As the premier vocalist on CTI Records’ Kudu imprint, Esther Phillips (1935-1984) played a key role in producer Creed Taylor’s “Cool Revolution” at CTI. A gifted vocalist, Phillips nonetheless struggled with personal demons throughout her too-short life. The former “Little Esther” had her first taste of success in 1949, just fourteen years old, and a taste of heroin not long after; stories of her mercurial behavior have entered into legend. But her talent was never in doubt. CTI recorded Phillips in a variety of settings from smooth pop to jazz, disco and funk, realizing the adaptability of her pinched, distinct style. Now, Australia’s Raven Records label has compiled Phillips’ first four albums for CTI/Kudu as one 2-CD set entitled Baby I’m for Real, and it’s a set that no fan of soul or jazz should miss.
Discovered by the great Johnny Otis at the age of fourteen, the Texas-born Little Esther scored her first hit in 1950 with the rather mature “Double Crossing Blues.” Though her offstage troubles threatened to derail her career even at a young age, she bounced back with hits in the sixties including “Release Me” (1962) and “And I Love Her” (1965), the latter at Atlantic Records. After Atlantic, Phillips landed at Taylor’s up-and-coming CTI label. Though CTI was known for its pop-leaning fusion jazz, Taylor intended Kudu to emphasize the hybrid genre of soul-jazz. Phillips shared the roster with the likes of Grover Washington, Jr., Johnny Hammond and Hank Crawford.
Her 1971 Kudu debut, From a Whisper to a Scream, was named after the Allen Toussaint composition. Pee Wee Ellis and Jack Wilson traded off arrangement duties on the album’s songs, with CTI “house arranger” Don Sebesky sweetening some tracks with his trademark strings. The album’s nine tracks included another cut from the New Orleans piano man, “Sweet Touch of Love,” as well as songs from Eddie Floyd (“That’s All Right with Me,” “‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone”), Marvin Gaye (“Baby I’m for Real”), Big Dee Irwin (“Your Love is So Doggone Good”) and Gil Scott-Heron (“Home is Where the Hatred Is”). Whisper garnered a great deal of attention when Aretha Franklin won a Grammy for her Young, Gifted and Black LP and turned it over to fellow nominee Phillips: “I liked Esther’s record…I felt she could use encouragement,” the generous Queen commented.
Whisper has been paired on the first disc of Raven’s set with its follow-up, 1972’s Alone Again, Naturally. Phillips naturally found the innate anguish in Gilbert O’Sullivan’s chart-topping title track, and also brought her soulful stamp to Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and “Let Me in Your Life,” Eddie Floyd and Booker T. Jones’ “I’ve Never Found a Man (To Love Me Like You Do),” Big Joe Turner’s “Cherry Red” and the southern soul staple “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” from Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, George Benson, Richard Tee, Ralph MacDonald, and Hank Crawford all played on Alone Again, with arrangements again by Ellis. Phillips scored another Grammy nomination for her vocal on the title track.
After the jump: more on this release, including the full track listing and order links!
Disc Two opens with 1973’s Black-Eyed Blues, with just six eclectic tracks. Phillips tapped the Bill Withers catalogue once more for opening song “Justified,” dipped into the jazz repertoire for Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” covered Joe Cocker via the title track, and recorded Aretha’s sister Carolyn Franklin’s “Too Many Roads.” Bob James, another ubiquitous presence at CTI, contributed the string arrangements for this underrated LP.
The final album on Raven’s collection is 1974’s Performance. Pee Wee Ellis was the primary arranger and conductor for Phillips, and Performance includes her dynamic and grittily authentic renditions of Allen Toussaint’s “Performance,” Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Can’t Trust Your Neighbor with Your Baby,” Dr. John’s “Such a Night” and a pair of Gene McDaniels compositions, “Disposable Society” and “Living Alone (We’re Gonna Make It).” Bob James, Michael Brecker, Richard Tee and Patti Austin all contributed mightily to Performance, as well.
Raven has added three bonus tracks. Carole King’s passionate “Brother, Brother” was one of the bonuses on Columbia’s 1987 CD reissue of From a Whisper to a Scream. James Price’s “I Can Stand a Little Rain” hails from Phillips’ 1975 What a Diff’rence a Day Makes album with Joe Beck. And the last bonus is the single edit of that album’s title song which restored Esther’s commercial fortunes. The disco-flavored update of the Dinah Washington classic gave Esther her first Top 20 Pop appearance since 1962.
The full-color illustrated booklet includes new liner notes from Terry Reilly, and all four albums have been remastered by Warren Barnett. Esther Phillips’ Baby I’m for Real: 1971-1974 is available now from Raven Records and can be ordered at the links below!
- Home is Where the Hatred Is
- From a Whisper to a Scream
- To Lay Down Beside You
- That’s All Right with Me
- ‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone
- Sweet Touch of Love
- Baby, I’m for Real
- Your Love is So Doggone Good
- Scarred Knees
- Use Me
- I Don’t Want to Do Wrong
- Let’s Move and Groove
- Let Me in Your Life
- Cherry Red
- I’ve Never Found a Man (To Love Me Like You Do)
- Alone Again (Naturally)
- Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
- You and Me Together
- Georgia Rose
- I’ve Only Known a Stranger
- I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good
- Black-Eyed Blues
- Too Many Roads
- You Could Have Had Me, Baby
- I Feel the Same
- Doing Our Thing
- Disposable Society
- Living Alone (We’re Gonna Make It)
- Such a Night
- Can’t Trust Your Neighbor with Your Baby
- Brother, Brother
- I Can Stand a Little Rain
- What a Diff’rence a Day Makes (Single Edit)
CD 1, Tracks 1-9 from From a Whisper to a Scream, Kudu LP KU-05, 1971
CD 1, Tracks 10-19 from Alone Again Naturally, Kudu LP KU-09, 1972
CD 2, Tracks 1-6 from Black-Eyed Blues, Kudu LP KU-14, 1973
CD 2, Tracks 7-13 from Performance, Kudu LP KU-18, 1974
CD 2, Track 14 included on From a Whisper to a Scream, Columbia/CTI CD 40935, 1990
CD 2, Track 15 from What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, Kudu LP KU-23, 1975
CD 2, Track 16 included on What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, CTI/Legacy CD 505163, 2002