Esther Phillips – like Marmite: you either love her or hate her (voice). It’s a bit of a cliched analogy but I have seen that written about her. I would like to offer a different analogy based on my experience.
My introduction to the music of Esther Phillips was her rendition of “What A Diff’rence A Day Made” back in the mid Seventies. It left me cold at the time. I thought it smacked of showbiz disco, and then there was her voice - it sort of made me want to make a face like you would if you sucked a lemon.
Around the same time as that 45 was giving Esther her one and only Top 10 hit in the UK I turned 18. Custom at the time amongst my friends dictated that on your 18th birthday you had to drink a lot of shorts (shots nowadays, I guess) – preferably at least 18 – and whisky had seemed to become the short of choice. So it was that a number of us, including me, had a, shall we say, bad experience with whisky and for many years never went near the stuff again.
Fast forward about 20 years and I was introduced to the world of malt whisky, an altogether different kettle of mash I decided, and for a few years there would always be a bottle or in the cupboard which would get occasional attention. Some I liked, some I thought I liked sometimes, some made me want to make a face… well not exactly true but you get my drift. After a few years, though, I seemed to fall out of the malt whisky habit.
Fast forward again, probably to the mid Noughties, and I heard (eventually!) Esther Phillips version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”. Why I had I taken so long to discover this piece of music I asked myself. I have always been Gil Scott-Heron fan and have a few of his albums, but Esther’s version of “Hatred” is really something special. (If you don’t know it look it up on YouTube or wherever right after you read this). I had to buy a copy of the 45 and it has had a fair few plays since, in fact if I was ushered off to a desert island right now and told I could only take a handful of records with me this would quite possibly be one of them. For all that, though, I didn’t explore Esther Phillip’s catalogue any further at the time.
Last year Mrs Darce bought me a bottle of Jura malt whisky which lasted no time at all, and a few months ago, after a dinner with a couple of our friends, I dug out half a bottle of Laphroaig that had been languishing at the back of the kitchen cupboard that passes as our drinks cabinet for a good few years (it was fast becoming a 20 year old rather than a 10 year old!). Laphroaig was a malt whisky that I thought I liked a few years ago but then found that I couldn’t drink anymore – think TCP. Anyway, the half bottle didn’t last very long and so it seems that I am now appreciating malt whisky again from the soft and sweet to the deep the spicy and the intense. (Another bottle of Jura appeared under the Christmas tree a few weeks ago).
A few weeks ago I heard Esther Phillips' version of Dr. John’s “Such A Night”. Esther sings this in a beautifully soft (for her) and playful style and you can tell she really is into the sentiment of the song. And at that moment I think I finally "got" Esther Phillips. It made me go off and buy the 45 (of course!) and listen to more of her recordings. (The picture of her here is from the front cover of a late 70s compilation album of hers on Kudu that arrived today - around 30 years old and from the look of it had never been played before it dropped on my turntable! – so you can see the Esther collection is up and running). Her voice is still not to my taste all of the time but I now recognise that she really inhabits the songs she sings and have begun to recognise and appreciate the nuances in her delivery. I feel I’m still only just scratching the surface, and I can foresee now a good few nights in the future getting to know Esther a lot better - with a glass of malt in my hand.
So there you have it, in my experience, Esther is not so much like Marmite, more like malt whisky, a bit of an acquired taste.
“Phillips is an acquired taste, if you only like sweet, pretty voices then she's not the one. Her tart, bluesy delivery is vaguely reminiscent of Dinah Washington but also evokes bits of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone -- without ever truly sounding like any of these ladies or anyone else.” Not my words, I think they came from a customer review on Amazon, but I couldn’t put it better. Dinah Washington was the first singer that came to mind when I heard Esther and apparently Dinah was a big inspiration for her. But, as was said, Esther Phillips really sounded like no one else. She was plagued with drug addiction and, at only 48 years of age, died way too young.
Esther Phillips – Such A Night 1974
and here’s the B side a Hayes/Porter song which is just as good…
Esther Phillips – Can’t Trust Your Neighbor With Your Baby 1974
Both these tracks appear on the album “Performance”.