(5 / 5)
What a voice. What a performer. Never gets the recognition she deserves as an artist. Esther Phillips.
An r&b pioneer who left us in 1984 at the young age of 48, but her musical legacy lives on.
“About time too” that someone has dug deep in the vaults to assemble a magnificent first-time collection of Esther’s tracks from her output with the labels Lenox, Roulette and Atlantic.
This super five-disc set covers the years 1962 to 1970, offering up 103 cuts – including nine previously unreleased tracks.
Her 1960s hit “Release Me” features on disc one – a country song which she cut in her own soulful way for Lenox Records in 1962, after a slew of hits as a child star in the 1950s with bandleader Johnny Otis.
Her chart topping hits at the age of 15 in the 50s, made Esther Phillips the youngest female artist to ever have a number one r&b hit at that time.
After Lenox, she signed to Atlantic for four albums between 1964 and 1970, and Roulette in 1969.
David Nathan produced this excellent compilation box set, first meeting Esther in 1965. It includes an 8,000 word essay and has been expertly mastered to make it an even listen across the five discs.
It shows Texas-born Esther in the various musical settings she chose throughout these years with the three labels. Sequenced by session and featuring a bunch of previously unreleased cuts and some non-album singles making their CD debut.
The first disc, “Am I That Easy To Forget?”, covers Esther’s Lenox Records output, including her 1962 hit “Release Me”, her sole LP for the label – reissued in ’66 by Atlantic as “The Country Side Of Esther Phillips”.
On CD one there are nine non-album tracks, including two duets with ‘Big Al’ Downing, most making their digital debut alongside Esther’s first recordings for Atlantic. The second CD, “Just Say Goodbye”, is named after her popular UK Northern soul track, which features here on track 23 of 28.
It includes Esther’s first two albums for Atlantic, 1965’s “And I Love Him!”, the title track of which yielded her US hit cover of the Lennon and McCartney song, and the 1966 LP “Esther Phillips Sings”, with big band arrangements by Oliver Nelson, Ray Ellis and Jimmy Wisner.
Third up, “Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry”, Atlantic recordings cuts between 1966-1967, primarily singles’ sessions with a previously unreleased track, “Watch Dog”, from Esther’s only session in Memphis.
Plus eight 1966 Nesuhi Ertegun-helmed, Onzy Matthews-arranged tracks, including the previously unreleased “Rocks In My Bed”, plus the six tracks from Esther’s 1969 sessions for Roulette Records.
“I’m Gettin’ ‘Long Alright”, is the first-ever release of all the tracks from Esther’s best-selling Atlantic album “Burnin’ “, produced by King Curtis. Recorded live in January 1970 at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper club, with two previously un-issued cuts, “Just In Time” and “Fancy”, plus two outtakes.
Last but not least, on CD five we have a set titled “Catch Me I’m Falling”. Taking its name from her UK Northern soul favourite track, which pops up at track # six here.
This completes Esther’s Atlantic legacy with four from the ‘live’ 1970 sessions, including the previously unreleased “Feel Like I Want To Cry”, and two outtakes without studio overdubs.
Of the 15 tracks on this last disc in the set, there are the 11 tracks from her 1970 Miami sessions, originally planned as an entire LP, but only issued in 1986 as part of a posthumous retrospective called “Set Me Free”. Two years after death in August 1984.
Spoiled for choice here for great vocals in Esther’s unique sassy style, with her innate vibrato, and lots of light and shade between raw power and the deep-from-the-soul emotional connection. Then the rasp at the back of her throat… Versatile, always soulful and serves the song. Never over-cooking the delivery.
There are many great songs and some great performances from her musicians too. Charlie Brown played guitar on a fair chunk of Esther’s work and he really is an awesome player.
For future reference, check out a standout track she cut in the blues genre, “You Could Have Had Me” from her album “Back-Eyed Blues”, released in the UK in 1974 and Canada in ’73 on the Kudu label. That track and album featured Charlie’s stunning licks on guitar.
“Brand New Day” is a truly wonderful tribute to a much missed and hugely talented soul and r&b singer who left us far too early, and who I feel doesn’t get the credit and recognition her vocal gift and fine work deserves.
If you call yourself a singer in 2020 and have not yet heard Esther’s voice, this is essential listening, priceless research material and mandatory homework! There might be a test later!!!
At circa £27 on Amazon for 102 tracks and five CDs, what’s not to like? Thanks very much Mr Nathan, you did good, sir!
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’