Esther Mae Jones (December 23, 1935 – August 7, 1984) who performed as Little Esther and as Esther Phillips, was an American singer; she performed in the pop, country, jazz, and rhythm and blues fields, including soul music.
Born in Galveston, Texas, she entered an amateur contest in 1949 at Johnny Otis's Barrelhouse Club in Los Angeles. Otis was so impressed that he recorded her for Modern Records and added her, billed as Little Esther, to his travelling revue, the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan. Her first hit record was "Double Crossin' Blues," recorded in 1950 for Savoy Records. After several hit records with Savoy, including "Mistrustin' Blues," "Misery," "Cupid Boogie," "Wedding Boogie," "Far Away Christmas Blues," and "Deceivin' Blues", she left the company in 1951 after a dispute over royalties. She later left Otis's revue. She had no further hits until 1962, after being re-discovered by Kenny Rogers.
After signing with Rogers' brother's record label, Lenox Records, she took the stage name Esther Phillips, and had a pop, country, and R & B hit with "Release Me" (successfully covered in 1967 by Engelbert Humperdinck). Moving to Atlantic Records after Lenox failed, she recorded jazzier material and came to the attention of The Beatles, who brought her to the United Kingdom to perform in her own television special. Despite critical success, she had no more hits until she signed with Kudu Records in 1971.
Months later, in 1972, Phillips released her first, most daring and possibly finest recording effort for Kudu, "From a Whisper to a Scream." It was a risky release for Kudu, but it paid off. Phillips' own personal struggle with heroin dependency lent special poignance and depth to her heart-wrenching, street-wise rendition of Gil Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," in which a defeated junkie muses, "Home is where the hatred is. Home is filled with pain, and it might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again." Scott-Heron's tragic, searing lyrics hit home. Phillips later admitted the song was personally the hardest composition she had ever sung in her career. Carole King's "Brother, Brother" and the title cut were also classic album performances. "From a Whisper to a Scream" garnered a Grammy nomination in 1972, and, when Phillips lost to the "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, the soul diva presented the trophy to Phillips, saying she should have won it instead.
The distinctively nasal, whisky-and-cigarettes quality of Phillips' voice was unique among recording artists of her time. Her biggest hit for Kudu was a 1975 cover version of Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Made." It reached a high of a Top Twenty chart appearance in the U.S., and Top Ten in the UK Singles Chart. Throughout the 70s she also became a close friend of Andy Warhol. Phillips' performing career also reached its zenith during this period. After leaving Kudu for Mercury Records and Winning Records, she failed to maintain her success.
Phillips' long-term heroin dependency, combined with heavy drinking, led to her death from liver and kidney failure in Carson, California in 1984, at the age of 48.
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