Esther Phillips With a Twist

A couple of years ago I happened to play Esther Phillips's "I Don't Want to Do Wrong" back to back with the original, Gladys Knight's. The song poses a standard problem. She doesn't want to do wrong--but he's been gone so long--but she doesn't want to do wrong, no!--but she can't help herself, she's falling in love. Church-girl Gladys succumbs in a tidal wave of pent-up feelings; ex-addict Esther is drier, tougher, more fatalistic, delivering nuggets that in Gladys's version get washed away by passion, along with her compunctions. You notice the quirks in the lyric--how it keeps shifting ground, how many times the word "but" comes up. Reflective, sad, a bit abrasive, Esther, adding her own glum "Guess what?" to announce, "I just lost this fight," sings as if the denouement's no great surprise. What fascinates her is the predicament itself.

Phillips, who played a six-day engagement at Fat Tuesday's last week, has emerged during the past decade as an artist with a nose for the quirk, the problem, the oddity, the surprising conjunction. Her repertory--with which she's so comfortable it never sounds as eclectic as it is--has included Gil Scott-Heron's junkie song, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," folkie Chris Smither's twisty-lyricked "I Feel the Same," Joe Turner's lip-smacking "Cherry Red," a black-beauty ballad with a sisterly angle called "Georgia Rose,' and a disco version of Dinah Washington's "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes." Not to mention Van Morrison and Elton John.

The choicest oddity of the collection is of course Esther's voice, and listening to it now I find it hard to remember that for years she was criticized for sounding too much like Dinah Washington. For Esther Phillips, as for many black girls growing up in the '40s and '50s, Dinah was an idol. When at 13 Little Esther won a 1949 talent contest that would lead to half a decade with Johnny Otis, the influence was clear. Phrasing, timing, accents, and touches of timbre still pay homage, but when Esther Phillips resurfaced in the '60s with covers of the Ray Price's "Release Me" and the Beatles' "And I Love Her," her sound reflected the jazz stylists she's been studying as well as the personal dues she'd been paying (which culminated in three years with Synanon, ending in 1969). Esther then rolled through the '70s with a dozen albums for Atlantic, CTI, and Mercury; several disco hits; and a modest but classy club career. Last week's appearances launch an international tour for Phillips, who is currently between labels--waiting, she says, "for the highest bidder."

Esther's mid-fortyish voice is more alley-cat than kittenish, which was Dinah's trademark. Her timbre is nasal, sometimes astringent and worn through in parts, but she decorates it with its own limitations: gutturals, honks, clicks, croaks, burps, and squeaks so far-fetched and cunningly placed that they recall Leon Thomas, Miriam Makeba, or Yoko Ono as readily as Lorraine Ellison or Bobby Bland. On her 1980 album, Good Black Is Hard to Crack, she may set her vibrato against a clean-cut instrumental riff, as on the discoish "Pull Yourself Together," or against sweet vocal backups, as she did at last week's shows in the "Cry to Me" duet with keyboard player George Spencer. Or she'll squeeze degrees of intensity from a sustained click, like some inside-out version of a gospel finale.

Under Spencer's direction, Chuck Loeb on guitar, Tom Barney on bass, and Richie Morales on drums were a tight, upbeat, likable band that seemed to take less naturally to disco rhythms than to hard bop or blues. Featuring generous samples from Good Black, the sets I caught Tuesday and Thursday intersected on four of six songs but felt very different, with uncharted flourishes and wisecracks spicing both. The high point was Thursday's "Long John Blues," a very dirty song about a big dentist, where Esther could take her time, show her funny side, and use her eyes to sock the double entendres home--when she wasn't using them to wither unruly Europeans in the front row. Tuesday's show was faster and slicker, with fewer spaces and more breathtaking vocalisms. Thursday's offered the interpretive nuance I want from her, with the "Native New Yorker" cover finding the dirt beneath the boast, and "Lover Man" highlighting--guess what?--strange as it seems.

Village Voice, Mar. 30, 1982