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Monday, November 22, 2010

Part 1 of the HUGE Esther Phillips list..........the early years......

"Little" Esther Phillips

Whether billed as teen rhythm-and-blues sensation Little Esther or as a crossover pop, country, or soul artist, Esther Phillips created an impressive body of memorable music during the course of her troubled life. In a 34-year career that flourished and ebbed and flourished again, her sinewy vocals—best compared to those of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone—tapped into jazz, boogie, blues, country, and even disco styles.

Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, the singer came from a troubled family. Her parents divorced, and she split her time between living with her mother in Galveston and with her father in Houston. The youngster sang in a Sanctified church until her mother moved her and her sister to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. It was there that she began picking up on the jazzy blues stylings of Dinah Washington, saving her school milk money so that she could play Washington's records on a local jukebox.

She was only 13 years old when her sister Marianna dressed her up to look old enough to participate in a talent contest at the Largo Theater. According to legend, her version of Washington's current hit "Baby Get Lost" not only won her first place, but also caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who asked the youngster to join his popular rhythm-and-blues show at the Barrelhouse Club. It was a big break for Jones. The Greek-American Otis, who had just signed a deal with the newly formed Savoy label, was one of the keenest talent scouts of the postwar era. Among his discoveries were the Robins, Mel Walker, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.

Dubbing his new find "Little Esther," Otis got her into the studio to record two singles for Modern Records in Los Angeles. Then he dressed her in pigtails, bobby socks, and ribbons, following the model of another child blues-belter, Little Miss Cornshucks, also known as Mildred Cummings. According to Lee Hildebrand's Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, when none other than Dinah Washington herself saw the results, she confronted the bandleader backstage and demanded, "You take them bobby socks off that girl and little ribbons off them plaits…. Put some curls in her hair and some stockings on her."

Little Esther's breakthrough came at the tail end of a Robins session; teamed with the group's Bobby Nunn, she sang a fiery version of "Double Crossing Blues," one of many Otis-produced recordings that anticipated the coming of rock 'n' roll. Released in 1950, "Double Crossing Blues" reached the number one position on rhythm-and-blues charts for nine consecutive weeks. A prominent feature of the Savoy Records Barrelhouse Caravan of Stars tour, Little Esther proved an overnight sensation. Quickly, Otis paired her with Mel Walker for such hits as "Mistrustin' Blues," "Cupid's Boogie," "Deceivin' Blues," "Wedding Boogie," and "Faraway Blues." With six top ten R&B hits in a row, and three of them rising to number one, she was the hottest young act in the country. However, her good fortune wouldn't last much longer.

In early 1951, Little Esther's contract was shifted to the Cincinnati-based Federal label, although the uncredited Otis still produced and supplied instrumental backing for some of her records. The label switch slowed her commercial momentum substantially, although her collaboration with the Dominoes on the risque "The Deacon Moves In" and the novelty jump-blues piece "Ring-a-Ding-Doo" did decent business. Part of her problem was that Savoy was flooding the market with recordings made before she went to Federal, something her handlers attempted to stop with a lawsuit, claiming unpaid royalties. The lawsuit alienated Otis, and worse, the still-teenaged star had become addicted to heroin.

In his book The Soulful Divas, author David Nathan included liner-note writer Barney Hoskyns's speculation that frequent singing partner Mel Walker—who eventually died of an overdose—introduced Little Esther to heroin. Whoever made drugs available to the singer put in place an addiction that she would struggle with for most of her life. Faced with the constant crush of one-night stands and an absence of other options due to a lack of education, Esther sought relief in drugs and alcohol to the point where her once-promising career ground to a halt.

Little Esther label hopped unsuccessfully from Decca to Savoy to Federal, and finally to the Warwick label. When not undergoing drug rehabilitation—a less respectable alternative during the 1950s than it became later—she performed at increasingly seedier venues until she flat-out hit bottom.

Returning to her father's Houston-area home in 1962, she began to perform at Paul's Sidewalk Cafe. There, a young Kenny Rogers heard her perform a soulful version of Charlie Rich's "No Headstone on My Grave." Impressed, he told his brother Lelan Rogers about her and convinced him to start the Lenox Records label, just for her. Now an adult and wanting to discard the Little Esther moniker, the singer was inspired by a Phillips gas station sign to rechristen herself Esther Phillips.

