ESTHER PHILLIPS – From Little Esther To Esther Phillips

“She offers soul-shaking evidence that there is no better lesson in the art of singing the blues than a graduate course in living it”

  • Leonard Feather, Renowned Jazz pianist, composer, producer, and music journalist’s comments after experiencing an Esther Phillips live performance

Given the harsh realities that Phillips had to face, (often alone), even before the start of her singing career at an impossibly young 14 years of age, it was a more than apt observation.

The life experiences coupled with the struggles with racism and sexism she encountered as an African American woman were constantly interwoven with her singing career and hardened her outlook on life. Consider another quote, this time from producer Jerry Wexler – one of the more empathetic record executives when it came to racial relations – reflecting on Phillips’ stay at Atlantic Records in the mid to late 60’s when Esther was in her early 30’s: “Esther Phillips was great to work with. Funny, and so hip, so sly. She’d give you that look, like, I know where you’re coming from, whitey, so don’t bullshit me papa”.

Nothing seemed to come easy for Esther Mae Jones who was born in Galveston Texas on December 23, 1935. She came from a troubled family; her parents divorced when Esther was very young resulting in her splitting her time with her father in Houston and mother in Galveston. Esther was 5 when her mother moved her and her sister Marianna to the Watts neighbourhood of L.A. Once settled there, young Esther established herself singing in the choir at The Sanctified Church – a precursor of what life had in store for Esther down the road.

Esther started on her way to a singing career as a teenager. The story goes that Esther, her sister Marianna, and a friend were looking to scrape up enough money to buy the makings for a popular drink at the time, White Port wine and lemon juice. Having no money whatsoever, and knowing of Esther’s passion for singing, Marianna – unbeknownst to Esther who was 13 at the time – entered her in a talent contest at The Largo Theatre. Esther did a version of her idol Dinah Washington’s “Baby, Get Lost”, winning first prize of $10. (In a New York Times interview, Esther said “by the time I was 12 or 13 I was singing like Dinah Washington; that was who I wanted to be”).

While there’s no information as to whether the girls went out and bought what was needed for the drink that served as the motivation for entering Esther in the contest in the first place, another benefit to winning the contest presented itself. Namely, local band leader and innovator in the emerging R&B field, Johnny Otis was in the audience and immediately recognized the nascent talent of the precocious Phillips.

In addition to being a recording artist, Otis also wrote songs and worked as a producer. And Otis owned a nightclub – The Barrelhouse in Watts – that featured R&B acts exclusively. He used the steady stream of artists that he booked at The Barrelhouse as a foundation of his revue, The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan. After some work tracking her down, Otis booked Esther for his revue at the club, and subsequently took her on tour with The Caravan.

Esther was in the studio when Otis, with his working band, was producing a recording for The Robins, (later to be known as The Coasters), and there was some studio time left. With the plan to record Esther with The Robins backing her, Otis wrote a song on the spot in 20 minutes. Using Bobby Nunn, (The Robins’ bass singer), as a foil for Esther, they cut the classic “Double Crossing Blues”.

“Double Crossing Blues” by “Little Esther”, (so named by Otis), was released on the Savoy label in 1950 and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts. It stayed on the charts for 22 weeks, and sold over 1 million copies! Quite a debut to say the least.

But “Little Esther” wasn’t done. In the same year, backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra with Mel Walker assuming Bobby Nunn’s role, she followed “Double Crossing Blues” with 2 more # 1 hits: “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid’s Boogie”. And, with the same line-up, Esther had 4 more top ten hits before the year was out: “Misery” (placing at # 9), “Deceivin’ Blues” (# 4), “Wedding Boogie” (# 6), and “Faraway Christmas Blues” (# 6).

So, to sum up the year 1950, “Little Esther” Phillips – Esther took the name “Phillips” from the then popular Phillips 66 gas station banner – had 7 top ten hits with 3 of those hitting number 1! And Phillips was only 15 years old at the time!

But factors came into play that would dampen the promise of 1950. A predominant issue was Phillips’ long time drug addiction and dependency, (including time she spent in rehab), that caused her to miss opportunities when she wasn’t physically able to participate in either or both recording sessions and live performances. And when she was able to bring her considerable talent forward any prospective success was hampered by record companies that lacked a vison as to how to market her; (even during her stint at Atlantic Records that had a history of promoting female artists such as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and Aretha Franklin successfully). As well-regarded and talented as Phillips was, there was potential for so much more.

