LITTLE ESTHER (aka Esther Phillips)
Born Esther Mae Washington, 23 December 1935, Galveston, Texas
Esther Phillips had a bizarre up-and-down career. A teen star in the 1950s (as Little Esther), an R&B hitmaker in the 1960s, and a jazz stylist and disco favourite in the 1970s, she was capable of creating a truly diverse legacy of recordings.
Esther's real name is not Esther Mae Jones, as other biographies will tell you, but Esther Mae Washington. Jones was the name of her stepfather. Born in Texas, Esther moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles at the age of nine. She was only 13 when she was discovered by Johnny Otis at a talent contest. Soon she joined Otis's orchestra for a three year stint, billed as Little Esther. After recording some unissued sides for Modern, she had her first recording session for the Savoy label in late 1949, with the vocal group the Robins. The resulting single, "Double Crossing Blues" topped the R&B charts for nine weeks and made Esther the youngest person ever to have a # 1 R&B hit. She sang on an amazing six more Top Ten R&B hits in 1950 (four of them duets with Mel Walker), including the number ones "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Cupid's Boogie". Savvy (or at least experienced) beyond her years, Esther was one of the stars of the hottest R&B act in the country, the Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan, at a time when her peers were just starting high school.
She handled the blues with complete conviction with her distinctive, sassy voice. Her phrasing was reminiscent of Dinah Washington, Esther's idol and biggest influence. In a poll of national jukebox operators, she was voted best jazz and blues artist of the year 1950, quite an achievement for a 14-year old. When producer Ralph Bass left Savoy for Federal at the beginning of 1951, Little Esther was one of the acts who went with him. Esther recorded 32 sides for Federal between January 1951 and March 1953, but only one ("Ring-a- Ding-Doo", with Mel Walker) was a national hit (# 8 R&B in February 1952). It is hard to understand why Esther was not as successful on Federal as she was on Savoy. She worked with the same producer (Ralph Bass) and the same musicians (the Johnny Otis band) that she had on Savoy and the material, often from the pens of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was generally superior to the songs she had cut earlier. As was the case with her Savoy recordings, many of her Federal tracks were sung in collaboration with male artists : Bobby Nunn, the Dominoes, Little Willie Littlefield and Mel Walker. Parting with Otis and leaving Federal in 1953, Esther moved to Decca, which did not improve her fortunes. She had developed a heroin habit at a young age and her output was also affected by heavy drinking. In 1956 she was back with Savoy, but her records were no longer played on the radio. At the age of 20, Little Esther was considered a has-been.
But her professional pride made her win the nasty battle with drug addiction, at least temporarily. Re-emerging as Esther Phillips on the Lenox label in 1962, she topped the R&B charts with a remake of the country standard "Release Me" (also # 8 pop), in a style that owed much to the then-recent Ray Charles smash "I Can't Stop Loving You". A switch to Atlantic Records in 1964 yielded hits with female versions of the Beatles' "And I Love Her" ("And I Love Him", # 11 R&B, # 54 pop) and Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" ("When A Woman Loves A Man", # 26 R&B, # 73 pop). She appeared on the UK TV show Ready Steady Go along with the Beatles in 1965. After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966, she drifted back into addiction and underwent treatment at the Synanon Drug Treatment Center at Santa Monica. Phillips made a second comeback in 1969, first on Roulette, then again on Atlantic. She was reunited with Johnny Otis in 1970, touring with her old heroes T-Bone Walker and Eddie Vinson. Several LP releases followed, on Atlantic and from 1972 on the Kudu label. In 1973 she was nominated for a Grammy as best R&B vocalist. She lost to Aretha Franklin, but Franklin promptly turned over her trophy to Miss Phillips, who she said should have won.
Chart-wise, she had one more moment in the spotlight, with a heavy breathing disco version of Dinah Washington's classic "What A Difference A Day Makes" (# 10 R&B, # 20 pop, 1975), also her only hit in the UK (# 6). A Kudu LP with the same title reached # 32 on the album charts. She continued to perform and record in a variety of styles, but continuing problems with drugs and drink took their toll and in August 1984 she died (at UCLA Harbor Medical Center in Torrance, California) from liver and kidney failure at the age of only 48. Her old mentor Johnny Otis conducted Esther's funeral service.
Esther was probably the best early-teen singer of all time. Her voice was simply phenomenal, especially after it had matured and deepened in the 1960s. Perhaps she was too versatile for her own good, at least commercially speaking. She paid her dues for stardom in a way very few performers would ever be required to.
More info : The Story Of Little Esther :
Acknowledgements : Barney Hoskyns (liner notes for Charly KCD 6003), Steve Huey (All Music Guide), Jon Hartley Fox, Eric LeBlanc.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/ephillips.htm (Singles only)
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