Esther Phillips ‘From A Whisper To A Scream’ (SoulMusic) 5/5

esther-phillipsSome albums acquire a legendary status over time and thus has proven the case with Esther Phillips’ debut for the Kudu label, an offshoot of Creed Taylor’s CTI jazz signature. Factor in the cream of session musicians of the calibre of drummer Bernard Purdie, percussionist Airto Moreira, keyboardist Richard Tee under the expert string arrangements of Don Sebesky, and more generally arranged and conducted by Pee Wee Ellis, freed from JB duties, record the album at the then state of the art Rudy Van Gelder studio (where the classic Blue Notes sessions of the late 1950s and 1960s were cut) and you have one superlative album potentially underway. The missing ingredient is of course the singer herself and by the early 1970s Esther Phillips had managed to keep under control her drug addiction which had ravaged her early career between 1954 and 1962 and an immediately previous tenure with Atlantic records.
Soul fans will be immediately conversant with the highly distinctive vocal delivery that Phillips deployed to such stunning effect on the definitive interpretation of Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘Home is where the hatred is’, the perfect way to open the album, and it is probably true to say that she was truly inspired to sing the lyrics because they resonated with her long-term battle with drug addiction, something Gil himself had to face up to at various stages of his life. However, this is no one track album. Hidden gems exist from start to finish and include the stunning ‘Your love is doggone good’ which is a funky ditty, while deep soul fans will marvel at the balladry prowess of Esther Phillips on a gut wrenching performance of ‘Baby I’m for real’, co-written by Marvin Gaye and his then wife Anna, and here featuring classic string accompaniment and George Benson-inspired guitar licks. An intimate ballad, ‘To lay down beside you’, includes some reggaefied guitar and gorgeous gospel-soaked organ from Tee. Among the covers, two penned by Allen Toussaint require special mention. Both originally featured on Toussaint’s 1971 Scepter album ‘Toussaint’ and the title track, ‘From a whisper to a scream’ combines tasty blues guitar and R & B influenced horns to stunning effect with ‘Sweet touch of love’ only marginally less effective. There is something for jazz fans also in the reworking of Leonard and Jane Feather’s ‘How blue can you get’, the first version of which was recorded as early as 1949, though even Phillips excellent rendition takes a second place to B.B. King’s 1963 seminal version and rightly regarded as the classic interpretation. Nonetheless Phillips breathers new life into the song and then proceeds to enter into laid back, yet deeply funky territory with ‘Til my back ain’t got no bone’ with some delicious electric piano accompaniment from Richard Tee once more. Four bonus cuts (and not alternative versions) transform the original album into a virtual hour expanded spectacular. It is both significant and revealing that Aretha Franklin, of her own volition, gave up the Grammy award she received for the 1973 album, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, and gave it to Esther Phillips whom, she firmly believed, deserved it more. Receiving that kind of accolade from a singer of Franklin’s stature and being held in such high esteem by the musician community more generally speaks volumes of how loved Esther Phillips was as an artist. The album ‘From a whisper to a scream’ demonstrates above all other recordings she ever made how great a singer she truly was. Expert and incisive inner sleeve notes courtesy of soul music connoisseur David Nathan.

Tim Stenhouse