ESTHER PHILLIPS / “Esther Phillips Mixtape”
We owe a lot to a junkie. Especially those of us who either don’t know, or more likely don’t care to know the human cost of this gift of music we so deeply enjoy. You think such a profound voice achieves those higher heights without hard climbing? A while back (three years ago) we spotlighted an Esther Phillips song on BoL and we said at that time that we would present more of her music at a later time. Well, the later time is now. Esther Phillips died at 48. Liver and kidney failure. Essentially her body gave up and gave out. It’s easy to say the drugs and alcohol are responsible, and if she were the only one, or one of only a few in that shape, that diagnosis would be acceptable. But literally millions of people in this society are junkies. What drives so many of us to drugs? What we need to realize is that Esther Phillips the junkie was a lot like most of us. However, Esther Phillips the artist was what most of us are not brave enough to be. How many of us would lay everything on the line to create art which will be consumed by others? Esther couldn’t eat her art. It didn’t shelter her or even put clothes on her back. The entertainment aspects of her art did that. Yes, she made money from her early string of hits in the fifties when she was a teenager. But from then on her life was a roller coaster of pain and pleasure, ups and downs of rewards and punishments. She had hit records but also got cut from record companies. Regardless of the ins and outs that she weathered, Esther always sang like her life depended on a song. She sang old songs. She sang new songs. She could spit blues like a delta blues man or sing the shit out of a Beatles song. Esther Phillips. Last of the red hots. Daughter of Dinah (Washington). Esther—she of the cutting voice: high, sharp, with a quiver that moved you. You could just tell from the way she sang that she knew more about living than did most of the bodies to whom she sang. Esther Phillips. She had the temperament of one of those attractive women who carries a pearl-handled straight razor; she was nothing to fuck with capriciously. But its hard on your tender parts to always be tough. It catches up with you—the weight is so heavy. As I listen to the mixtape for the umpteenth time, I marvel anew at the way she handles up on some of those songs. And, man, that “Stormy Weather” sounds like the aftermath of a direct hit by a category five hurricane. She just plain wipes you out with her interpretation. Neither you nor I have ever heard that old song done like that. That story she puts on the beginning is not something you make up for a recording session, rather that tale is truth telling done on the occasion of a recording session. Yes, the background voices are smooth but Esther’s lead is rough, tough and too much. Esther could do it all, one of the last truly versatile singers: jazz, no problem; blues, that’s the hand she fan with; R&B, gimme a backbeat! And if you want to go country, let’s go. On “Georgia Rose” she delivers a Gil Scott-Heron lyric like she owns it. Indeed, the penultimate song, “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” another Gil composition, is also delivered with the deep authenticity of autobiography. I have always believed that the blues were political, the themes of the lyrics notwithstanding. Check out the quartet of songs concluding this mixtape. These songs are as political as popular American music gets. We owe a lot to Esther Phillips and I’m not talking about fame or fortune. I’m talking about respect and gratitude. She paid the cost to make this music, to give us something to listen to and be uplifted by in the process. Esther Phillips, the junkie, not much different from the people we ignore everyday in our neighborhoods and on the streets of our nation. Esther Phillips. The least we can do is remember her and celebrate the gift of music she gave to us. I don’t feel like writing anymore… —Kalamu ya Salaam Esther Phillips Mixtape Playlist 01 “All The Way Down” - Anthology 02 “I Don't Want To Do Wrong” - Alone Again Naturally 03 “Use Me” – Anthology 04 “Going Out Of My Head” - For All We Know 05 “There You Go Again/Stormy Weather” - Anthology 06 “Black Eyed Blues” - Anthology 07 “Let Me In Your Life” - Alone Again Naturally 08 “A Beautiful Friendship” - From A Whisper To A Scream 09 “Baby, I'm For Real” - From A Whisper To A Scream 10 “And I Love Him” - Burnin'/Confessin The Blues 11 “Makin' Whoopee” - Burnin'/Confessin The Blues 12 “I Love Paris” - Burnin'/Confessin The Blues 13 “Bye Bye Blackbird” - Burnin'/Confessin The Blues 14 “God Bless The Child” - Home Is Where The Hatred Is 15 “From A Whisper to A Scream” - Anthology 16 “Home is Where The Hatred is” - Anthology 17 “Georgia Rose” - Alone Again Naturally
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