The road to Esther’s well known addiction to heroin was paved before she was 20 years old. It’s been rumoured that singer Mel Walker, (who himself died of an overdose), introduced her to heroin. But if it wasn’t Walker it probably would have been someone else because as Esther stated she started indulging “because it was there; it was available”.

Not to condone her behaviour but, rather, to offer some perspective, picture a teenager / young adult who only knew a life of constantly being on the road playing one nighters at dance halls, theatres, and tobacco warehouses across the country. She travelled and played with musicians a number of years her senior, and she had no friends or acquaintances her age to socialize with as a “normal” teenage life eluded her. She had a tutor on the road but it was next to impossible to read or study given the usual musicians’ tour bus mayhem. (Esther remembers receiving a “diploma”, a piece of paper presented to her that she long suspected was paid for). It’s not hard to visualize that young Esther turned to drugs because of the sameness, and the tedium of going from yet one nameless stop to another; hoping that the drugs would emotionally and psychologically transport her somewhere else.

All of the above accepted, Esther still enjoyed some highlights in her 35 year career that spanned some 20 albums and over 25 single releases.

After parting ways with Otis and Savoy at the end of 1950, Esther signed with Federal. But aside from the # 8 R&B charting ”Ring-A-Ding-Do” in 1952, there were no other comparatively noteworthy releases among the 30 some odd sides she cut for Federal. With her addiction raging she moved back to Houston to live with her father with the hope of laying low while recovering. Esther was out of the general public eye playing small clubs in the South between periodic stays at a Lexington Kentucky hospital in an attempt to kick her habit when Kenny Rogers caught her at a Houston club. Rogers got her signed to his brother’s Lenox label. (At Kenny’s urging, Leland Rogers actually started the label with thoughts of Phillips serving as the cornerstone).

It was 1962 and the 27 year old Esther Phillips, (no longer billed as “Little Esther”), was on the comeback trail with an immediate hit for her new label with the Country standard “Release Me” that went # 1 R&B and # 8 Pop. (The release no doubt benefitted from the urban Blacks’ renewed interest in Country music thanks to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music released the same year). Phillips would record one album for Lenox in 1963 – of the same name – before Lenox went bankrupt that same year. But as that door closed another door opened for Esther – Jerry Wexler stepped in and bought out her contract as well as the masters, and signed her to the prestigious Atlantic label.

As previously stated, Atlantic didn’t quite know how to channel her evident talent. To their credit they alternately tried to capture her mastery of assorted styles, be it Blues, R&B, Pop, show tunes, or Jazz. And, as you would expect from the marriage of the Atlantic label and such a thoroughly professional and refined singer, there were some brilliant moments to be had and remembered. Case in point was her first single, a take on The Beatles “And I Love Him” that hit the Pop charts at # 58 and just missed making the R&B Top Ten in 1965. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were so taken with her version of the song that they brought her to the U.K. for an appearance on the popular BBC TV show Ready, Steady Go. Another single, Esther’s Percy Sledge answer song “When A Woman Loves A Man” would make it to # 20 in the R&B chart.

But the unquestioned highlight of her Atlantic career is two outstanding albums: Burnin’ / Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A. and Confessin’ The Blues (a combination of studio and live recordings with the live performances again taken from Jett’s Pied Pepper). On both of these releases Phillips is in complete command delivering a set of varied Blues, Jazz, and Pop standards. Backed by a stellar big band, Phillips pushes herself forward on the strength of her rich textured voice. The effortless Jazz phrasing exhibited shouldn’t come as a surprise given that while she was singing R&B in her teens, it was also at that time that young Esther began to appreciate both Sara Vaughan and Charlie Parker. In fact, Esther was known to vocally mimic some of Parker’s solos note for note. Burnin’ caught the imagination of both old and new fans proving to be her bestselling album to date, placing # 7 on the R&B charts.  

Unfortunately, her drug addiction and dependency were a major barrier to capitalizing on any success that Phillips had to date. That is, her substance abuse, and subsequent stints in rehab,  caused her to both miss dates and cancel gigs because she was physically unable to perform. After more therapy, Esther finally seemed on the road to recovery, and in 1971 Creed Taylor signed her to his CTI / Kudu label. Taylor was known for his synthesis of Funk, Jazz, and Pop; a formula that worked perfectly for Phillips. In her words: “I had a lot of fun on that label because he (Taylor) allowed me to stretch out and say whatever I wanted to say”.

