A mature singer at age fourteen, she won the amateur talent contest in 1949 at the Barrelhouse Club owned by Johnny Otis. Otis was so impressed he added her to his traveling revue, the California Rhythm and Blues Caravan, billed as 'Little Esther Phillips'. Her first hit record was "Double Crossing Blues" (#1 R+B), recorded in 1950 for Savoy Records. Her duet with Mel Walker on "Mistrusting Blues", also went to number one that year, as did "Cupid Boogie". Other Phillips records that made it onto the U.S. Billboard R&B chart in 1950 include "Misery" (#9), "Deceivin'" (#4), "Wedding Boogie" (#6), and "Faraway Blues" (#6). Few artists, R&B or otherwise, have ever enjoyed such success in their debut year. Phillips left Otis and the Savoy label at the end of 1950 and signed with Federal Records. Although she recorded more than thirty sides for Federal, only one, "Ring-a-Ding-Doo", charted; making it to #8 in 1952. Not working with Otis was part of her problem; the other part was her drug usage. By the middle of the decade Phillips was chronically addicted to drugs.
Phillips ultimately got well enough to launch a comeback in 1962. Now billed as Esther Phillips instead of Little Esther, she recorded a country tune, "Release Me," with producer Bob Gans. This went to number 1 on R&B and number 8 on the pop listings. After several other minor R&B hits on Lenox, she was signed by Atlantic Records. Her cover of The Beatles' song "And I Love Him" nearly made the R&B Top Ten in 1965 and The Beatles flew her to the UK for her first overseas performances.
During the 1970's she made a temporary move into disco material and scored an international hit with "What A Difference A Day Made", an updating of the 1930's jazz standard
Phillips died at UCLA Medical Center in Carson, California in 1984, at the age of 48 from liver and kidney failure.
Esther Phillips Discography
- 22 Vocals
- 1 Instruments & Performance
- 3 Writing & Arrangement
- 1 Featuring & Presenting
- 2 Production