The late Esther Phillips unquestionably falls into the realm of great singers who never received recognition for what was a lifelong contribution to contemporary music. A â€˜50s R&B child star at age thirteen with Johnny Otis' Band; in the early â€˜60s a blues stylist who could sing country-and-western songs like "Release Me" and hit a home run on the pop charts; later that same decade a distinctive vocalist with Atlantic Records who could put her stamp on The Beatles' "And I Love Him" and make it her own; and by the â€˜70s, a jazz-flavored vocalist who could interpret songs written by everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Janis Ian and then land a massive disco smash with her reading of musical idol Dinah Washington's "What A Difference A Day Makes," Esther Phillips always imbued her work with soul and then some. A tough life and bouts with drugs slowed down her progress and by 1984, Esther's physical form finally gave out. Thanks to modern technology, we can enjoy much of her work for Atlantic and later CTI on compact disc, recordings that are a testament to her true artistry. One of Atlantic Records' founders and the label's Chairman Of The Board, Ahmet Ertegun worked directly with Esther during her '60s stint with the company and remembers with much fondness a woman with a no-nonsense manner and a heart of gold...
DN: In many ways, by being uncompromising and often considered difficult to work with, Esther seems to have limited her own success. Her independence is admirable, but could it have had any detrimental effect? Did her difficulty impede her commercial success?
AE: She was not difficult in the recording studio. Esther was a natural singer, she could never sing bad. Sure, she had personal problems...dependency, drug problems and sometimes when you are a â€˜hip' person like she was, you can get in with the wrong people, people who take advantage of you. It was a tough life for her being a girl singer on the road. I think she could have been more successful if she had been luckier and had more of the kind of steady career she didn't have...
DN: Do you think her attitude would fly better today?
AE: All I know is that if Esther was here today, she would be singing her butt off and showing a lot of people how you do that!
DN: You've worked with a lot of the best talent out there. In what light do you hold Esther among this talent?
AE: Esther Phillips was one of the best singers I ever heard. She was a singer with extreme soul. I first heard her live at The Apollo when she was with Johnny Otis. Ruth Brown (who was on Atlantic) was there and had done the previous show. Ruth was calling out to Little Esther, as she was at the time, saying â€˜I want you to meet Mr. Ertegun.' I told Ruth, â€˜don't holler at that little girl like that...she sold more records than you did with her last hit!' That hit was "Double Crossing Blues" and it sold a million copies. Over time, Esther developed into one of the great singers, someone who sang music derived from the blues like Dinah Washington and Little Miss Cornshucks...
DN: What is it about her that you admire?
AE: She was a very cool person, a very good friend.
DN: There is a famous story about how you took Phil Spector and Otis Redding to see her at a club in L.A. What details stand out about that night? What did Mr. Redding and Mr. Spector think or say?
AE: Yes, one evening I was hanging out with Phil Spector and my great friend Otis Redding, who had just done a concert at Monterey. We all went and had dinner together and we went over to Phil's house before that to have a drink. Phil knew all of Otis' songs and Otis was his favorite singer. After dinner, I took them both to this club in Watts where Esther was singing. Otis had heard some of her records and he was like, â€˜oh man, she is too real!' He got up there and started singing duets with her, Phil started playing the piano...we were there till six in the morning. It was one of the great evenings of my life!
DN: Jerry Wexler has said, â€˜Getting a hit with Esther was no easy thing.' What do you think he meant by that?
AE: Esther was a great singer: she thrilled you no matter what she sang. Finding a song that would have the magic that would get the teenagers to go out and buy was difficult. She was a mature singer at a time when the age level of record buyers was fourteen, fifteen. She wasn't up for doing the kiddy shit. We had a tough time coming up with material that would let her release that emotion she had as a singer...
DN: Which is your favorite Esther Phillips song, and why?
AE: My favorite? I loved "Release Me" but there were so many of her things that I enjoyed. "And I Love Him!" which I produced...she sang that with mre soul than the Beatles!
DN: What's the most memorable thing she ever said to you?
AE: (Laughs). Well, maybe the last thing she ever said to me which was, â€˜Don't forget to call me!'
David Nathan, A/k/a "British Ambassador Of Soul"
Author, "The Soulful Divas" (1999), Co-author, "Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out" (2004)