The first rock artist to become a star while still a kid, though Little Esther never sounded like one, nor was she marketed as such. Instead she was the first female artist of any age to find consistent commercial success in rock ‘n’ roll, scoring a string of hits in the early 1950’s fronting Johnny Otis’s band before a series of events brought about a prolonged downturn. But for all of her problems in her life and career, most of them self-inflicted, she was far from finished as a star, scoring multiple impressive comebacks over the next three decades in a wide array of styles.

Esther Mae Washington was born in Houston and was splitting time between her hometown and Los Angeles where her mother had moved when she was discovered by Johnny Otis at a talent show. Though not blessed with a pretty voice she sang with tremendous feeling and had an innate understanding of a song’s underlying meaning that belied her youth. Her primary influence vocally was Dinah Washington but as Otis was now immersed in the growing rock ‘n’ roll market Esther’s approach was tailored to fit that material when he drafted her to sing in his group.

After a one-off session for Modern that provided Esther with her professional debut on wax Otis was approached by Ralph Bass to sign with Savoy, bringing his entire group of vocalists and instrumental wizards with him and kicking off one of the most dazzling commercial runs in history. Over the next two years they scored an astounding fourteen hits with that company and its subsidiary Regent Records through early 1952, seven of which featured Esther on vocals, often paired with Mel Walker’s sleepy baritone and The Robins vocal harmonies. For all the talent in that congregation of artists Esther was unquestionably the breakout star with her first record on Savoy, her performance on “Double Crossing Blues” ensuring that she was the most recognizable figure in the Otis’s revue from that point forward, ironically even including Johnny himself.

Though it was never referenced in the songs or touted much in the promotion by Savoy, Esther’s age cut down on the types of clubs she was allowed to play and her extended absences from school created problems as well. But in spite of her youth she was singing adult themes from the very start… and getting into adult predicaments along the way, including a drug habit that she would never fully shake.

After a year on the label she was able to get out of her contract, since she was a minor, and signed with Federal Records at the start of 1951, which was the newly formed King Records subsidiary that Syd Nathan had started in order to to lure Ralph Bass from Savoy by handing him the reins of the label. Otis himself was planning on joining them there as soon as his own contract with Savoy was up (being well over 18 he was forced to stick it out to the end of the deal), but it was still Johnny and his band surreptitiously playing behind Esther on those Federal Records, even though when the time came Otis would wind up signing with Mercury rather than Federal because he got a better contract from them.

Maybe the change in labels hurt Esther’s standing, or even lack of the public association with Otis on those new releases contributed to her decline, but she scored just one hit after this (with Mel Walker) in 1952, in spite of working with top notch producers, songwriters (Leiber & Stoller) and with ample promotion. In addition to her solo work they also had her cut songs with The Dominoes, Bobby Nunn (who’d backed her with The Robins on Savoy) and Little Willie Littlefield, but nothing clicked. She still was touring with Otis until late 1953 before deciding to go out on her own which may have further diminished her lingering drawing power.

When her contract with Federal ended she signed with major label Decca, who were still trying to break into the rock market but looking in the wrong direction, backwards rather than forwards and with Esther’s worsening drug habit not helping she scored no hits for them. She signed with Savoy again in 1956 but nothing came out of that reunion either and by now was only occasionally performing on stage, usually while still billed for records that had come out a half dozen years earlier.

Following a similarly unsuccessful stint with Warwick Records at the turn of the decade she landed at Lenox Records in 1962 and mounted the first of many comebacks, now using the name Esther Phillips, taking her surname from a Phillips Gas Station sign. She showed that in the ten years since her last hit she really hadn’t lost any of her interpretive abilities as her country-rock weeper “Release Me” soared to #1. On the move after that to the powerful Atlantic Records she got a couple of smaller hits over the next few years but though she was still just in her twenties her style was now growing slightly out of step with the current generation.

By the 1970’s she tailored her approach accordingly and came away with a stunning album Home Is Where The Hatred Is which daringly confronted her own drug abuse via a cover of the Gil Scott-Heron title cut. When Aretha Franklin won an Emmy for Best R&B Album that year she gave her trophy to Esther whom she declared was the artist who truly deserved it.

In 1975 she scored her final Top Ten R&B hit with “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes”, a loving rendition of a song made famous by her idol, Dinah Washington. Drugs continued to plague her the rest of her days but in 1983 she notched one final hit before her death from liver failure the following year, a lifetime of abuse finally coming to collect. Though her obituary may have said she was only 48 years old she’d lived a life that was twice as long in miles. Her old friend and mentor Johnny Otis, now a minister, presided at her funeral.

