By the time she recorded the first of these albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI subsidiary Kudu Records in the early 1970s, Esther Phillips had been in the music business for more than three decades, having started with Johnny Otis as Little Esther at the tender age of 14. In the intervening years, she battled drug addiction, mounted at least two comebacks (including one resulting from a rediscovery by Kenny Rogers), and was flown to the UK at the request of the Beatles who called her version of “And I Love Her’, retitled “And I Love Him”, the best cover version of any of their songs.
A stylistically diverse performer with a honey-burred voice like an earthier, more nasal Nina Simone, Phillips (who died in 1984, her kidneys and liver failing after years of drug abuse) fully inhabited her every performance with an intimate way of approaching the recording process that allowed you to hear every exhalation, hesitation and soulful vocal manipulation, each of which conveys an immediacy and familiarity with not just the material itself, but the subject matter contained within the lyrics.
Raven’s new collection of Phillips’ first four albums for Kudu, Baby I’m For Real! 1971-1974, starts off brilliantly with 1971’s From a Whisper to a Scream, which features her very personal reading of Gil Scott-Heron’s tale of drug addiction through the eyes of a junkie, “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”. No stranger to addiction herself, Phillips had just two years prior entered rehab seeking to set herself straight after years of addiction and career derailment. You can hear the desperation and understanding in her voice as she sings the opening lines “junkie walking through the twilight / I’m on my way home / I left three days ago / but no one seems to know I’m gone.”
From there, the album continues on in a very contemporary funk/soul format that suits Phillips’ raw, often idiosyncratic vocals perfectly, allowing her to explore her range and ability to inhabit each track to its fullest extent. Other standouts include the Allen Toussaint-penned title track and a smooth reading of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby I’m For Real” that pays homage to her more jazz-centric days and early Dinah Washington influence.
With 1972’s Alone Again (Naturally), Phillips plunges headlong back into nightclub jazz territory (after a misleading start that features a take on Bill Withers’ “Use Me” that somehow manages to be more laidback and funkier than the original), slowing tempos to a crawl, selecting syrupy string arrangements and generally squandering any good will earned from the funk/soul crowd with From a Whisper to a Scream. By no means a bad album in and of itself, it simply sticks out as a bit of an anomaly in a career full of stylistic diversity in this particular context and tends to drag things down.
Thankfully the proceedings pick up quickly with Black-Eyed Blues, a loose collection of open-ended, improv-heavy grooves that allow both Phillips and her stellar backing group to spread out and explore the seven tracks on the original album to their fullest extent. While hinting at it on the previous two albums represented here, it isn’t until Black-Eyed Blues that Phillips really allows the ease of her vocal delivery to shine, effortlessly stretching syllables and phrases, turning them over and over in her mouth until they become something altogether new and different, settling in and exploring each song’s possibility rather than strictly adhering to any specific notion of form, structure and melody.
In addition to Phillips’ exceptional vocals, Black-Eyed Blues features some great blues playing from guitarist Charlie Brown who is granted free reign over the tracks and takes full advantage of the space afforded and solid rhythmic backing of the assembled session players to show off some impressive chops. Pee Wee Ellis’ sympathetic, open-ended arrangements and master jazz producer Rudy Van Gelder’s impeccable production help make Black-Eyed Blues a definite highpoint in this set.
Finishing up with Performance, Phillips employs a stellar cast of backing players (including Michael Brecker, Jon Faddis, Pepper Adams, Hubert Laws, Steve Gadd, and Bob James among them) who deftly navigate the wild stylistic shifts of the album itself. Ranging from country (the title track) to jazz funk (“Disposable Society”), Performance plays like a role call of Phillips’ past, touching on nearly every genre present in her back catalog. A nice, though somewhat restrained follow up to the stellar Black-Eyed Blues, Performance and the tacked on period singles (“Brother Brother”, “I Can’t Stand a Little Rain”, and “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”) prove to be a fine way to wrap up this collection from an exceptional, unjustly overlooked vocalist.