Esther Phillips with King Curtis, Cornell Dupree, and Jimi Hendrix
I spotted this beautiful photo of Esther Phillips with King Curtis, Cornell Dupree, and Jimi Hendrix on Facebook last weekend. It took a little rooting around to discover its origin, and even the Hendrix experts in my address book were uncertain. As it turns out, it was taken by Popsie Randolph at a party hosted by Atlantic Records at the Prelude Club in New York on May 5, 1966. Tenor saxophonist [King] Curtis Ousley's outfit, Curtis King & the Kingpins, served as the house band, and Hendrix was among its members. At the Prelude, they backed Little Esther as well as Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, and Percy Sledge. The liner notes on Percy's Atlantic LP, Warm and Tender Love, report that he and Esther sang a nineteen-chorus version of "When a Man Loves a Woman" at the party. Additional images from the Prelude at Randolph's website show Hendrix with Wilson Pickett, and this stunning pic of Pickett, Phillips, and Sledge.
Esther Phillips was the veteran of this triumvarite. The Galveston, Texas native was born in 1935 and came to prominence with Johnny Otis as a 15-year-old scoring three big r&b hits in 1950. Esther grew up singing in the church, much like her idol Dinah Washington, and while she was best known as a blues singer with a signature vibrato, she was also adept at ballads and pop. Her 1962 recording of the country song, “Release Me,” was a huge hit that helped revive her then faltering career. Three years later she recorded Ray Ellis’s lush arrangement of “And I Love Him,” and the Beatles were so impressed that they invited her to guest with them on their 1966 BBC special. Aretha Franklin praised her as an influence, and in 1973, when both were nominated for Grammys and Aretha won for Young, Gifted and Black, she said Esther was more deserving and gave her the trophy.
Otis made a second teenage discovery when he heard Jamesetta Hawkins in 1952, renamed her Etta James, and two years later produced her debut recording, "The Wallflower," bka "Roll With Me Henry," an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie." Here's a 1966 meeting of Etta and Esther, as well as Benny Latimore, Roscoe Shelton, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown on Hoss Allen's TV show, The !!! Beat.
Little Esther made a triumphant re-appearance with the Johnny Otis Revue at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970 where she sang this medley of “Esther’s Blues,” “Blow Top Blues,” and “Jelly Jelly.” It’s as good as blues singing ever got. "Blow Top" was a hit for Dinah Washington in 1945; the song was composed by Leonard Feather, the English-born jazz critic who settled in the U.S. in 1939 and wrote for Metronome and the Los Angeles Times. Feather also composed the blues classic "How Blue Can You Get," which B.B. King, assisted by an enthralled audience, immortalized on this 1964 performance at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Here's Little Esther's version from her 1971 LP, From a Whisper to a Scream.
We'll hear more of Esther Phillips in Monday's Jazz a la Mode.