During the early 1960s, Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had already combined soul with pop arrangements of country songs and scored big hits. Lelan Rogers believed Phillips could do the same. Taking her to Owen Bradley's studio in Nashville, where he employed a string section and the Anita Kerr Singers backup vocal group, Rogers had Phillips record a series of sophisticated country music covers such as "Am I That Easy to Forget," "Be Honest With Me," and what would prove to be the biggest hit of her career, "Re-lease Me." Sung with jazzy nuance and understated soul, the record—a 1954 hit for Ray Price—reached number one on rhythm-and-blues charts and number eight on pop charts.

Although she and Big Al Downing later hit the lower reaches of the pop charts with their duet on "You Don't Miss Your Water," the Lenox label was not a great success. Before 1963 was over, Atlantic Records had bought up her contract and all the Lenox masters. Atlantic seemed like a perfect fit for Phillips, but in truth the label had a tough time finding a hit formula for their new artist. They had her record blues, jazz, pop, and anything else they could think of, but it wasn't until 1965, when they matched her with the Beatles' ballad "And I Love Her," that she would achieve her second major hit. Retitled "And I Love Him," the single rose to number 54 on the pop charts and number 11 on the R&B charts. The Beatles loved her rendition and invited Phillips to England to appear with them on the BBC television program Ready Steady Go.

The heady days at the top would not last, however, as drugs began to rule the singer's life once again. After a few minor hits, most notably "When a Woman Loves a Man," a remake of Percy Sledge's signature hit, Atlantic dropped the troubled singer. By the end of the 1960s, Phillips had entered the Synanon drug rehabilitation program, where she would remain until 1969. Still an interpretive talent to be reckoned with, the feisty, plain-spoken singer had one final run left in her.

Even while cleaning up her act, Phillips kept busy recording tracks for the Roulette label—where she charted with a version of Glen Campbell's "Too Late to Worry, Too Blue to Cry"—and for Epic. But it was after her emergence from Synanon that her career took off again. Signing anew with Atlantic, she made some highly regarded but unsuccessful jazz and blues recordings before latching on with Creed Taylor's Kudu label in 1971. The aggressive young company provided the singer with a socially relevant context for her sound. Indeed, her debut disc on the label, From a Whisper to a Scream, featured one of the undisputed highlights of Phillips's career. Her uncompromising rendition of Gil Scott-Heron's anti-drug rant "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" was nominated for a Grammy award in 1972. When Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted, and Black won the award, Franklin herself validated Phillips's achievement by personally handing the award to Phillips, saying she deserved it more.

Phillips' years at Kudu produced her best mature work, including a panting, sexy disco rendition of Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes," a number one disco single and top 20 pop record, in 1975. Equally fine was her sensitive rendition of "For All We Know," a minor pop and adult contemporary hit. Producer Creed Taylor's song selection formula wasn't much different from Atlantic's, but he knew how to frame her vocals with atmospheric production that added a shade of urban toughness to her work.

On the strength of her run with Kudu, the artist was able to sign the most lucrative contract of her career with Mercury Records in 1977. However, despite a free hand creatively, Phillips's blend of commercial jazz and pop didn't stir up much interest, and soon her days as a hitmaker came to a close. In 1983, Phillips charted with "Turn Me Out" on the small Winning label and released an album on Muse. She was still a major figure at jazz festivals and other concert venues, but her health—undermined by years of drug abuse and heavy drinking—began to fail. On August 7, 1984, at the age of 48, she passed away due to complications of cirrhosis of the liver and a kidney infection.


The Story of Little Esther  ©2000JCMarion 

Herman Lubinsky, the owner and guiding force behind Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey, knew in his heart that he had the chance to sign on to his label a unique talent that night in 1949. He had just seen a thirteen year old girl stop the show cold at an amateur night performance at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles, and so he proceeded to add the young Little Esther to his Rhythm& Blues roster. Within weeks of this signing, the (just barely) teenager originally from Galveston, and then Houston Texas, was in the recording studio with veteran arranger, session man, and performer Johnny Otis. Also at that session in late 1949 were Otis' new vocal group discovery from California, The Four Robins. That very first get together before the recording microphone produced an all time classic R & B tune called "Double Crossin' Blues" released on Savoy #731. The side was an immediate hit and a new star was unleashed on the listening public. The flip side "Ain't Nothing Shakin' " sung by Leon Sims was quickly forgotten as the dancers and R & B fans couldn't get enough of the young singer from Watts. By March of 1950 sales are still strong and so Savoy releases the side on 45rpm, the label's first.