Though nominated multiple times for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame she never earned enough votes from those who apparently couldn’t be bothered to learn that Little Esther, at an age most kids are just listening to music not churning out hits of their own, had been the first unquestioned queen of rock ‘n’ roll.
LITTLE ESTHER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Modern 20-715; November, 1949)
Impressive debut for Esther who sings with a wisdom well beyond her 13 years, and she gets excellent support from guitarist Pete Lewis, but the song itself is lyrically clumsy and the rest of Johnny Otis’s band does her no favors with outdated horns. (6)

(Savoy 731; January, 1950)
The song which launched Esther to stardom is remembered for the comedic interlude with Bobby Nunn in which Esther gets dissed badly but her performance as a whole is perfectly judged and the interplay with Nunn is fantastic. (8)

(Savoy 735; March, 1950)
A record hitting on all cylinders – a gripping story with plot twists galore, subtle but effective backing by the band and topped off by some tremendous vocal give and take between Esther and Mel Walker in their first duet, a well deserved #1 hit. (8)

(Savoy 735; March, 1950)
A superb acting job by Esther who manages to elicit sympathy without expecting pity for her loneliness while Lorenzo Holden’s sax and Johnny Otis’s ethereal vibes provide the perfect mood to highlight this emotional – yet still hopeful – track. (8)

(Modern 20-748; April, 1950)
A song cut last fall that belatedly got issued to capitalize on her subsequent appeal, this shows Esther is still a little uncomfortable in the studio, though she pulls it together as she goes along, but the song itself isn’t strong enough to make an impression on you. (3)

(Savoy 750: June, 1950)
One of Esther’s best performances that takes advantage of all of her attributes – feisty, sassy, longing and humorous – as she spars effortlessly with Mel Walker and handles a quicker tempo than she was usually given with infectious charm. ★ 10 ★

(Savoy 750: June, 1950)
Not the most comfortable of performances as Esther is forced to start with an awkward spoken intro and then struggles to confine herself to the ponderously slow arrangement of the band, but she’s still able to hit the right emotional note throughout this throwaway side. (3)

(Savoy 759; August, 1950)
Despite being given the same basic attitude to embody and a similar pace and structure to past glories, Esther still brings plenty of character to the role and handles the emotional stakes with understated grace. (7)

(Savoy 759; August, 1950)
Though it’s competently executed by everyone the entire concept and thematic perspective along with Esther’s delivery and many of the arranging touches are too familiar to stand out showing the drawbacks of recycling a winning formula too much. (4)

(Savoy 764; October, 1950)
Though she tries her best and manages to come out of this “marriage” with some dignity intact, this is beneath Esther’s talents as they apparently felt the concept alone was good enough and so never bothered crafting a good song for her to perform. (3)

(Savoy 764; October, 1950)
While her vocals fit the sad mood being created the pace is just a step too slow for her to ever get fully comfortable giving this a slightly uneasy feeling, accurate for the content but not quite as enjoyable as usual. (5)

(Savoy 775; December, 1950)
Struggling to stay in key and stay within hailing distance of Mel Walker, this would’ve been better served as either a solo record where she could set the terms, or in a duet where they each took one half rather than sing together. (3)

(Savoy 775; December, 1950)
The wrong song in the wrong style for Esther who’s required to carry shallow lyrics atop a slow contemplative melody on her thin voice while the band plays outdated charts behind her, she gives it her all but can’t help but falter. (2)

(Federal 12016; February, 1951)
A bad idea all around as they fit Esther with an elegant arrangement to satisfy her dreams of sounding like Dinah Washington which means the band completely downplays the emotional side of the song leaving you with nothing but an empty carcass. (2)

(Federal 12016; February, 1951)
Though the decision to have a 15 year old girl’s sexual assault as the basis of the plot is beyond troubling, the performances are exhilarating as she and The Dominoes trade off building to a thrilling (musical) climax as she’s corrupted by the illegal acts they sing about. ★ 10 ★

(Regent 1036; March, 1951)
Because the songwriting and vocal arrangement contains an unfortunate vocal hook that intrudes on the main story it’s impossible for Esther or Mel Walker to come off looking even remotely competent here making for an uncomfortable listen. (2)

(Federal 12023; April, 1951)
Though the composition is better suited for her than her Federal solo debut, the arrangement is atrocious as the band starts off too fast while eliminating the heavier bottom it needs and eventually the whole record breaks down with bad playing and a poor male vocal turn. (3)

(Federal 12023; April, 1951)
Another song which, while admittedly a little vague on paper, is done in by a bad arrangement where nothing coalesces properly sending Esther off-track and leaving the impression of it being little more than inconsequential filler. (3)

