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Esther Phillips

The late Esther Phillips unquestionably falls into the realm of great singers who never received recognition for what was a lifelong contribution to contemporary music. Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, she began singing in church as a young child. When her parents divorced, she divided time between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles, in 1949, that her sister entered her in a talent show at a nightclub belonging to blues man 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 hit single "Double Crossin' Blues.” It topped the R&B charts in early 1950 and paved the way for "Mistrustin' Blues," "Misery," "Cupid Boogie," and "Deceivin' Blues." In 1951, Little Esther and Otis had a falling out, reportedly over money, which led to her departure from his show, In 1954, she returned to Houston to live with her father, having experimented with hard drugs developing a definite addiction to heroin. Short on money, Little Esther worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, Kentucky, stemming from her addiction. In 1962, Kenny Rogers got her signed to his brother’s Lenox label rediscovering her while singing at a Houston club. She re-christened herself Esther Phillips, choosing her last name from a nearby Phillips gas station. Phillips recorded a country-soul rendition of the soon-to-be standard "Release Me," which 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. Her 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, but none of the resulting singles really caught on and the label dropped her in late 1967.

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Album Review

Esther Phillips: Performance

Read "Performance" reviewed by Dan Bilawsky

The decades-long battle with drug addiction, which ultimately led to her untimely demise, contributed to vocalist Esther Phillips' status as a tragic second-tier figure in the larger annals of popular music history, but her music itself was often a triumph of soul-stirring ecstasy. By the time Phillips arrived at CTI's sister label, Kudu Records, her early career hits--made under the name “Little Esther"--were a distant memory. A string of albums for Atlantic Records in the late '60s helped bring her ...

Album Review

Esther Phillips: What A Diff

Read "What A Diff" reviewed by Jim Santella

Originally released in 1975, Esther Phillips’ disco album features her soulful delivery and passionate feel for the blues. This came toward the end of her career, during the singer’s second major comeback.

She always had her finger on the pulse of the listening public. Little Esther had started climbing the stairway to stardom at age thirteen, after an impressive amateur night performance at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles. Having gained notice, she toured the country in ...

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Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson


CTI Masterworks



Double Moon Records


What A Diff

Epic Records


Jazz Budget Line...

CTI Records


The Rising Sun...

Double Moon Records


The Best Of Esther...

Double Moon Records



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