Little Esther Mae Jones was born in Galveston, Texas. Her folks' early divorce saw her to bounce between Texas and Watts, California.
She'd discovered early on that music was one thing that couldn't be taken from her. It stuck to her ribs. Just listen to her first hit record—a 1950 orchestral take on Johnny Otis's "Double Crossing Blues"— it's one of the earliest examples of her top-heavy vocals.
Her Savoy label put out four singles, among them "Mistrusting Blues" and "Cupid’s Boogie." She'd soon leave her "Little" moniker behind and forge ahead as Esther Phillips. She was a now stylist in the studio, one who could hold back just enough to deliver the goods, with a tender, emotive street heart. The voice was, unmistakably, all hers.
For the next decade, she walked with ghosts—cold, afraid, trying not to succumb to dismissive re-plays of successes gone by. It was now time for Phillips to harvest whatever was left of a dying dream.
Esther penned some 40 songs, and in that bloodletting—a performer's bread and butter—she hit one home run with a number called “Ring-a-Ding-Doo” (and I can only guess that it may have been a lesser favorite then the other 39 songs).
But enter the '70s with it's urban renewal and open-air drug markets, which changed the sound on the material being written by new masters like Gil Scott-Heron. In fact, Scott-Heron's monster song, "Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” very likely spoke to Ms. Phillips' dream to take a perfect song and make it her own. In 1972, Phillips recorded one of several albums for Kudo Records, first was From a Whisper to a Scream, featuring her cover "Home ..." (Aretha Franklin won the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance and said the award should've gone to Phillips and her From a Whisper album.)
The song's unforgettable groove follows an addict's steps through the streets and tenements. It features flourishes of strings and a cool, funky back beat. Both Gil Scott 's song and Esther's cover have been sampled countless times. Kanye West, in fact, used the keyboard and vocal of the original on his "My Way Home."
Esther Phillips had a few more songs inside of her. The session to record Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes"—which included greats like the Brecker Brothers on horns, Joe Beck on Guitar, and David Sanborn on alto sax—was a big single, resisting fake-jazz
markets and was a goodbye to her family, friends, fans and converts to the soulful style she'd mastered.
I pay respects to this artist who came up the hard way, who was spared few of the trials one encounters when following one's muse. She was always striving for that warm twilight that offers momentary peace from the world.
Esther Phillips died in 1984 at 48 of live and kidney failure due to a long history with booze and drugs. R.I.P.