Esther Phillips ‘A Beautiful Friendship: The Kudu Anthology, 1971-1976’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 5/5

Singer Esther Phillips will remain immortal if only for one song, her devastating interpretation of ‘Home is where the heart is’. However, there is a great deal more to the singer than even that towering pinnacle, and as wonderful as this new anthology is, it only covers a brief period in Phillip’s illustrious career. However, within those boundaries, it is authoritative and as such a worthy addition to any collection.

Blessed with one of the most distinctive voices, and undoubtedly influenced by Dinah Washington (though no clone), Esther Phillips began her career as jazz and R & B singer, and on the first CD, it is the former, combined with blues and gospel flavours, that mark her out as a singer of distinction. She excels on the intimate ballads, such as the compilation title track, where her credentials on the intimate supper club jazz circuit come to the fore, or on the blues-inflected live performance of ‘Cherry Red’, with delicious keyboards and saxophone accompaniment. Phillips was listening to all the right people and these included Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, as well as Dinah Washington, whom she most resembles in approach. Indeed on songs such as ‘How blue can you get?’ and ‘I don’t want to do wrong’, one wonders whether Washington would have evolved in this direction had she lived on. Irrespective, the listener is in for a treat and a journey into the depths of urban black music.

Esther Phillips was versatile enough to take on board new updates, but always crafted them within the building blocks of blues, jazz and emerging soul, and it was this cross-boundaries open-mindedness that was her true forte and vocation. The second CD goes into overdrive on her more commercially successful period and that includes an edited version of ‘What a difference a day make’, a superior take on the disco genre, but equally thought provoking lyrics on the cover of ‘Disposable society’ and socially conscious ‘Can’t trust your neighbour with your baby’, and interpreting some of the classiest of soul writers such as Isaac Hayes and David Porter on the aforementioned number, or Caroline Franklin on ‘Too many roads’. Arguably, Esther Phillips should have enjoyed far greater success, but her sound went out of vogue in the late 1970’s, and she had passed away by 1982, just as a new generation were barely discovering her back catalogue.

A vast fifteen page essay by compiler David Nathan offers the reader a genuine insight into her life, and Esther Phillips was a singer who did not leave you indifferent. Graphical illustrations include the various 45’s and seven LPs and there are full discographical details. You simply cannot acquire enough examples of this wonderful singer, but if you do have to cut corners and focus on the essential, this is just about the first place to start. You will still want the complete ‘From a whisper to a scream’, which is available, and two pairings of non-Kudu albums are likely to whet the appetite of completists.

Tim Stenhouse