The 6 albums released on Kudu from 1972 through 1975 and the associated acclaim served as a resurgence and proved to be a high point in Esther’s career. Of special mention is her initial Kudu release in 1972, From A Whisper To A Scream, that has to rank as one of, if not the best, album in her career. Arranged and conducted by Pee Wee Ellis, (of James Brown fame), and backed by an early version of the Jazz/ Funk outfit Stuff including Bernard Purdie on drums and Hank Crawford on alto, Whisper may be Phillips finest hour. The opening number is a reading of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, that rings autobiographically and Phillips courageously makes her own. The chilling lyrics are delivered directly, with no histrionics, as unvarnished truth:

Home is where I live
Inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum
That’s filled now with my silent screams

Home is where the needle marks
Tryin’ to heal my broken heart

And it might not be such a bad idea
If I never, I never went home again

Whisper is a seamless set that includes Phillips’ definitive version of Allen Toussaint’s title cut; (listen a couple of times – no one else’s take can match Esther’s profound heartbreak). The most compelling evidence of the album’s excellence is the fact that when it was nominated for a 1973 Grammy Award, and losing out to Aretha Franklin’s Young Gifted And Black, the Queen Of Soul herself – in a rare moment of humility – turned around and presented the Grammy to Phillips. Aretha, in her presentation of the Award, said that Whisper was not only the best album in the category of “Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female”, but rated as the best album of the year period!

One other Kudu album merits a special mention because it proved to be the best selling album of Esther Phillips’ career. Backed by some of New York’s finest session musicians including Joe Beck, David Sanborn, and the Brecker Brothers, the album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes – her last on Kudu – made the Top Ten R&B and Top Twenty Pop. The album’s the title cut, a disco style re-working of her idol Dinah Washington’s song reached # 2 on the U.S. Dance Charts and even earned her a guest spot on the hugely popular nationally televised Saturday Night Live.

After her stint with CTI / Kudu, Phillips moved to Mercury for another four albums but couldn’t recapture the magic she discovered at CTI. Phillips’ health was failing, and although successfully recovering from her heroin addiction and dependency some years previous, the years of hard living and abuse were too much for her body to withstand. Esther Phillips passed as a result of kidney and liver failure on August 7, 1984 at the age of 48.

Esther Phillips was:

  • nominated for four Grammy Awards
  • nominated twice for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
  • named Best R&B Vocalist 1974-75 by Rolling Stone Magazine
  • named Best Female Blues Vocalist 1974-75 by Ebony Magazine
  • named Best Female Jazz Artist 1976 by NATRA (National Association Of Radio & TV Announcers)

Esther Phillips proved to be adept at singing Blues, R&B, Soul, Jazz, Pop, and Disco. In her words: “I sing Jazz, Blues, and ballads….I’m just a singer. If I like a song it doesn’t matter to me where it comes from. I can do it my way”.

Sure enough!

While I was doing my time in corporate marketing, I had a Blues calendar on the wall in my office – not standard practice, at least not at the company I was working for. (It always made for a talking point when someone came into my office). The calendar featured a different artist each month and one particular month it was Esther Phillips complete with a shot from the Burnin’ album cover. I remember that when my co-workers would ask about her, my stock answer was something like: “That’s the great Esther Phillips who started her career at 14 years old and died at 48. What was so great about her is that she was the first female superstar in R&B, and the youngest to have a # 1 hit. And, she could do it all with conviction and authority: Blues, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and Country”.

I always thought that to be a pretty good thumbnail summary of Esther Phillips.


  1. Double Crossing Blues
  2. Mistrustin’ Blues
  3. Cupid’s Boogie
  4. Misery
  5. Deceivin’ Blues
  6. Wedding Boogie
  7. Faraway Blues
  8. Release Me
  9. And I Love Him
  10.  I Could Have Told You So
  11.  Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream
  12.  Confessin’ The Blues
  13.  Use Me
  14.  I’ve Never Found A Man
  15.  Home Is Where The Hatred Is
  16.  From A Whisper To A Scream
  17.  That’s All Right With Me
  18.  Till My Back Ain’t Got No Bone
  19.  Sweet Touch Of Love
  20.  Baby I’m For Real
  21.  Black-Eyed Blues
  22.  What A Diff’rence A Day Makes
  • Rico Ferrara, June 2021

5 thoughts on “ESTHER PHILLIPS – From Little Esther To Esther Phillips

  1. Another great article. I almost saw her in 1971 at the Colonial, but she cancelled, undoubtedly due to the issues you have written about. Like Dinah Washington, she could sing anything and make it amazing. Really enjoyed your insightful comments on her vocal style.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Esther Phillips was a power house of soul. Her singing was hauntingly beautiful. As noted above by Mitch, the commentary on her vocalization was enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

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