(Federal 12036; July, 1951)
A song well suited to Esther’s strengths as she gets to deliver yearning sentiments at a moderate pace before handing off to Clyde McPhatter who ratchets up the tension while the other Dominoes chip in with solid interwoven harmonies. (7)

(Federal 12036; July, 1951)
Though it’s a one-note topic without much depth beyond her carnal desires, she’s engaging vocally throughout sticking to a faster pace than usual while getting lots of support thanks to an overstuffed arrangement highlighted by Pete Lewis’s guitar. (6)

(Federal 12042; October, 1951)
Though Esther handles her job here well enough, the song itself and the busy, but unexciting, arrangement let her down as this is a halfway decent idea that just isn’t fleshed out and tightened up enough to make a strong impression. (5)

(Federal 12042; October, 1951)
The song as written, the arrangement with its woefully out of date horns and Esther’s tired performance all gives the impression that they were merely hoping her popularity from past triumphs would be enough to elevate something this mundane. (3)

(Savoy 824; November, 1951)
The first song Esther cut for Savoy back in November 1949 finally gets issued and while she’s good and the arrangement is very nice, the song itself is a little thin which explains their delay in releasing it until they had no choice because they were out of sides. (4)

(Federal 12055; December, 1951)
Her first hit in a full year – and her last for a full decade – finds Esther reunited with Mel Walker and while their voices mesh as well as ever, the song they’re saddled with is beneath them, a silly love romp with misjudged instrumental backing. (5)

(Federal 12055; December, 1951)
Though Esther isn’t bad here, the song is rather thin and pointless and is hurt by an arrangement that goes downhill after a decent start, but mostly is ruined by the inclusion of actual sobbing which is supposed to set the mood but only winds up killing it. (3)

(Federal 12063; February, 1952)
Suffering from a mismatched Johnny Otis arrangement, one taken from an earlier pre-rock era record of his, the lurching pace does Esther no favors as she can’t fully decide on how to handle the melody and winds up leaving a lot of it behind. (3)

(Federal 12063; February, 1952)
An unlikely artistic triumph as this has the trappings of a gimmicky record with thunder and rain sound effects but it works remarkably well by framing Esther’s state of mind perfectly and then letting her reflect inwardly rather than emote to get to the root of her pain. (7)

(Federal 12065; March, 1952)
Though the idea of giving Esther a more uptempo track isn’t a bad but the shrill noisy way in which they try to do so fails miserably as the Vegas showroom horns are completely out of place and this never finds a consistent appropriate sound for her to mine. (2)

(Federal 12065; March, 1952)
Vocally this might be the best Esther has sounded to date, showing surprising power and control in re-imagining a recent country recording and making the somewhat trite lyrics have much more depth and meaning which gets undercut slightly by the far too brassy horns. (7)

(Federal 12078; May, 1952)
Maybe the most perfectly realized record of her career, great lyrics, vocals and arrangement even as it leans very hard into jazz to the point where you’re shocked it was an original written for her rather than a standard, but rock fans still embraced it despite the stylistic deviation. (8)

(Federal 12078; May, 1952)
Though Esther herself does the best she can with it, this is just a badly written and arranged song that can’t decide what it wants to be with conflicting instrumental moods trying to force blues, jazz and rock together in awkward and unsatisfying ways. (4)

(Federal 12090; August, 1952)
A decent enough song as written with suitable story and lyrics, all of which are delivered nicely by Esther, but the backing here consists of weak horns that not only don’t sound good tonally, but are refuting the very message she’s trying to impart with their approach. (4)

(Federal 12100; October, 1952)
A blatant attempt to recapture the success of her breakthrough hit as they brought Bobby Nunn back to sing with Esther, but while they sound okay, the arrangement is more appropriate for 1950 than ’52 and the lyrics have just one idea that goes nowhere. (4)

(Federal 12100; October, 1952)
Proof that Esther’s problems at Federal were not due to declining talent, as she sounds great here in bringing out every sly nuance of Jerry Leiber’s great double entendre lyrics while the overall arrangement, save a bad alto solo, adds to the atmosphere. (8)

(Federal 12108; November, 1952)
Every aspect of this – from the theme to the lyrics to the arrangement and the playing as well as Esther’s vocal performance – are first rate as this faster paced cut gives her a chance to stretch out while still retaining her identity. (8)

(Federal 12108; November, 1952)
Though the idea is good, showing two sides of an evolving breakup in a humorous way with Little Willie Littlefield taking the other role, the two singers have little chemistry while the music is dull and the laughs by Jerry Leiber are in short supply. (3)