Tuesday, May 31, 2011


When Gil Scott-Heron passed away on Friday, May 27, 2011, I swear the first thing I thought was, "I wonder what he and Esther Phillips will have to say to each other." While Gil could write about the seamy side of life like no one else (eat your heart out, Lou Reed), Esther Phillips lived out the horrid facts of life often detailed in Scott-Heron's songs.

She was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas on December 23, 1935. Esther and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was five, and she spent a lot of her time singing in church choirs and talent shows. One such talent show was held at The Barrelhouse Club, which was owned by L.A. R&B pioneer Johnny Otis. Esther won first prize, and Johnny offered the then 13-year-old Esther a spot in his traveling R&B show. She was usually paired with Bobby Nunn of The Robins (later of the Coasters) in duet spots, though she would have the occasional solo spot, billed as "Little Esther". To avoid trouble with the truant officer, Otis would either lie about her age or use the excuse that she was the sister of one of the band members. Either way, this was not the greatest environment for a young teenage girl to grow up in.

In late 1949, Esther was teamed with The Robins (who, along with Johnny Otis, were recording for the Savoy label out of Newark, NJ) at a recording session which produced "Double Crossing Blues". The record became a sensation, and by February, 1950, Little Esther found herself with a #1 R&B hit - she had just turned 14. To this day, she still holds the record for the youngest female to have a #1 R&B hit single (the similarly ill-fated Aaliyah came close in 1994 with her #1 R&B hit "Back & Forth", but she was fifteen at the time). Little Esther was now officially an R&B superstar. "Double Crossing Blues" stayed at #1 for 9 weeks, and her next two singles, "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Cupid's Boogie" (both duets with Mel Walker of the Johnny Otis band) also hit #1 on the R&B charts, and by the end of 1950, Little Esther had seven Top Ten hits on the R&B charts.

Unfortunately, with great success comes great pressures. Little Esther and the Johnny Otis band were in demand EVERYWHERE, and from 1950 to 1953 she toured constantly. Life on the road was rough, to say the least. Traveling between dates was done by bus, not by plane, and the better hotels in any city were not exactly hospitable to black performers, so they had to make do with second-rate accommodations, or, worse yet, had to find their own housing with loyal fans or in rooming houses. Glamorous, eh? The rigors of the road caused performers to find solace anywhere possible; sex, booze and drugs were the name of the game, and Little Esther soon became familiar with all three - and she wasn't quite 16 yet. Esther Mae Jones was a long way from home, and was growing up fast - too fast. "Little Esther" would not do as a stage name, and one night, when the bus was fueling up at a Phillips 66 gas station, she looked at the sign and decided that "Phillips" would be her new last name. It was just as good as any other name she could have picked - at that point Esther Mae Jones, the little girl from L.A. who sang in the choir was long gone, replaced by a performer with no real home, no stability, and no one in her life to guide her down the right path; she might as well have been born in that lonely gas station on the road.

By 1952, 16-year-old Esther was a veteran of the road, had switched labels from Savoy to Syd Nathan's Federal label (mainly because Savoy's owner, the notoriously tight-fisted Herman Lubinsky, didn't believe in paying ANY royalties to performers OR writers), and had become a full-fledged heroin addict. She started a pattern of not showing up for concerts and recording sessions, and though she continued to record, her sides for Federal were just not selling like her earlier 1950 peak. So strung out she could barely stand most of the time, Esther decided to get well. She quit the tour in 1953, made a few singles for Decca, and announced her retirement the next year. She moved back to her home state of Texas, settling in Houston, and from 1954 to 1962 little was heard from Esther Phillips, though she did record a couple of singles for Savoy in 1956 and both the Federal and Savoy labels continued to release records by her up until 1959.

In early 1962, Esther Phillips became acquainted with up-and-coming record producer Lelan Rogers, aka "The Silver Fox". Lelan not only was the brother of future country superstar Kenny Rogers, but would later go on to produce The 13th Floor Elevators, The Emperors (whose "I Want My Woman" is one of the most primitive garage 45s ever released), and would later form the Silver Fox label, under whose imprint he produced Betty LaVette, George Perkins, Eddy "G" Giles and a number of other great soul artists. Lelan had just formed a brand new label with his partner Bob Gans, Lenox Records, and Esther was the first artist signed to the label. Taking a cue from Ray Charles and his very succesful "R&B meets C&W" fusion, Lelan paired Esther with a tune that was originally a C&W hit for Jimmy Heap and Perk Williams in 1954 called "Release Me". Release it they did, as the first-ever 45 on the Lenox label, and not only did it become her fourth #1 R&B hit, but it hit Top Ten on the pop charts, something Esther had never done before. She continued to record for Lenox until the label went belly-up in 1964, then signed with Atlantic, where she had a few more soul hits. She also traveled to England, and appeared on an episode of "Ready, Steady, Go!" with the Beatles, who told Esther that her remake of "And I Love Her" (done, of course, as "And I Love Him") was, in their opinion, the only tolerable outside version of a Beatles' song they ever heard (they were probably just being nice - her version isn't anything special, though it did hit #11 on the R&B charts in 1965).

Unfortunately, the new round of whirlwind success brought back old habits, and by late 1966 Esther again sought help for her heroin addiction, this time at Syanon Treatment Center in Santa Monica, CA. Upon her release in 1969, she made records for Roulette (where she had another hit with a country remake - "Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry") and Epic, and appeared at several jazz festivals.

She was signed by Creed Taylor's Kudu label in 1971, and her first LP for the label, "From A Whisper To A Scream", contained the selection above, which was released as a single in early 1972. It wasn't her biggest hit, but was definitely her most transcendent performance. Gil Scott-Heron's song about a lonely, anguished junkie who is not welcome at his own home (and thus, feels homeless) because of his addiction took on a new poignancy when Esther Phillips sang it. Plus, let's face it, all of the "junkie" songs up to that point were sung by men (including Gil's original version of "Home Is Where The Hatred Is"), so a WOMAN singing about walking the streets, addicted, unwelcome anywhere was even more chilling to listen to.

Esther Phillips had a few more hits (including a disco remake of "What A Difference A Day Makes") and continued to make good records for Kudu, Mercury and Winning Records (no Charlie Sheen jokes, please) into the 1980s. Unfortunately, she also battled her heroin addiction all through the 1970s, and on August 7, 1984, her kidneys and liver finally gave out. Esther Phillips was only 48 years old. I can only hope that she and Gil Scott-Heron are sitting back, wherever they are, sharing their experiences on Earth. Perhaps they're collaborating on a song.......

Esther Phillips - Home Is Where The Hatred Is (Kudu 904) - 1972

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