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. The year before Bass had signed Big Jay McNeely when he was playing with Otis’s crew, as well as cutting sides with Otis’s pianist Dee Williams, but Johnny himself was still under contract at the time to Excelsior. Now that he was free Otis signed with the long-standing New Jersey label taking with him his deep roster of accompanists and singers, the thirteen year old “Little” Esther among them.

Otis’s two year run at Savoy was an unmitigated success as he and his compatriots scored 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.

Savoy cut so much material on Otis, possibly justifying it by the fact that there were so many singers and instrumentalists who could get label credit (though Otis got his name on them all as the bandleader and songwriter), that there was hardly a week that went by when a new record by this group didn’t come out. Esther’s age though posed problems in the types of clubs she was allowed to play and her absence from school, though oddly enough her youth was not even a major factor in the songs or in their promotion by Savoy, although newspaper articles invariably mentioned it as a way to capture the eye of unknowing readers. 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 there she sued Savoy to free herself from her contract as she was a minor and therefore couldn’t legally enter into any contract herself. She won the case 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 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 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, the latter of which she took 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.
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 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)