A traveling review called the Savoy Records Barrelhouse Caravan of Stars hits the road for a series of one nighters across the South in early 1950. In the show are The Johnny Otis band, The Robins, Little Esther, Mel Walker, and Redd Lyte (Floyd Hollis). At the same time the new release by Little Esther appears - Savoy #735- "Misery" / "Mistrusting Blues" with Mel Walker and the Johnny Otis band. The tour is a huge draw throughout the region especially in Atlanta where the show sells out for two nights, with more than ten thousand each night in attendance. In early April the unit does a week at New York's Apollo Theater, and follows that up with a week at Baltimore's Regal. "Mistrusting Blues" is another big seller for Savoy, and Modern Records tries to get in on the action by releasing an Esther side that they had put on the shelf until now - "Mean Old Gal" / "Good Old Blues"on #20-748. Most listeners aren't fooled and stick with the new stuff on Savoy such as the new release on Savoy #750 out during the summer, again pairing with Mel Walker - "Cupid's Boogie"and "Just Can't Get Free" on #750.

Lubinsky and Savoy Records now turn to a publicity seeking gimmick for the next release by Little Esther. They will preview the untitled "mystery record" on radio and ask listeners to give the song a title. Presumably the winner received a prize (certainly not writer's credit though) and the record will be shipped with the title on the label by Labor Day of 1950. The result of this promotion is Savoy #759- "Lost Dream Blues". The other side is "Deceiving Blues" and once again Esther is paired with Mel Walker. In October another bit of gimmickry takes place with Savoy #764 as listed by the Johnny Otis Congregation on "The Wedding Boogie". Little Esther and Mel Walker play the bride and groom, Lee Graves is the preacher and the Otis band provide backing on a R & B version of the marriage ceremony.The flip side is a seasonal blues duet by Esther and Walker called "Far Away Christmas Blues". More previously unreleased tunes see the light of day on a first LP on the Modern label late in the year.

Proving the sudden star power of Little Esther, she comes in number one in a poll of the national juke box operators for best jazz and blues performer for the year of 1950. Quite a winning accomplishment for a thirteen year old ! Johnny Otis with Esther and Mel Walker appear at the annual Christmas benefit held by the Los Angeles Sentinel at L.A,'s Lincoln Theater. They will also appear at a holiday show in L.A. at the Elks Hall. Right at the end of the year Savoy Records issues "Love Will Break Your Heart" and "I Don't Care" on #775. This ended quite a year for the talented young singer. Six record releases, all good sellers, one a true classic, and a host of awards and in person appearances had made Little Esther a national star performer. But as we know in all these cases, trouble was right on the horizon.

Controversy arose almost immediately after the new year began. On January 5, 1951, the Superior Court of California appointed Esther's mother as her legal guardian and upheld the new contract for her to record for King Records of Cincinnati. Syd Nathan of King said he planned to release Esther's records on his Federal label in the 45rpm format. The first release follows shortly. It is Federal #12016 - "Other Lips Other Arms" and a tune with The Dominos called "The Deacon Moves In". Meanwhile a Savoy session is released on its subsidiary label Regent - "Hangover Blues" and "I Dream" with Mel Walker and the Johnny Otis band. The Federal release of "Deacon" is a big seller with its echoes of her first record with The Robins.

That May, the nastiness escalates as Esther Mae Jones (Little Esther) brings suit in court in the state of New Jersey against Herman Lubinsky and Savoy Records for due back earnings, and also asks a restraining order be in force against Savoy records from marketing her past recordings for the label. Lubinsky answers by initiating a counter suit asking for fifty thousand dollars in damages claiming that he and his record label made a national star out of an unknown performer. While all of these legal maneuvers are taking place, Little Esther appears with the Johnny Otis band for a week at Detroit's Paradise Theater. Federal records pairs Esther and The Dominos again, this time on the tune "Heart To Heart". The flip side is "Looking For A Man" with the Earl Warren orchestra. In late October Federal #12042 features Esther with the Warren band on "Crying And Singing The Blues" and "Tell Him That I Need Him So". In November, Bobby Shad, once of the Sittin In With label, and now head of R & B operations for Mercury Records, announces the signing of Little Esther for that label beginning after the new year. Shad also has signed Johnny Otis to Mercury. While all of this is taking place, Savoy records releases a recording of "Get Together Blues" as by Little Esther and Junior on #824 backed by The Vocaleers "Chitlin' Switch". At the end of the year Federal is back with #12055 - "Ring-A-Ding-Doo" and "The Crying Blues". So ended a most tumultuous year for the now fourteen year old singer.

