ESTHER PHILLIPS / “Esther Phillips Mixtape”

We owe a lot to a junkie. esther phillips 05.jpg 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. esther phillips 03.jpg 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 esther phillips 08.jpg 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

This entry was posted on Monday, August 3rd, 2009 at 5:45 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “ESTHER PHILLIPS / “Esther Phillips Mixtape””

Frank McNulty Says:
August 3rd, 2009 at 7:36 am

Thank you again, one of my favorite singers of all time.



lindamae2410 Says:
August 3rd, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Thank you for keeping ESTHER PHILLIPS alive in
memory! Do you realize 25 years ago she passed
on August 7!


(Her words/my words)

lindamae2410 Says:
August 6th, 2009 at 1:36 am


I am listening to your wonderful ESTHER PHILLIPS
MIXTAPE! This is the most fantastic, incredible
tribute there could ever be to ESTHER PHILIPS!

This is a private memorial service to her!

I am so thrilled to hear all her wonderful music, but
I am saddened that she is not right here also
listening right along with us!


(Her words/my words)

taro nombei Says:
August 6th, 2009 at 11:05 am

There’s plenty of music you post that I know well. I still love listening anyway — there’s always some gems to discover.
But Esther is all new to me, I don’t know how I’ve never managed to come across her. Brilliant voice, steamy delivery, fantastic.
Thanks as always, Kalamu.

hurtinski Says:
August 7th, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Right, she died a quarter-century ago exactly, in L.A. This morning my copy of the (complete) “Confessin’ the Blues” CD arrived in the mailbox. (Collectibles has a twofer of “Confessin'” and “Burnin'” but leave one track each release. And, misspell the name of “Confessin’ ” in the booklet as “Confession.”

So it goes; Esther Phillips is half-forgotten. But to folks who care about popular singing and how difficult it is for even the best singers to adapt to changing tastes, Phillips is a remarkable subject. I think she was one of the handful of truly great soul singers, in there with Aretha, Dusty Springfield, Al Green, like that. She swung mightily, and I use this jazzbo language, daddy-o, to emphasize how rare this quality is. Didn’t use to be. Esther came up thru R&B, jazz and soul, in the era where black American music really began mutating.

Anyway, she’s major. Big catalogue I’m just now really investigating. I have all the Kudu releases, and guess I’d recommend “From a Whisper to a Scream” and “Black-Eyed Blues” from that run of albums. But I like the disco stuff, some with Joe Beck: “For All We Know” and “Capricorn Princess” and “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” These records are an attempt to modernize–the disco era was coming. I like disco music and Esther sounds perfect for it.

Also checking out the aforementioned Atlantic shit, plus everyone should hear “Cheater Man,” a Dan Penn tune, on “Soul Sisters: Atlantic Unearthed” compilation of a few years back. Esther tears it up, and it was apparently done in Memphis with the American Studios rhythm section, in soul’s anna mirabilis, 1967.

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