Walking around New York City, you never know what you’re going to find. All of my Philly heads always speak of wandering up on some stoop sale, or some dude on the corner in West Philly with a suitcase of 45’s. In NYC, I don’t see many suitcases on the corner filled with 45 goodness, but I see plenty of stoop sales and people leaving boxes of records by their steps or garbage. However, I just happened to be walking around the LES when I saw a guy with a nice table of records. The table looked Rock heavy, the Funk and Soul was a bit sparse, and the Jazz was a bit Weather Reportish (no that WR is bad). However, after careful examination of said crates, I picked out a few Esther Phillips Kudu releases. I was pretty excited, and after strolling into a St. Mark’s record store and seeing a 50 cent record I bought in the past on the wall for $250 bucks and not buying anything out of the store, I was thrilled to come back to BK with some Esther Phillips. So for a Monday, here’s Esther Phillips and “Hurtin’ House off of Kudu Records Lp What a Diff’rence a Day Makes from 1975.
Esther Mae Jones aka Esther Phillips was born in Galveston, TX in 1935. Another church going choir singer, coaxed by her sister, she entered a talent contest in Los Angeles (and now living in LA due to her parent’s divorce) hosted by Johnny Otis. She won the contest and was whisked away with Otis for his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan (as Little Esther Phillips) and recorded her for Modern Records. Putting out a side for Savoy in 1950, “Double Crossing Blues”, she then went to score a No. 1 duet with Mel Walker before bailing on Savoy and jumping ship to Federal. Although her record output was incredible (more than 30 sides) on Federal, the success she had with Otis wasn’t. With that came chronic drug abuse. This was a huge problem to her self, as well as to her music career. The drugs, her health, and an ailing father brought her back to Houston where she sang, did drugs, and spent time in hospitals across the United States. Eventually rediscovered by Kenny Rogers while singing in a small club, she was back in biz and signed to another label. All grown up (less the Little nickname), her come back started out with a Country hit that garnished interest by Atlantic. Her cover of the Beatles “And I Love Him” got her even more attention, overseas gigs, but led her down another dark path with heroin dependency. In the digging/producing/ beathead community, Phillips is known for her cover of Gil Scot-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” (completely annihilated on DJ Paul Nice’s “Soul On the Grill Mixtape at 3:24 of this clip). At this point in her career she signed with Kudu and Creed Taylor, got nominated for a Grammy, lost to Aretha Franklin, and continued with her drug use. Her career went on with Kudu and Taylor until 1977, got on with Mercury and recorded until the 80’s right before her death in 1984. Phillips passed at the age of 48 due to failure of the liver and kidneys from the many years of drug abuse. Another great artist who lost the battle with drugs and cut their music career short.
Her Kudu releases are really a treat, and for me, I love this period in her career. I mean at this time she was playing with guys like Richard Tee, Hank Crawford, Maceo Parker, Billy Cobham and Bernard Purdie, Ron Carter, Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, Joe Beck, and George Benson among others. Even if this wasn’t Esther Phillips, the line up is stellar and they could make “Jimmy Crack Corn” sound funky. This Blues influenced number is not short on some funky drumming, a great horn section that included Randy Brecker and Mike Sanborn, and a great bassist in Will Lee. Creed Taylor included a full string section on this record (another come back record for Phillips they say), and clocking in at over 5 minutes, Phillips indeed does come back. Like I said, to me this is a great period for Phillips. There are a few earlier sides that lean towards the Northern Soul side, but her relationship period with Creed Taylor and his stable of musicians always is a sweet spot for me. Phillips got a post humus nod on the CTI: Birth of the Groove compilation put out a few years ago. I’m still searching for From a Whisper to a Scream out in the field, and it will turn up I’m sure. Let’s not discount her other Kudu offerings, I’m positive you’ll be pleased and pleasantly surprised with what she has to offer. Keep Diggin’!