Esther Phillips, began her career as an astounding 13-year-old prodigy, singing very adult, saucy blues with the legendary Johnny Otis revue in Los Angeles. Hers was a life filled with both triumphs and tragedy, cut short by the effects of heroin addiction, but less than a year before her death famed critic Leonard Feather hailed her as “the indisputable queen of the blues” in a nightclub review. A superlative singer who could deliver blues, R&B, soul, jazz, pop, and even country songs with candor and conviction, Phillips was a devotee of an earlier blues queen, Dinah Washington and often sang in the same vein while developing her own personal approach. He could play many instruments and might take a turn at the piano onstage but on recordings she focused only on her vocals.
Esther Mae Jones was her legal name when she started singing, but her birth surname was Washington, as registered in Galveston, Texas, on December 23, 1935. In a restart in later years she chose Phillips, inspired by a Phillips 66 sign. But to the blues/R&B world she was simply Little Esther in her teenage era. Raised in Houston and Los Angeles, she sang in church but wrapped herself in the blues early on. Accounts vary as to how she and Johnny Otis met, but the key event was a talent contest at the Barrelhouse Club which Otis co-owned in Watts. Under his auspices she made her first record for the Modern label on August 31, 1949, and soon she was recording hits with Otis on the Savoy imprint, including three consecutive No 1 R&B hits in 1950: “Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,” and “Cupid’s Boogie.” Subsequent sessions for Federal and other labels produced some top-notch singles but sales fell off. Little Esther traveled with Otis and band (and initially with her mother, sister and a tutor) and showed impressive poise at the start, according to Otis’ producer Ralph Bass. While life on the road was exciting, it also deprived her of a normal adolescence. She turned to drugs and would go through periods of recuperation, relapse, and rehabilitation for the rest of her life.
In 1962 Ray Charles’ monumental success with Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music motivated Lenox Records to employ Esther’s vocal expertise in a country setting. The result was one of her biggest hits, “Release Me.” The Lenox connection resulted in a contract with Atlantic Records and a few more hits including a Beatles cover, “And I Love Him,” which led to a BBC-TV appearance co-starring with the Fab Four. Jazz-inflected blues fueled the fine Atlantic albums Burnin’ and Confessin’ the Blues.
Extensive studio crews of top musicians in jazz, funk and soul backed Phillips during the ‘70s on albums for the Kudu label (seven of which made the soul charts in Billboard), followed by releases on Mercury. Her Kudu update of Dinah Washington’s What a Diff’rence a Day Makes was her last big hit, but more striking was her emotionally charged rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s heroin addiction masterpiece “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” The Kudu LP From a Whisper to a Scream earned her a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance of 1972. She lost, but the winner, Aretha Franklin, felt that Phillips deserved it and delivered the Grammy to her. Franklin said, “I gave her my Grammy because Esther was fighting personal demons, and I felt she could use encouragement. As a blues singer, she had her own thing; I wanted Esther to know that I – and the industry – supported her.”
Phillips’ final album for Muse Records was posthumously titled A Way to Say Goodbye. The toll of drug and alcohol use alcohol abuse on her body led to her demise at a hospital in Torrance, California, on August 7, 1984. She was married to agent-producer Clyde B. Atkins, former husband of another of Phillips’ idols, Sarah Vaughan, in 1979 but had filed for divorce. Johnny Otis, with whom she had periodically reunited for guest appearances, preached her funeral and helped raise funds for a headstone. The Los Angeles music community has held several celebrations in her memory.
Inducted in 2023 The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.
-Jim O’Neal, BluEstorica.com