Cultural Percussionist

Esther Phillips Day

Esther Phillips (born Esther Mae Jones; December 23, 1935 – August 7, 1984) was an American singer, best known for her R&B vocals. She was a versatile singer and also performed pop, country, jazz, blues and soul music.

She was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas. Her parents divorced when she was an adolescent, and she divided her time between her father, in Houston, and her mother, in the Wattssection of Los Angeles. She was brought up singing in church and was reluctant to enter a talent contest at a local blues club, but her sister insisted. A mature singer at the age of 14, she won the amateur talent contest in 1949 at the Barrelhouse Club, owned by Johnny Otis.

Her first hit record was “Double Crossing Blues“, with the Johnny Otis Quintette and the Robins (a vocal group), released in 1950 by Savoy Records, which reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. She made several hit records for Savoy with the Johnny Otis Orchestra, including “Mistrusting Blues” (a duet with Mel Walker) and “Cupid’s Boogie”, both of which also went to number 1 that year. Four more of her records made the Top 10 in the same year: “Misery” (number 9), “Deceivin’ Blues” (number 4), “Wedding Boogie” (number 6), and “Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)” (number 6). Few female artists performing in any genre had such success in their debut year.

Phillips left Otis and the Savoy label at the end of 1950 and signed with Federal Records. But just as quickly as the hits had started, they stopped. She recorded more than thirty sides for Federal, but only one, “Ring-a-Ding-Doo”, made the charts, reaching number 8 in 1952. Not working with Otis was part of her problem; the other part was her deepening dependence on heroin, to which she was addicted by the middle of the decade. Being in the same room when Johnny Ace shot himself (accidentally) on Christmas Day, 1954, while in-between shows in Houston, presumably did not help matters.

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