With a career spanning five decades, Esther Phillips left an impressive legacy of music. She is of course known as a blues singer from her early recordings as Little Esther as part of the Johnny Otis Show. As a thirteen, she recorded “Double Crossing Blues,” with the Robins and had other hits on Savoy with Otis including “Mistrusting Blues” with Mel Walker and “Cupid Boogie” among a number of hit recordings. Later she signed with Federal where she only had one chart record, “Ring-A-Ding-Doo,” but had some great sides including “Brother Beware,” and “The Deacon Moves In,” the latter with the Dominoes. She also had a fine interpretation of Big Mama Thornton’s hit, “Hound Dog.”
In the mid to late fifties, she was still touring the western states where Kenny Rogers, then a struggling performer, saw her and introduced her and introduced his brother, Lelan who co-owned the Lenox label. Signed to Lenox, she recorded, in 1962, her first hit in a decade, a remake of an old Ray price C&W charter, “Release Me,” leading to her recording her an album of country and western songs. After Lenox went bust, Esther ended up on Atlantic which bought her Lenox masters as well as recorded a number of superb sessions. her first hot for Atlantic was “ And I Love Him,” a cover of the Beatles hit that so enamored the British stars that they flew her over to England to perform on a British television show with them.
If one looks at some blues references works such as the Euro-centric Penguin Guide as well as the latest edition of Blues Records, one does not find Esther Phillips recordings represented after her Federal days. This means that her Atlantic albums “ Burnin’” and “Confessing the Blues,” are not considered. “Burnin’” and “Confessin’ the Blues,” are paired on a Collectables reissue and also were sampled in Rhino’s compilation of Esther’s Atlantic Recordings.
“Blues Records” does state that it is a selective discography, but one notes that perhaps they should have listened to some of these albums. The Penguin Guide generally ignores even Bobby Bland’s recent recordings, including some selected by The Blues Foundation for its Hall of Fame, while including recordings that would not be out of place in a book on rock recordings.
It might reflect that some African-American recordings often do not like to be described as blues singers. The late Tyrone Davis was one, not that he didn’t like or respect the blues, but they felt that they could sing so much more. Perhaps reflecting the time in the post-war era when black singers were usually given blues material to perform. I recall Ruth Brown in the eighties might have made a similar statement, although a decade later the great rhythm and blues pioneer would show no such qualms with being called a blues singer, and she continued to record more than simply blues. Whites want to be called bluesmen or blues women because it supposedly lends them credibility. When they play rock, it allegedly is taking the blues in new directions. I realize this commentary is oversimplified, but many of these same folks will be among those criticizing hip hop as having no connection to blues, ignoring the facts that both blues and rap (soul, doowop, gospel, jazz) are part of the African-American River of Song).
Both of these recordings have made a strong impression on this listener. “ Burnin’” is a live recording that was recorded at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper, in L.A. The live recording was with a trio or maybe a quartet I believe, and later King Curtis overdubbed horns, and other musicians. He did a rather startling good job in the overdub as it sounds seamless. It is a mix of material from standards and pop tunes to the blues. It opens with a marvelous swinging rendition of Aretha’s “If I Lose This Dream,” that displays her growth into a more mature, richer singer with a nasally vinegary sound mixed with a strong does of the Queen, Dinah Washington, with the overdubbed punchy horns extremely effective. Her wonderful rendition of the Beatles’ “And I Love Him,” is dedicated to the lovers in the audience is followed by her “Cry Me A River Blues,” in which she transforms the torch song identified with Julie London into a hot jump blues with her incorporation of Leroy Carr’s “After the Sun Goes Down,” and the Pete Johnson-Joe Turner classic “Roll ‘Em Pete.” For those who have “The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey,” this is a separate contemporaneous recording of this. “Release Me” follows and shows that 8 years after first waxing this, she displays a similar soulful approach to country material as did Ray Charles. If the marvelous vocalist, Janiva Magness, did a similarly styled rendition of this number, would folks claim this ain’t blues. The fact that she was at home in a sophisticated vein to do “Makin’ Whoopee” or handle the ballad, “If It’s the Last Thing I Do,” does diminish the blues core of the music here, and can their be any complaint with her wonderful rendition of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love.”
And the fact that “ Confessin’ the Blues” finds her with her big band does not make this stunning Atlantic studio date any less a blues album than Joe Williams with Count Basie, Sonny Parker with Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Witherspoon or Walter Brown with Jay McShann or Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson with is own groups. What a delicious selection of material including “I'm Gettin' 'Long Alright,” which sounds like a tough number out of the Dinah Washington songbook (and it may well be), the classic Cecil Gant ballad “I Wonder,” the Walter Brown-Jay McShann hit “Confessin’ the Blues.” She gets so seductive on the Lil Green classic “In the Dark,”while she shows how she can boogie her man’s woogie on “Cherry Red.” Then there is a terrific big band arrangement for her interpretation of Leroy Carr’s “In the Evening.” The highlight though is a terrific medley taken primarily from Dinah Washington (“Blow Top Blues” and “Long John Blues” and Billy Eckstine (“Jelly Jelly Blues”) that also incorporates bits of Eckstine’s “Stormy Monday Blues” (not T-Bone’s “(Call It) Stormy Monday”) and other songs. It is also a medley she would perform in Monterey with Otis. The disc also includes a couple of standards but doesn’t change the fact that this is an album substantially of blues performances of the highest order. Maybe that is the problem in that Esther is a vocalist and that the album lacks the focus on rocking blues guitars and is too ‘sophisticated’ to be blues for some blues ‘authorities.’
Both of these recordings show how good the blues could sound when handled by someone who certainly had lived through some real hard times in both her relationships and her addiction, yet was an experienced and mature vocal stylist. Paired together by Collectables, this is a terrific “Blues” CD that may have overlooked by some.
Esther continued to make significant and powerful recordings and I will consider an Australian compilation of her Kudu recordings tomorrow.
I purchased this CD.