From A Whisper To A Scream

Esther Phillips

Kudu Records, 1971

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Ever wonder what Aretha Franklin might have sounded like if she’d grown up performing in a smoky blues bar instead of a Baptist church? It’s a theoretical I had never had occasion to ponder until the first time I heard Esther Phillips.

Phillips was in fact a contemporary of Franklin’s and the two shared some common experiences: they were both raised Baptist, both of their parents divorced when they were young, and both got their start singing in church. While Aretha was continuing to hone her vocal chops under the wing of her preacher father, however, the 14-year-old Phillips was encouraged by her sister in 1949 to enter a singing contest at a local blues club near her mother’s home in Watts—the Barrelhouse Club, owned by Johnny Otis. After she won the contest, Otis took an interest in her development, recording her for Modern Records, then the home of blues notables such as John Lee Hooker and Etta James, and adding her to his traveling show, the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan.

Born Esther Mae Jones, as a teenager she was billed as “Little Esther,” before taking the stage name of Esther Phillips as an adult. She had only been “Little Esther” for a year when she sang a string of hits with the Johnny Otis Orchestra for Savoy Records, including “Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrusting Blues” and “Cupid's Boogie,” all #1 R&B hits. Her early streak soon ran out, though, and a burgeoning heroin addiction sent her into a downward spiral that lasted much of the 1950s. It was 1962 when a young Kenny Rogers “discovered” Phillips singing in a Houston nightclub and facilitated a new recording contract with his brother’s label Lenox Records.

The country tune she initially recorded for Lenox, “Release Me,” turned into a #1 R&B hit that also reached #8 on the pop chart, and several more minor hits followed. After Atlantic Records bought Lenox, Phillips issued a gender-swapped version of the Beatles' song “And I Love Her” that charted in 1965 and convinced the Beatles to fly her to England to perform. More minor hits—and a relapse, and a stint in rehab—followed, and in 1970 Phillips reunited with Johnny Otis at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Phillips was always a singer first, an interpreter of songs written by others. In that role, though, she was exceptional, a deeply expressive vocalist with a natural vibrato who inhabited each song’s narrative like a method actor. In 1971, renowned producer Creed Taylor—the man who signed John Coltrane to Impulse! Records in 1956—signed Phillips to his new soul-jazz label Kudu Records. Her Kudu debut my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 From A Whisper To A Scream, produced by Taylor, was arguably the artistic high point of her career.

The album that Phillips and Taylor joined forces to craft melded the sacred and the profane, applying the vocal prowess of a gospel queen to a set of songs with much earthier ingredients; From A Whisper is an album drenched in desire, jealousy, tenderness and heartache. Before we even get there, though, the album leads with a gut-punch of an opening track—“Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” a harrowing Gil Scott-Heron tune about depression and addiction in a gritty urban environment that Phillips renders in a series of technicolor close-ups as the band brings the soul-funk behind her. The song—the lead single from the album—was nominated for a Grammy, which Phillips lost to none other than Aretha—who promptly handed the award to Esther, declaring that she should have won it.

The title track, composed by the ubiquitous Allen Toussaint, follows, an anguished plea to a lover on their way out the door: “I’ve lost you to the warmth of another woman…I’m begging you, for heaven’s sake, don’t do this to me.” When Phillips sings, over and over, “Oh my love,” every repetition conveys a fresh and raw take on longing and devastation. Here and throughout, Phillips is supported by an ace band anchored by stalwart session players Gordon Edwards (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums), Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale (guitar), Richard Tee (organ/piano), and Hank Crawford (alto sax).

The middle of the album finds Phillips taking you on a rollercoaster ride through passion (the sensual, seductive “To Lay Down Beside You”), contentment (the Motown-flavored “That’s All Right With Me”), hard times (the funked-up, horn-heavy “’Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone”), good times (the upbeat, Hammond-rich “Sweet Touch Of Love”), and authenticity (the languorous yet impassioned “Baby I’m For Real”). At the end of side two, “Your Love Is So Doggone Good” offers a simple message that Phillips makes into something profound simply by singing the hell out of it, before closer “Scarred Knees” presents a blues ballad whose scatted bridge conveys as much emotion as actual words could ever hope to.

The 1988 CBS Records CD reissue of From A Whisper To A Scream adds four bonus tracks recorded during the same sessions. “How Blue Can You Get” is an appropriately bluesy shouter with punchy horns and abundant sass, while “Brother, Brother” (written by noted Franklin collaborator Carole King) offers a sweet slice of upbeat soul-pop. The CD edition closes out with “Don’t Run And Hide,” a dreamy ballad featuring gospel organ and Phillips’ gorgeous vibrato, and “A Beautiful Friendship,” a genuinely sultry and heartfelt torch song carried along by electric piano.

Phillips would score several more hits through the ’70s and early ’80s (most notably “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes” in 1975) before years of hard living and substance abuse took their toll. Esther Phillips died of liver and kidney failure in 1984 at just 48 years old, but her voice remains with us still, a precision instrument of emotional truth, timeless, resonant, and almost certainly immortal.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2023 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Kudu Records, and is used for informational purposes only.