Born in Galveston, Texas, Esther Phillips was something of a child prodigy, known as little Esther, and began performing aged just thirteen as part of the Johnny Otis band. Indeed, she recorded a single as early as 1949, covering a Dinah Washington song and the latter is clearly the voice that most influenced Phillips’ own distinctive delivery. It would be six years before Esther Phillips eventually split up and the transformation form the teenager into the fully matured woman singer would become reality when she signed to Atlantic records in the 1960s and this would mark a crucial phase in her career.
This superb value for money box set groups together her Atlantic albums and is the ideal introduction for fans who only know her Kudu period that culminated in the seminal, ‘From a whisper to a scream’, album from the mid-1970s. Chronologically, the album contained within date between 1964 and 1970, though in the case of ‘Confessin’ the blues’, this was issued for the first time once Phillips had enjoyed success with the Kudu albums.
A stunning live recording, ‘Burnin’. Live at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper Club, L.A.’ captures Esther with a crack line-up of musicians who at the time were playing behind Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. They included guitarist Cornell Dupree, tenorist King Curtis, trumpeter Joe Newman, fender bassist Chuck Rainey, while among others drummer Donald Bailey had been a long-time member of Jimmy Smith while Richard Tee was a respected keyboardist who shares duties on hammond organ with Paul Griffin. The whole album cooks from beginning to end and is a lovely balanced mix of R & B such as an interpretation of Aretha’s ‘Don’t let me lose this dream’ and even Lennon and McCartney’s ‘And I love her’ with some choice jazz covers. The back cover of the album is designed like separate articles from a faux newspaper page.
What is even more of a treat for the listener is that a much later album, ‘Confessin’ the blues’ has the second side devoted entirely to additional numbers from the live L.A. concert. However, side one of studio recordings is outstanding with big band jazzy accompaniment and Dinah Washington-esque vocals as illustrated to perfection on, ‘I’m getting ‘long alright’, an intimate guitar and vocal duet with guitarist François Vaz on while the title track is a storming uptempo piece with a lovely piano solo from Rodgers Grant who around the same period was part of Latin jazz percussionist, Mongo Santamaria’s group.
In several respects, Esther Phillips personal life played out in a similar way to that of Amy Winehouse decades later and the former’s addiction to heroine resulted in her being dropped by Atlantic. In Phillips’ case, however, she went into rehab and succeeded in kicking the habit sufficiently to re-join the label in 1969 and record the live album already referred to. One album worthy of attention bombed at the time, but in retrospect was a harbinger of things to come. The title, ‘The country side of Esther Phillips’, says it all and at the time the pairing of a black female singer in an
R &B/jazz idiom with country music may have appeared strange. Now viewed with the fullness of time, the combination of country with soul/blues seems an obvious complementary one and not all a pairing of polar opposites as perceived at the time.
In a jazzier vein, ‘Esther Phillips Sings’, was co-arranged by Oliver Nelson and Ray Ellis and was a clear indication that Atlantic were trying the singer out in different musical environments in much the same way that Columbia did not know how to
situate Aretha Franklin in a single musical genre before Jerry Wexler came in and signed her to Atlantic.
With a plethora of biographical and discographical information on the back covers, once again the microscopic print required a magnifying glass, but there is plenty of useful historical detail for all that. As useful as this box set unquestionably is, the reader/listener will ideally want to supplement it with a single budget CD anthology, ‘The Atlantic Years’ (Warner/Rhino) and going the extra mile with this means you have some of the classy singles that are not included on the box set.