Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Esther Phillips

  • Burnin' [Atlantic, 1970] B+
  • From a Whisper to a Scream [Kudu, 1972] B
  • Alone Again, Naturally [Kudu, 1972] B
  • Black-Eyed Blues [Kudu, 1973] A-
  • Performance [Kudu, 1974] B+
  • Confessin' the Blues [Atlantic, 1976] A-
  • Capricorn Princess [Kudu, 1976] B-
  • You've Come a Long Way, Baby [Mercury, 1977] B+
  • All About Esther Phillips [Mercury, 1978] B-
  • Here's Esther . . . Are You Ready [Mercury, 1979] B+
  • Good Black Is Hard to Crack [Mercury, 1981] B+
  • The Best of Esther Phillips (1962-1970) [Rhino/Atlantic, 1997] A-
  • Jazz Moods/Hot [Epic/Legacy, 2005]

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Burnin' [Atlantic, 1970]
With her lubricious, naturally sardonic high vibrato, this modern blues singer is well equipped to carry Dinah Washington's torch, and a club date with the likes of Chuck Rainey and Cornell Dupree is the perfect place for her to shine her light--even the horn overdubs sound hot. But there are only three blues, and she doesn't bring quite enough to either the standards ("Shangri-La" is the most regrettable) or the "contemporary material" (one Aretha, one Beatles) with which a nightclub pro fills out her act. B+

From a Whisper to a Scream [Kudu, 1972]
The idea is for her to go pop in two opposite directions--(black) rock material, which is good, and slick arrangements, which aren't. So while it's gratifying to hear her tackle Allen Toussaint, Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron, whose song about a junkie with no reason to kick is her tour de force, Creed Taylor proves a thankless producer. It's not just the strings, but the way their simple syrup is played against climaxes that pack all the excitement of an escalator. B

Alone Again, Naturally [Kudu, 1972]
Here Phillips gets too cocky with her song choices. By eschewing the piano hook, she covers "Use Me" without making you fantasize about Bill Withers. But Gladys Knight still owns "I Don't Want to Do Wrong." And Gilbert O'Sullivan still owns "Alone Again, Naturally." B

Black-Eyed Blues [Kudu, 1973]
Because the excess instruments support a funkier groove (not to mention that they support a groove at all), the six songs on this album convey more of her smarts and soul than the ten on its predecessor--she really gets to signify, even on the two ballads. High point: a straight Dinah Washington blues. A-

Performance [Kudu, 1974]
Phillips's adventurous material is one reason her jazzy pop blues are so lively, but here she's bested by Eugene McDaniels's "Disposable Society" ("They've thrown away sincerity, the keystone of integrity") and Allen Toussaint's title tune ("I'm a thing that makes music they don't understand"). On the other hand, eight minutes of Chris Smithers's "I Feel the Same" seems just about right. B+

Confessin' the Blues [Atlantic, 1976]
Consistent material (lots of twelve-bar) and the complete absence of violins make these sessions--recorded in the mid-to-late '60s, half with big band and half with combo--preferable to the run of her Kudu albums. But that's not to make the purist assumption that the settings are ideal--the combo is a bit too elegant, the charting ordinary. Compare "Cherry Red" on Alone Again, Naturally, where modernistic blues from Stuff inspires a funny, pained intimacy, to this one, which begins with Sonny Criss blowing some real blues out from between his colleagues but ends with a climax that compels Phillips to belt for no dramatic reason. A-

Capricorn Princess [Kudu, 1976]
In which Creed Taylor rescues her from Joe Beck and then immediately swamps her in mush yet again, so that her Janis Ian cover doesn't match the original and her bitter "All the Way Down" almost sounds out of place. Q: And what's your sign, Creed? A: $ B-

You've Come a Long Way, Baby [Mercury, 1977]
Anyone who believes Creed Taylor is a neutral presence should check out Phillips on her own: using Kudu producer Pee Wee Ellis and the basic Kudu formula--mixing blues and standards and rock with MOR and disco crossovers--she comes up with her most consistent album of the '70s. She divvies up the sides, putting mostly crossover stuff on the B, where it holds its own. She takes on someone named Mischa Siegal to help Ellis with the string arrangements, which are discreet, more trim than wallpaper. And she does an extra blues. Not to mention "Into the Mystic." B+

All About Esther Phillips [Mercury, 1978]
I thank Esther for making me hear that "Native New Yorker" is about danger and selfishness. But not for the discobeisance and inbred songwriting. B-

Here's Esther . . . Are You Ready [Mercury, 1979]
Proving her resilience once again, this thirty-year-woman skates over "Philadelphia Freedom" with a lot more cool than Aretha managed on "The Weight," explores her blues roots with a Ruby & the Romantics cover, and gets good material out of what still looks suspiciously like a stable. Special plaudits to producer Harvey Mason, who reminds us that disco horns and strings are supposed to push push. Fave: the danceable get-down parody, "Oo Oop Oo Oop." B+

Good Black Is Hard to Crack [Mercury, 1981]
No longer the blueswoman slipping into a more fashionable rhythm, Phillips has made that light, guitar-accented dance beat her own, and here she pursues it without compromises--no violins or fancy horns, just the groove. Only occasionally is the material more than adequate, but to hear her twist a song's natural shape against the smooth pulse and background harmonies is to wonder which is going to crack first. B+

The Best of Esther Phillips (1962-1970) [Rhino/Atlantic, 1997]
R&b chart-topper at 15, repeat hitmaker with a Ray Price remake, discofied interpreter of Van and Elton as well as her secret sharer Dinah Washington, Phillips died of liver and kidney failure in 1984 and is now somehow classified as jazz. Although she was honorably served by Atlantic's all-the-class-the-market-will-bear aesthetic, her astringent voice zipped with unique authority through schlock like "Moonglow/Theme From Picnic," which is as striking as any of these 40 tracks--although no more so than "Makin' Whoopee" or "Moody's Mood for Love," "Crazy Love" or "And I Love Him." Her vocal gift was narrower than that of her other secret sharer Etta James, but because she knew perpetual disillusion, Phillips was far defter with pretentious lyrics. Her current obscurity is a disgrace. I look forward to a companion package culling her patchy brilliance at Kudu and Mercury. A-

Jazz Moods/Hot [Epic/Legacy, 2005]
Niggles about great singers who trend-hop are often swallowed up by their voices as history passes. A sardonic acolyte of jazz-r&b hitmaker Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips is respected for her r&b output, especially with the Atlantic Records posse. But her commercial peak, a decade later, was her dance records with Creed Taylor and various jazz fusioneers, and this ill-packaged cheapo, her only extant U.S. compilation in the style, proves disco was good for her. Sure the Grammy-nominated Washington cover "What a Difference a Day Makes" is taken too fast. But her astringent, vibrato-laden soprano is never derailed. And it owns the socially conscious Gil Scott-Heron and Joe Cocker songs, the Duke Ellington classic, and--remarkably--Bill Withers's "Use Me." [Blender: 4]

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