Phillips, Esther (1935–1984)

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Phillips, Esther (1935–1984)

American rhythm and blues singer who had a number of hits in 1950 with Johnny Otis and his band. Name variations: Little Esther Phillips. Born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, on December 23, 1935; died in Carson, California, on August 7, 1984.

Born in Texas in 1935, Esther Phillips grew up in California where her family moved after World War II. In 1949, at age 14, she won an amateur talent contest at a club owned by Johnny Otis, the rhythm and blues bandleader. Otis was so impressed with the young girl's mature voice that he invited her to sing and record with his band. Calling herself Little Esther, she recorded "Double Crossing Blues" on the Savoy label with the Otis Orchestra in 1950 and became the youngest female vocalist to land a #1 record on the R&B charts. That same year, she sang a duet with Mel Walker, "Mistrustin' Blues," which went to #1, as did "Cupid's Boogie." Other hits during 1950 included "Misery," "Deceivin' Blues," "Wedding Boogie," and "Faraway Blues." Phillips enjoyed a success that few artists attain in a single year.

At the end of 1950, she left Otis, signed with Federal, and the hits dried up. Of the 30 sides she cut with this label, only one, "Ring-a-Ding-Doo," made the charts, reaching #8 in 1952. One of Phillips' problems was the loss of Johnny Otis; another was drugs. By the time she was 20, she had become addicted to heroin, and her career was over. Ten years later, after a long struggle with her drug habit, she recorded "Release Me," a country tune that went to #1 (1962). Though she had other hits on the Atlantic label, none made the top of the charts. Then Phillips lost her battle with heroin a second time. Once again, she struggled to beat her addiction and in 1972 recorded "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," a haunting account of drug use. Esther Phillips continued to work in the 1970s and 1980s before she died in 1984. She was 49.


Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. NY: Penguin, 1993.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Phillips, Esther (1935–1984)

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