With her nasal tone and dry, raspy, tart delivery, Esther Phillips didn’t possess one of the most beautiful voices known to humanity, but it was certainly one of the most soulful, expressive and nakedly emotional in popular music. By 1971, when the 36-year-old Galveston singer joined Creed Taylor’s CTI set up (Kudu was an R&B-oriented imprint to Taylor’s jazz imprint, CTI), she was seemingly on a slow, downward descent towards mediocrity after a spectacular early-’50s heyday that had seen her score two US R&B chart-toppers as a teenager under the name, Little Esther. She scored her only adult number one with her indelible version of the country song, ‘Release Me,’ in 1963 and then spent a spell at Atlantic in the late ’60s before joining Kudu. Known to be volatile and unreliable – due to her battle with drug addiction – no one anticipated her alliance with Creed Taylor, a mild-mannered white producer from Virginia, to yield ,much in the way of good music let alone last five years. It proved to be a time, though, that the singer revitalised her ailing career – and that key period in her life is chronicled by this fabulous 2-CD set compiled and annotated by David Nathan, and avid Phillips’ fan who also knew the singer personally.
The set begins with arguably Phillips’ greatest side for CTI; her harrowing version of Gil Scott-Heron’s junkie epiphany, ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is.’ She used her own experience with narcotics to imbue her performance with a haunting authenticity and by so doing, created the absolute definitive version of the song. She made it indisputably her own, as she did with every song she covered. She was a song stylist supreme and the skilful way she appropriates other people’s songs and makes them sound like utterances from her own soul is a rare and uncanny gift. This collection trawls though seven albums’ worth of material, cherry picking stellar highlights such as ‘From A Whisper To A Scream,’ ‘Use Me,’ ‘Baby, I’m For Real,’ ‘Black-Eyed Blues,’ ‘Disposable Society,’ and her disco hit, ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes,’ her mirrorball revamp of an old Dinah Washington tune. Though there were no chart-topping records during her CTI tenure, she produced the most satisfying and consistent work of her career under Creed Taylor’s aegis. For those not familiar with the work of the singer born Esther Mae Jones, this 33-track anthology is a great starting place. Highly recommended.