable“, etc. was “Home Is Where The Hatred Is“.
According to Esther, Creed suggested the track. It was a big seller in the US, and in some ways became a cathartic track for her.
I went through quite a lot of emotional changes before I agreed to do it. After all, although everyone knew about the problems I’d faced, singing the song was just like being interviewed in public about it all. Yeah, I really didn’t want to do it
“I was labelled as a jazz singer even before joining Creed. Really I’m just a singer – putting me in any kind of a bag can be very limiting.”David Nathan, Blues & Soul, 15 December 1972
Through her performance with the track and her raw experience, “Home is…” garnered Esther her second Grammy Nomination for BEST R&B VOCAL PERFORMANCE, FEMALE, for the album “From A Whisper To A Scream“. This followed “Set Me Free” recorded two years earlier for Atlantic. Esther lost out at the 1972 awards to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
It was the Grammy Aretha had won in the same category six years straight, she’d go on to win twice more, before being beaten by Natalie Cole. Aretha though, gave her Grammy to Esther. In biography , Aretha says:
I won for Young, Gifted and Black but gave the Grammy to Esther Phillips, who had been nominated for From a Whisper to a Scream. I liked Esther’s record, although I didn’t consider it better than mine. I gave her my Grammy because Esther was fighting personal demons, and I felt she could use encouragement. As a blues singer, she had her own thing; I wanted Esther to know that I – and the industry – supported her.“Aretha: from these roots” Franklin, Aretha; Ritz David – ISBN 0-375-50033-2
Esther went on to be nominated twice more in the same category, but never went home with the award.
Prior to recording “Home Is Where The Hatred Is“, Esther had not met, then young black poet and writer Gil Scott-Heron, they met in the lead-up to the recording of Esther’s second KUDU album, “Alone Again Naturally” and Heron wrote the monologue at the start of the George Rose track. Esther says the idea was hers, but she just couldn’t get the right combination of words.
Esther’s time recording, performing and touring with CTI/KUDU was clearly her busiest and most productive. Her earlier tracks were arranged and performed with Pee Wee Ellis, it was her later recordings once she teamed up with Joe Beck that gave her the most pleasure.
What A Difference A Day Makes
On july 19th, 1975 “What A Difference A Day Makes” charted for the first time. It would reach #10 in the US R&B charts, and #20 in the Pop charts. It was her nineteenth R&B chart hit, and the first time she had a pop top ten since “Release Me” hit #1 R&B and #8 in the pop charts in 1962.
The following image gallery are the pages from a five page article that ran in the October 1972 issue of Ebony Magazine. It contains a run through of Esther’s story and more details, as well as includes the only picture I know of that includes Esther and both her parents.
The Ebony article was unique in many ways, but in one way in particular. It was followed by the only time I know of that Creed wrote into a magazine.His letter appeared in the December issue.
Once 1976 came around, CTI/KUDU was under strain and losing many of their original talent pool who’d been successful as part of the troupe Creed had put together, put wanted more. The band was breaking up. Over the next year, Hubbard, James, Benson, Gale, many if not all of the leaders would depart, and Esther followed. She went to contract with Mercury records, who gave her even more control, she was to produce her own albums.
Although the Mercury albums met with some success, she didn’t quite achieve the same level of success.
Esther died in 1984, aged just 48 from liver and kidney failure, attributed to her long-term drug abuse. Initially, Esther was interred in a pauper’s grave, unmarked, in Compton Memorial Park. Later in 1985, she was re-interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills following a fundraising led by Johnny Otis in April 1985 at the Vine St Bar & Grill.
Esther on TV!
There must be dozens of TV performances by Esther, throughout her most productive periods. I’ve looked and found a few, but some of the potentially classic performances I can’t find, yet.
- Ready Steady Go! (1965) – ATV/ITC UK – performs “And I Love Her“
- The !!! Beat (1966) Episode-1 – (1966) performs “I Could Have Told You So” and “Just Say Goodbye“
- The !!! Beat (1966) – performs “And I Love Her”
- The Rosey Grier Show, 30th Nov. (1968) – Esther Phillips performs “Little Green Apples”.
