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Esther Phillips: the sound of raw soul


SHE ISN'T discussed much these days, which is a shame because once you experience the soul of Esther Phillips you never forget it.

I had only heard her name but not the music. Then a few weeks back, I received several CDs from Sony / BMG's new Jazz Moods series, a collection of succinct compilations by such legends as Aretha Franklin, Artie Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Glenn Miller and others.

Phillips' volume, with the direct subtitle Hot, is the only one from the series that hasn't left my changer. What's more, the 11-song CD, which focuses on the singer's Kudu recordings from the early to mid-'70s, charged something inside and excited me. Something about Phillips' sound -- silenced forever when she died of liver and kidney failure on Aug. 7, 1984 -- felt as lovingly familiar as my mother's loud laugh, as deliciously earthy as a pot of ham hocks and mustard greens. Her nasally whine of a voice may be an acquired taste for some, but it's soul at its rawest, steeped heavily in Southern blues.

Phillips' vocals (and her look) were undeniably, unapologetically black. And, after poring over some biographical material and reading a few interviews with the artist, it's clear to me that homegirl was not the one to cross. Today, some may call Phillips "ghetto." Like her idol Dinah Washington, the sista from Texas possessed a take-no-mess attitude and a magnificent Tabasco tongue -- all to compensate for deep insecurities and a rough childhood, I'm sure. But Phillips was also the same chick who flipped the Beatles' "And I Love Her," crooning it as "And I Love Him" with a tenderness that breaks your heart.

If you're just about burned out on hip-pop and unimaginative urban fare, if you're craving ageless, real-to-the-bone music with few (if any) artificial additives, if you're open to exploring soul beyond the requisite albums of Aretha and Ray Charles, Esther Phillips is worth checking out. Rhino Records has rightfully kept a two-disc anthology of her fine '60s work in print. And it's a good thing that Sony / BMG was mindful enough to repackage her overlooked '70s material. But there's much more to the legacy of the blues-blessed singer.

She was born Esther Mae Jones on Dec. 23, 1935, in Galveston, Texas. Her parents divorced when the singer was a child, and she was often shuttled between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was while living with her mom in L.A. that Phillips was discovered. The precocious 13-year-old was entered in a talent contest by her sister at a nightclub owned by Johnny Otis, a hot blues artist-record producer at the time.

Impressed, Otis rushed her into the studio to record and added her to his live revue. The next year, in 1950, Little Esther, as she was known then, topped the R&B; charts with "Double Crossing Blues," which sold more than a million copies. There was no time for school as the teen star played numerous one-nighters with the revue.

But by 1954, Little Esther was off the Otis revue after falling out with the producer over money. The hits had dried up; she had not a dime. And she returned to her father in Houston addicted to heroin, a nasty habit she picked up on the road. She hustled around the Texas nightclub circuit for a few years until Kenny Rogers (yes, the silver-haired country legend with the chain of chicken joints) discovered the singer in 1962.

Rogers helped the artist (who around this time re-christened herself Esther Phillips, taking her last name from a Phillips 66 gas station) secure a deal with his brother's Lenox label. The company issued the country-blues single "Release Me" toward the end of '62, and the record hit the Top 10 on the pop and R&B; charts. Phillips was a star again.

After Lenox folded, she joined Atlantic Records, where she recorded in a dizzying array of styles -- country, lounge-pop, torchy balladry, big-band jazz -- with minimal commercial attention. In '71, Phillips signed with Creed Taylor's Kudu label and released one of her best albums the next year, From a Whisper to a Scream, which received a Grammy nomination. When Aretha won it for the classic 1972 LP, Young, Gifted and Black, she gave the award to Phillips as an act of soul-sista solidarity.

At Kudu, the artist laid down some of her funkiest, most experimental work. From a Whisper featured her wrenching version of Gil Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," a bitterly poetic tale of heroin addiction. Of course, Phillips brought a certain worldly weariness to the lyrics that pierced the soul.

In 1975, two years before Saturday Night Fever and the global explosion of disco, Phillips paid homage to the Queen of the Blues Dinah Washington with a radical dance version of "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes." The song, featured on the Jazz Moods volume along with a smokin', reggae-tinged version of Bill Withers' "Use Me," was a huge hit in clubs and eventually soared into the Top 10.

But Phillips would never repeat that kind of success after leaving Kudu for Mercury Records in 1977. In the '80s, hard livin', druggin' and drinkin' finally caught up with the bluesy songstress. And she was dead at 48.

Sadly, you don't hear much of Phillips' music these days -- not in TV commercials and very rarely on oldies stations. Her sound was so unique, so earnestly individual that it's hardly detectable in today's pop. Fantasia's vocal style is slightly reminiscent of the legend's idiosyncratic delivery. But I doubt the 20-year-old American Idol star has ever heard of Esther Phillips. She's not alone, though. And as I said earlier, that's a shame.

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