Tuesday, May 10, 2005

CD Review: Esther Phillips - Jazz Moods - Hot


Great art often comes through great pain. Imagine what it must have been like in 1949 to sing at an amateur contest at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Los Angeles. Just that alone would be a highlight to a young life, but when Johnny Otis then gets you a record deal and a place in his show it must have been like a bolt of lightning hitting the teenage Esther Phillips. Otis would call her Little Esther the girl singer and she would be a part of his show for several years having hits with “Double Crossing Blues” and “Mistrustin’ Blues” also. By the 1960’s she had gone out on her own where she would score the biggest hit of her career with the sublime “Release Me” after country singer Kenny Rogers rescued her finding her in a dive in Houston. The Beatles invited her to the U.K. to host her own television special after her version of “And I Love Him” became a hit. But there was a dark side to her success that would ravage and weaken her body contributing to her early departure from this mortal coil in 1984. To tell it straight, she was a junkie.

She also had one of the most distinctive voices in soul, often compared to Nina Simone and her idol Dinah Washington. It was rather nasal, yet it had a cigarette twang. Her phrasing was always on the one and her voice gave off a “don’t mess with me” authority. She was able to sing just about anything cutting blues, R&B, soul, jazz, pop, and country sides during her career. When the 1970’s rolled around she was working for Creed Taylor’s CTI under the Kudu label. This is the era that Jazz Moods – Hot documents. The 11 songs included are culled from the From A Whisper To A Scream, What A Difference A Day Makes, The Best Of Esther Phillips, and Black-Eyed Blues albums.

Esther was at the peak of her talent with choice material to sing. She brought not only her soulful voice, but also her own experience to Gil-Scot Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, a heroin addict’s lament. Another winner from the From A Whisper To A Scream record is “Your Love Is So Doggone Good” although I’ll admit it makes me blush with its steam. That album was nominated for a Grammy, but Esther lost out to Aretha Franklin who famously handed the statuette to Esther on air telling her that “she deserves it.” Every track is a winner on Jazz Moods – Hot, but a couple of other standouts are her version of Joe Cocker’s “Black-Eyed Blues” and her cover of a song Dinah Washington had a huge hit with in 1959; “What A Difference A Day Makes.”

The fact that she could make such enduring art while fighting a heroin addiction that probably began in her teenage years is amazing. Her own sad tragedy guarantees that her life will be romanticized and this only makes her music that much more compelling.

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