Esther Phillips ‘Baby, I’m For Real! 4 Classic Albums 1971-1974’ 2CD (Raven) 5/5

esther-phillipsUK rare groove favourite LP ‘From a whisper to a scream’ propelled Esther Phillips back into the limelight a decade or so after her untimely death aged just forty-eight and the cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Home is where the heart is’ is that rare example of a song that actually improves on the original if that is at all possible. This album along with three others from the CTI/Kudu period form the basis of this mini anthology that only spans a four-year period, yet is rich in jazz inflected soul. What is far less known about Phillips is that she had already carved out a career for herself during the 1960s on Atlantic records and these are worthy of investigation in their own right and have surfaced from the 1990s onwards on CD elsewhere (Jazz Collectables series in the US).
Come forth genial Australian re-issue label Raven, a kind of Aussie equivalent of Ace records in terms of quality single artists anthology and various artist compilations, that have distinguished themselves with terrific re-issues of Bill Withers, Bobbi Gentry and the Louvin Brothers among others. Attention to detail in the inner sleeve notes, near eighty minute length CDs with rare bonus cuts are the distinctive signs of Raven and they have come up trumps once again with Esther Phillips who scored a major hit with ‘What a difference a day makes’, but in general her canon of work has been wrongly overlooked and undervalued. In fact her contribution should be judged also on the number of subsequent singers who fused jazz and soul idioms ranging from Jean Carn and Phylis Hyman through to Anita Baker.

The follow-up to ‘From a whisper..’ stands up equally as a mini masterpiece and ‘Alone again, naturally’ was released in 1973 and features an irresistible interpretation of Bill Withers’ ‘Use me’ with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do right woman, do right man’ a close second and a cover of the blues number ‘Cherry Red’ another fine album track. A constant in Phillips’ work is first the ability to recognise a classic tune early on its lifetime and then to envelope it with a highly individual rendition. Esther Phillips clearly had a keen ear and covered the compositions of Eddie Floyd, Marvin Gaye, Carol King, Dr. John and Eugene McDaniels to wonderful effect, and it is as if the songs were originally intended for her. Furthermore, her jazz roots were never entirely forgotten and thus one finds the occasional standard incorporated into her repertoire and among Esther Phillips own vocal influences one finds Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington as well as R & B singers such as Johnny Otis and jazz instrumentalists of the calibre of John Coltrane. One must remember that these albums were recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios where the classic Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige albums were recorded and this under the expert arrangements of Creed Taylor. The second CD retains the listener’s interest and Esther Phillips achieved that most difficult of tasks, bridging soul and jazz idioms without losing any of the intensity or integrity of the latter in the process. A fine all round anthology that captures the singer at her creative peak and is strongly recommended to fans of quality music.

Tim Stenhouse