She mastered a series of genres, including soul-meets-country, blues, and even '70s disco.
Esther Phillips was perhaps too versatile for her own good, at least commercially speaking; while she was adept at singing blues, early R&B, gritty soul, jazz, straight-up pop, disco, and even country, her record companies often lacked a clear idea of how to market her, which prevented her from reaching as wide an audience as she otherwise might have. An acquired taste for some, Phillips' voice had an idiosyncratic, nasal quality that often earned comparisons to Nina Simone, although she herself counted Dinah Washington as a chief inspiration.
Phillips' career began when she was very young and by some accounts, she was already battling drug addiction during her teenage years; whenever her problems took root, the lasting impact on her health claimed her life before the age of 50. Esther Phillips was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, TX, on December 23, 1935, and began singing in church as a young child. When her parents divorced, she split time between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles.
It was while she was living in Los Angeles in 1949 that her sister entered her in a talent show at a nightclub belonging to bluesman Johnny Otis. So impressed was Otis with the 13-year-old that he brought her into the studio for a recording session with Modern Records and added her to his live revue.
Billed as Little Esther, she scored her first success when she was teamed with the vocal quartet the Robins (who later evolved into the Coasters) on the Savoy single "Double Crossin' Blues." It was a massive hit, topping the R&B charts in early 1950 and paving the way for a series of successful singles bearing Little Esther's name: "Mistrustin' Blues," "Misery," "Cupid Boogie," and "Deceivin' Blues." In 1951, Little Esther moved from Savoy to Federal after a dispute over royalties, but despite being the brightest female star in Otis' revue, she was unable to duplicate her impressive string of hits. Furthermore, she and Otis had a falling out, reportedly over money, which led to her departure from his show; she remained with Federal for a time, then moved to Decca in 1953, again with little success. In 1954, she returned to Houston to live with her father, having already developed a fondness for the temptations of life on the road; by the late '50s, her experiments with hard drugs had developed into a definite addiction to heroin.
She re-signed with Savoy in 1956, to little avail, and went on to cut sides for Federal and (in 1960) Warwick, which went largely ignored. Short on money, Little Esther worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, KY, stemming from her addiction.
In 1962, she was rediscovered while singing at a Houston club by future country star Kenny Rogers, who got her signed to his brother's Lenox label. Too old to be called Little Esther, she re-christened herself Esther Phillips, choosing her last name from a nearby Phillips gas station.
Phillips recorded a country-soul reading of the soon-to-be standard "Release Me," which was released as a single late in the year. In the wake of Ray Charles' groundbreaking country-soul hit "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Release Me" was a smash, topping the R&B charts and hitting the Top Ten on both the pop and country charts.
Back in the public eye, Phillips recorded a country-soul album of the same name, but Lenox went bankrupt in 1963. Thanks to her recent success, Phillips was able to catch on with R&B giant Atlantic, which initially recorded her in a variety of musical settings to see what niche she might fill best. It was eventually decided to play up her more sophisticated side and accordingly, Phillips cut a blues-tinged album of jazz and pop standards; her string-laden remake of the Beatles song "And I Love Him" (naturally, with the gender changed) nearly made the R&B Top Ten in 1965 and the Beatles flew her to the U.K.
for her first overseas performances. Encouraged, Atlantic pushed her into even jazzier territory for her next album, Esther Phillips Sings; however, it didn't generate much response and was somewhat eclipsed by her soul reading of Percy Sledge's "When a Woman Loves a Man" (again, with the gender changed), which made the R&B charts.
Nonplussed, Atlantic returned to their former tactic of recording Phillips in as many different styles as possible, but none of the resulting singles really caught on and the label dropped her in late 1967. With her addiction worsening, Phillips checked into a rehab facility; while undergoing treatment, she cut some sides for Roulette in 1969 and upon her release, she moved to Los Angeles and re-signed with Atlantic. A late-1969 live gig at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club produced the album Burnin', which was acclaimed as one of the best, most cohesive works of Phillips' career.
Despite that success, Atlantic still wanted her to record pop tunes with less grit and when their next attempts failed to catch on, Phillips was let go a second time. In 1971, she signed with producer Creed Taylor's Kudu label, a subsidiary of his hugely successful jazz fusion imprint CTI.
Her label debut, From a Whisper to a Scream, was released in 1972 to strong sales and highly positive reviews, particularly for her performance of Gil Scott-Heron's wrenching heroin-addiction tale "Home Is Where the Hatred Is." Phillips recorded several more albums for Kudu over the next few years and enjoyed some of the most prolonged popularity of her career, performing in high-profile venues and numerous international jazz festivals. In 1975, she scored her biggest hit single since "Release Me" with a disco-fied update of Dinah Washington's "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" (Top Ten R&B, Top 20 pop), and the accompanying album of the same name became her biggest seller yet. In 1977, Phillips left Kudu for Mercury, landing a deal that promised her the greatest creative control of her career.
She recorded four albums for the label, but none matched the commercial success of her Kudu output and after 1981's A Good Black Is Hard to Crack, she found herself without a record deal. Her last R&B chart single was 1983's "Turn Me Out," a one-off for the small Winning label; unfortunately, her health soon began to fail, the culmination of her previous years of addiction combined with a more recent flirtation with the bottle.
Phillips died in Los Angeles on August 7, 1984, of liver and kidney failure. ~ Steve Huey.