- Johnny Otis Show, Monterey Jazz Festival (1970) – performs “Release Me“
- CTI ALL Stars – Summer Tour – Allegedly filmed by Cti in 1972
- ?? (1973) – performs “I’ve Never Found A Man(To Love Me Like You Do)“
- Esther Phillips Live At The Boarding House, San Francisco – PBS, June 1974
- Soul Train (1975) – performs “What A Difference“
- Saturday Night Live – Season 1, Episode 4 – performs “What a Difference” and “I Can Stand a Little Rain“
- Ina Chansons, France (Sept. 27th, 1975) – performs “What A Difference“, “You’re Coming Home“
- In Chansons, France (Feb, 1976) – performs “Unforgettable“
- ?? performs “Early in The Morning” and “Cherry Red” (includes rare piano performance)
- A Salute To Billie Holiday (1979) – Hollywood Bowl – Esther opens the finale of “God Bless The Child“, “Lover Man Oh Where Can You Be“
Saturday Night Live
While my favorite track by Esther is “Just Say Goodbye“, I can’t but feel truly happy when I see how happy and healthy Esther is in her November 1975 appearance at Saturday Night Live. Esther performed both “What A Difference A Day Makes” and at the end of the show, “I Can Stand a Little Rain“.
As discussed elsewhere, I tried posting both performances on Youtube, but they were taken down. You can see the whole show on NBC’s Peacock streaming service; it is also available for $2.99 on Amazon; and is available for free to Hulu subscribers. However to remember Esther than her performance of “What A Difference…” – enjoy.
R&B Hall of Fame
As part of my research for this article, I went to the R&B Hall Of Fame website to read Esther’s citation, and was shocked to find she had not been inducted. No better time than now, I wrote and submitted a nomination, which ended with:
Discovered age-13. Esther was always a star singer. “Little Esther” had a number of R&B Chart hits and was ruthlessly exploited and suffered through her first 5-years on the road touring right across the still segregated south.
By 1954, she had developed a heroin addiction that would handicap her musical career from that point forward, with almost as much time off the road in recovery as on.
By the early 60’s she was back, had a number-1 with “Release Me”, by 1965 her cover of the Beatles “And I Love Her” led to Esther travelling to the UK for her first international tour, paid for by The Beatles.
Sadly, her heroin addiction took control of her life again, but by 1969 she was clean enough to make a comeback, leading to a contract with Creed Taylor’s Kudu label. Arguably the best period of her recording and touring life. She recorded 5 albums for Creed, toured with the CTI All Stars who included Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, George Benson, Hubert laws, and many more.
In 1971, at the Grammy Nominations, Phillips was beaten out by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, Aretha thought gave her award to Esther in recognition of her talent.
During this period, Phillips had her biggest hits, “What A Difference A Day Makes” was an international best seller and made the pop charts here in the US. There is no better tribute to Esther, than when she appeared on Episode 4, season 1 of Saturday Night Live sing the track. She had never looked happier or healthier.
By 1976, Taylor was having his own financial problems and Esther moved on to produce her own albums, sadly dying in 1984.My Nomination for Esther Phillips R&B Hall of Fame 2021
Please accept this nomination for an amazing woman who deserved so much more and had so much to give. Thank you.
Esther Phillips discography [via discogs]
The Essential Esther Phillips – The KUDU years [free via music.youtube]
Arnoldo DeSuiteiro review of Esther’s For All We Know album [via Doug Payne soundinsights]
Longform Artist Bio by Steve Huey [via allmusic.com]
Saturday Night Live, Series 1, Episode 4 [via nbc.com]
The R&B Hall of Fame [their website]
Johnny Otis – The American Greek who passed as Black [via the USA Greek Reporter]
12/23/2020 11:52 added location of Freddie’s.
8/9/2022 – Corrected and expanded first paragraph about Largo Club and BarrelHouse. Added details about Fundraiser for headstone.
8/9/2022 – Minor updates to text, headings changed per site policy, some formatting changes.