Singer Esther Mae Jones, aka, Little Esther and Esther Phillips, was born on December 23, 1935 in Galveston,Tx, and began singing in church as a young child. She was perhaps too versatile for her own good, at least commercially speaking; while she was adept at singing blues, early R&B, gritty soul, jazz, straight-up pop, disco, and even country, her record companies often lacked a clear idea of how to market her, which prevented her from reaching as wide an audience as she otherwise might have.
An acquired taste for some, Phillips' voice had an idiosyncratic, nasal quality that often earned comparisons to Nina Simone, although she herself counted Dinah Washington as a chief inspiration. Phillips' career began when she was very young and by some accounts, she was already battling drug addiction during her teenage years; whenever her problems took root, the lasting impact on her health claimed her life before the age of 50.
It was while she was living in Los Angeles in 1949 that her sister entered her in a talent show at a nightclub belonging to bluesman Johnny Otis. So impressed was Otis with the 13-year-old that he brought her into the studio for a recording session with Modern Records and added her to his live revue. Billed as Little Esther, she scored her first success when she was teamed with the vocal quartet the Robins (who later evolved into the Costers) on the Savoy single "Double Crossin' Blues." It was a massive hit, topping the R&B charts in early 1950 and paving the way for a series of successful singles bearing Little Esther's name: "Mistrustin' Blues," "Misery," "Cupid Boogie," and "Deceivin' Blues."
A late-1969 live gig at Freddie Jett's Pied Piper club produced the album Burnin', which was acclaimed as one of the best, most cohesive works of Phillips' career. Despite that success, Atlantic still wanted her to record pop tunes with less grit and when their next attempts failed to catch on, Phillips was let go a second time.
In 1971, she signed with producer Creed Taylor's Kudu label, a subsidiary of his hugely successful jazz fusion imprint CTI. Her label debut, From a Whisper to a Scream, was released in 1972 to strong sales and highly positive reviews, particularly for her performance of Gil Scott-Heron's wrenching heroin-addiction tale "Home Is Where the Hatred Is." She recorded four albums for the label, but none matched the commercial success of her Kudu output and after 1981's "A Good Black is Hard to Crack", she found herself without a record deal.
Her last R&B chart single was 1983's "Turn Me Out," a one-off for the small Winning label; unfortunately, her health soon began to fail, the culmination of her previous years of addiction combined with a more recent flirtation with the bottle.
Phillips died in Los Angeles on August 7, 1984, of liver and kidney failure.
Esther Phillips sings "Home is Where the Hatred Is"