During the early days of the year of 1952, Esther is back in the courts. This time the courts rule that her contract with Mercury Records is invalid and so the singer remains with King-Federal. Soon Federal #12063 is released which pairs the tunes "Summertime" and "The Storm". Esther spends the month of January making personal appearances with Johnny Otis in the Los Angeles area. Soon the unit joins up with Willie Mae Thornton, Gatemouth Brown, and Marie Adams for a number of shows in New Orleans and Texas. Later in the Spring, Federal releases #12065 by Esther - "You Better Beware" and "I'll Be There". In May Little Esther is back in the middle of legal wrangling, but this time she settles her suit (out of court) against Savoy Records and Herman Lubinsky on the issue of back owed royalties. During April Esther with Johnny Otis and Willie Mae Thornton play a week at New York's Apollo Theater. In June of 1952 Federal releases #12078 - "Bring My Lovin 'Back To Me" and "Aged And Mellow". As this record is issued, Esther and Thornton with the Johnny Otis band return to do a series of one nighters in California.

"Rambling Blues" / "Somebody New" are released by Federal on #12090 in late August just as the one nighters featuring Esther with Otis and Thornton, are drawing record crowds to shows in Texas and Louisiana. Federal follows up with "Mainliner" and "Saturday Night Daddy" in early October. Federal's last record for the year featuring Esther with Little Willie Littlefield on #12108 pairs "Last Laugh Blues" with "Flesh, Blood, and Bones". At about this time Esther plays another week at New York's Apollo with Johnny Otis and his band. During the early part of 1953 Little Esther changes up and joins H-Bomb Ferguson and the Tab Smith Combo for a series of one nighters. In February "Hollerin' And Screamin' " is released. The flip side is a tune by Little Willie Littlefield called "Turn The Lamps Down Low" for Federal #12115.

In April Esther does a turn on Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog" b/w "Sweet Lips" on #12126. Trade ads for the Federal label tout this release as the greatest record ever made by Little Esther. Later that month an intriguing bill is presented at Chicago's Regal Theater. It features Little Esther along with the Five Royales and Arnett Cobb's orchestra. A few weeks later Esther and The Five Royales are joined by Jimmy (Night Train) Forrest and Sonny Stitt for some dates in the Detroit area. In May the Pittsburgh Courier's annual popularity poll places Little Esther third in the female blues singer category after Ruth Brown and Esther's main influence Dinah Washington. During the summer the Decca label signs Esther away from King-Federal records, and once again Bobby Shad is involved as he was with the abortive signing for Mercury. In September a new series of touring dates is set with Little Esther joining The Clovers, Roscoe Gordon, and Chuck Willis. In October the last Federal release by Esther is "Cherry Wine" and "Love Oh Love" on #12142. By the end of the year Esther has her first release for Decca on #48305 - "Please Don't Send Me Home" and "Stop Crying".

By the time 1954 rolls around, Little Esther was a five year veteran of the touring and recording studio of the early fifties R & B world, and she was still a teenager, although by now she was a seasoned performer and had seen and heard just about everything. As the sound of Rhythm & Blues now moved into the mainstream of American consciousness, very little was heard from Esther over the next two years. In the spring of 1954 Decca released #48314 - "Sit Back Down" and "He's A No Good Man" which disappeared almost as soon as it was released. A year later Little Esther appears at New York's Apollo Theater on a bill with The Clovers, Little Willie John, and the band of Paul (Hucklebuck) Williams. Esther fades from the scene for almost a year and then makes news as she returns to Savoy Records where she first became a household name in the R & B world. Savoy #1193 is released soon, a pairing of "You Can Bet Your Life" and "Taint What 'Cha Do". The record does well especially in the Midwest where it is a top ten seller in Chicago and Gary, Indiana. In April of 1957 Little Esther appears at Chicago's Regal Theater with Al "Ol Swingmaster" Benson in an all star R & B show. In July Savoy releases #1516 featuring Esther on the tunes "Longing In My Heart" and "If It's News To You".

