For some strange reason I’ve never fully embraced the soulful sounds of Esther Phillips. I could use the excuse of being perhaps a little too young to appreciate her more mature vocal stylings and subject matter, but that never stopped me from loving the music of Dionne Warwick or Betty Wright. Perhaps she was a little too jazz, but then again Aretha’s jazz always hit the spot with me. Even being a great fan of the disco era and Esther’s dalliance resulting in her one true crossover hit, “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes”, seemed to have little or no impact on her becoming an integral part of my record collection. And yet, some three decades after listening to a quartet of her late-‘70s albums, I’m seriously starting to question why she never made it onto my radar on a more regular basis.
Phillips may have made her name as a bluesy jazz and R&B singer in the early ‘50s, riding on the coattails of Billie Holliday, Etta James and Dinah Washington, but it was during her stint at the Kudu label in the 1970s that she really shone. Her pipes were still remarkable at the time, and she brought incredible pathos and emotion to some equally challenging material including a sublime version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, and a deft reading of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby, I’m For Real”. Yet after six years with the label she switched allegiance to Mercury Records (the recording home to her primary musical influence, Dinah Washington) who promised her greater artistic control of her career. And it’s here that SoulMusic.com Records revisits all four of her long-players with the major, and for the first time on CD, 1977 debut ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’, which is paired with Phillips’ 1978 sophomore recording, ‘All About Esther’.
For her debut she worked with producer, and her then-musical director, Pee Wee Ellis - the famed James Brown sideman. The combination, while delivering a quality set of jazzy, bluesy numbers with a soft soul centre (“In A Soft Subtle Way” and “I’ve Never Been A Woman Before” could quite easily have been cut by Marlena Shaw and Barbara Mason respectively), failed to hit the chart highs. “Love Addict” was the obvious standout dancer, but it’s her dazzling diversity such as the blues of “You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon”, and her version of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic”, blending gritty country lines with Stax soul, that really makes the album a cut above the rest. Also for the first time on CD is the 9-minute extended disco mix of her racing remake of The Platters’ “My Prayer”.
‘All About Esther’ conversely has a raw street edge masterminded by producer Wayne Henderson (of The Jazz Crusaders fame). “The Man Ain’t Ready” is a rare groove in the making and the only 45 lifted from the album. Elsewhere her cover of Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker” offers a near-Broadway take on the standard, “Ms” sounds like a female Bobby Womack circa “Across 110th Street”, and “Pie In The Sky” and “S.O.S.” are two diamonds in the rough that further underscore why Esther Phillips was the most versatile and charismatic jazz vocalist of her generation.
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of the music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and BBCi. He currently consults for Media 2 Radio and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.