In March of 1959 "Do You Ever Think Of Me?" and "It's So Good" are released by Savoy Records on #1563. Later in the year finds her on Federal Records where a recording of "I Paid My Dues" and "Heart To Heart" is released on #12344. Unfortunately, this would be the last most people would see of Little Esther. Now the records weren't selling or being played on the radio, and the personal appearances were few and far between. Added to this was a nasty battle with drug addiction, and soon she was another performer who was headed down the path of personal destruction. From somewhere within, her professional pride won out and she was able to re-invent herself twice in the next two decades. The first time was in the early sixties an the world was about to experience the British invasion that would stand American pop music on its collective head. The newly renamed Esther Phillips (as legend has it, taken from an ad for Phillips Petroleum) hit it big in 1962 with a pop / country ballad called "Please Release Me" for the small independent label Lenox on #5555. The record was a top ten smash across the country and Esther was back in the limelight if only temporarily. Esther appeared on the BBC television show "Ready, Steady, Go" along with The Beatles in 1965. She was presented as a featured performer on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1966, but soon once again drifted into relative obscurity. Another decade or so as a mostly forgotten R & B pioneer passed with sporadic appearances such as for the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival. Albums for Atlantic featuring pop and country songs went largely unnoticed in the late 60s and early 70s. Now it was the mid-seventies and the disco era. Esther remade a tune that was a hit for her idol Dinah Washington, "What A Difference A Day Makes", and turned it inside out as a sensuous, heavy breathing disco hit. The top twenty record for Kudu #925 put Esther back in the spotlight. She also returned to her roots on a PBS special called "The Barrelhouse Reunion" where she once again teamed up with Johnny Otis and other R & B veterans such as Charles Brown and Peewee Crayton and relived the days of R & B's infancy on Central Avenue in Watts, California. Recognition also followed, at long last, when Esther won awards from Rolling Stone Magazine (Best R & B singer), Ebony Magazine (Best Female Blues Singer two years in a row), and the NAACP Image Award in 1975.

After more than twenty five years as a star performer, beginning at the age of thirteen, Esther certainly paid her dues in a way very few performers would ever be required to. She passed away barely fifty years old, but seemed to have lived a lot longer. Her legacy in music is preserved most especially on the compilation CDs "Memory Lane" for King, a "Best Of" for Rhino, and most importantly "The Complete Savoy Recordings With Johnny Otis" for Savoy. She was a true original and one of the landmark practitioners of the musical form we call R & B which is the basis for just about all of the music that dominates the scene today as well as for the last half century. Little Esther - we will always remember her and her music.

Alrighty then!! Thus begins a large project......trying (somewhat chronologically) to put up nearly all of Esther Phillip's recorded output. I am missing a few things....still looking for them. If I find them, I will add them at a later date.  

*****I am missing a few early tracks, and I am missing some of the "Roulette"-era recordings (late '60s)----If you have any info, or copies of these, please do let me know....I'd love that....Thanks!!***** 

Today, I start with most of her earliest recordings (late '40s-early '50s), and some recordings from the mid '50s.

Tomorrow I will post the next batch: early to mid 1960s, and a list from the late '60s-early '70s....and so on and such, up until her last recordings (not favourites of mine, due to the "disco" instrumentation, if you will), which I will include as part of her total output. 

So, here we go.....Part 1......enjoy!

Cupid boogie (w/ Mel Walker)
Looking for a man
Other lips, other arms
Mean Ole gal
The deacon moves in (w/ The Dominoes)
Crying and singing the blues
Ramblin' blues
I gotta guy
Better beware
Get together blues
Ring-a-ding doo (w/ Mel Walker)
Mainliner (w/ The Robins)
Saturday night daddy (w/ Bobby Nunn)
Last laugh blues (w/ Little Wille Littlefield)
Lost dream blues
Heart to heart (w/ The Dominoes)
Double crossing blues (w/ The Robins)
Wedding boogie (The Johnny Otis Congregation-Esther, Mel Walker, Lee Graves)
Faraway Christmas blues
Turn the lamps down low (w/ Little Willie Littlefield)
I don't care
I dream (w/ Mel Walker)
T'ain't whatcha say
Stop cryin' (w/ Quartet)

I'm a bad bad girl
Aged and mellow blues
Hold me
The storm
Hollerin' and screamin'
You took my love too fast (w/ Bobby Nunn)
Flesh, blood and bones
Cherry wine
Deceivin' blues
Hound dog
Mistrustin' blues (w/ Mel Walker)
Love will break your heart
Lover's lane boogie
You don't miss your water (w/ Big Al Downing)
If it' news to you
Please don't


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