The Story of Little Esther ©2000JCMarion


Herman Lubinsky, the owner and guiding force behind Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey, knew in his heart that he had the chance to sign on to his label a unique talent that night in 1949. He had just seen a thirteen year old girl stop the show cold at an amateur night performance at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles, and so he proceeded to add the young Little Esther to his Rhythm& Blues roster. Within weeks of this signing, the (just barely) teenager originally from Galveston, and then Houston Texas, was in the recording studio with veteran arranger, session man, and performer Johnny Otis. Also at that session in late 1949 were Otis' new vocal group discovery from California, The Four Robins. That very first get together before the recording microphone produced an all time classic R & B tune called "Double Crossin' Blues" released on Savoy #731. The side was an immediate hit and a new star was unleashed on the listening public. The flip side "Ain't Nothing Shakin' " sung by Leon Sims was quickly forgotten as the dancers and R & B fans couldn't get enough of the young singer from Watts. By March of 1950 sales are still strong and so Savoy releases the side on 45rpm, the label's first.

A traveling review called the Savoy Records Barrelhouse Caravan of Stars hits the road for a series of one nighters across the South in early 1950. In the show are The Johnny Otis band, The Robins, Little Esther, Mel Walker, and Redd Lyte (Floyd Hollis). At the same time the new release by Little Esther appears - Savoy #735- "Misery" / "Mistrusting Blues" with Mel Walker and the Johnny Otis band. The tour is a huge draw throughout the region especially in Atlanta where the show sells out for two nights, with more than ten thousand each night in attendance. In early April the unit does a week at New York's Apollo Theater, and follows that up with a week at Baltimore's Regal. "Mistrusting Blues" is another big seller for Savoy, and Modern Records tries to get in on the action by releasing an Esther side that they had put on the shelf until now - "Mean Old Gal" / "Good Old Blues"on #20-748. Most listeners aren't fooled and stick with the new stuff on Savoy such as the new release on Savoy #750 out during the summer, again pairing with Mel Walker - "Cupid's Boogie"and "Just Can't Get Free" on #750.

Lubinsky and Savoy Records now turn to a publicity seeking gimmick for the next release by Little Esther. They will preview the untitled "mystery record" on radio and ask listeners to give the song a title. Presumably the winner received a prize (certainly not writer's credit though) and the record will be shipped with the title on the label by Labor Day of 1950. The result of this promotion is Savoy #759- "Lost Dream Blues". The other side is "Deceiving Blues" and once again Esther is paired with Mel Walker. In October another bit of gimmickry takes place with Savoy #764 as listed by the Johnny Otis Congregation on "The Wedding Boogie". Little Esther and Mel Walker play the bride and groom, Lee Graves is the preacher and the Otis band provide backing on a R & B version of the marriage ceremony.The flip side is a seasonal blues duet by Esther and Walker called "Far Away Christmas Blues". More previously unreleased tunes see the light of day on a first LP on the Modern label late in the year.

Proving the sudden star power of Little Esther, she comes in number one in a poll of the national juke box operators for best jazz and blues performer for the year of 1950. Quite a winning accomplishment for a thirteen year old ! Johnny Otis with Esther and Mel Walker appear at the annual Christmas benefit held by the Los Angeles Sentinel at L.A,'s Lincoln Theater. They will also appear at a holiday show in L.A. at the Elks Hall. Right at the end of the year Savoy Records issues "Love Will Break Your Heart" and "I Don't Care" on #775. This ended quite a year for the talented young singer. Six record releases, all good sellers, one a true classic, and a host of awards and in person appearances had made Little Esther a national star performer. But as we know in all these cases, trouble was right on the horizon.

Controversy arose almost immediately after the new year began. On January 5, 1951, the Superior Court of California appointed Esther's mother as her legal guardian and upheld the new contract for her to record for King Records of Cincinnati. Syd Nathan of King said he planned to release Esther's records on his Federal label in the 45rpm format. The first release follows shortly. It is Federal #12016 - "Other Lips Other Arms" and a tune with The Dominos called "The Deacon Moves In". Meanwhile a Savoy session is released on its subsidiary label Regent - "Hangover Blues" and "I Dream" with Mel Walker and the Johnny Otis band. The Federal release of "Deacon" is a big seller with its echoes of her first record with The Robins.

That May, the nastiness escalates as Esther Mae Jones (Little Esther) brings suit in court in the state of New Jersey against Herman Lubinsky and Savoy Records for due back earnings, and also asks a restraining order be in force against Savoy records from marketing her past recordings for the label. Lubinsky answers by initiating a counter suit asking for fifty thousand dollars in damages claiming that he and his record label made a national star out of an unknown performer. While all of these legal maneuvers are taking place, Little Esther appears with the Johnny Otis band for a week at Detroit's Paradise Theater. Federal records pairs Esther and The Dominos again, this time on the tune "Heart To Heart". The flip side is "Looking For A Man" with the Earl Warren orchestra. In late October Federal #12042 features Esther with the Warren band on "Crying And Singing The Blues" and "Tell Him That I Need Him So". In November, Bobby Shad, once of the Sittin In With label, and now head of R & B operations for Mercury Records, announces the signing of Little Esther for that label beginning after the new year. Shad also has signed Johnny Otis to Mercury. While all of this is taking place, Savoy records releases a recording of "Get Together Blues" as by Little Esther and Junior on #824 backed by The Vocaleers "Chitlin' Switch". At the end of the year Federal is back with #12055 - "Ring-A-Ding-Doo" and "The Crying Blues". So ended a most tumultuous year for the now fourteen year old singer.

During the early days of the year of 1952, Esther is back in the courts. This time the courts rule that her contract with Mercury Records is invalid and so the singer remains with King-Federal. Soon Federal #12063 is released which pairs the tunes "Summertime" and "The Storm". Esther spends the month of January making personal appearances with Johnny Otis in the Los Angeles area. Soon the unit joins up with Willie Mae Thornton, Gatemouth Brown, and Marie Adams for a number of shows in New Orleans and Texas. Later in the Spring, Federal releases #12065 by Esther - "You Better Beware" and "I'll Be There". In May Little Esther is back in the middle of legal wrangling, but this time she settles her suit (out of court) against Savoy Records and Herman Lubinsky on the issue of back owed royalties. During April Esther with Johnny Otis and Willie Mae Thornton play a week at New York's Apollo Theater. In June of 1952 Federal releases #12078 - "Bring My Lovin 'Back To Me" and "Aged And Mellow". As this record is issued, Esther and Thornton with the Johnny Otis band return to do a series of one nighters in California.

"Rambling Blues" / "Somebody New" are released by Federal on #12090 in late August just as the one nighters featuring Esther with Otis and Thornton, are drawing record crowds to shows in Texas and Louisiana. Federal follows up with "Mainliner" and "Saturday Night Daddy" in early October. Federal's last record for the year featuring Esther with Little Willie Littlefield on #12108 pairs "Last Laugh Blues" with "Flesh, Blood, and Bones". At about this time Esther plays another week at New York's Apollo with Johnny Otis and his band. During the early part of 1953 Little Esther changes up and joins H-Bomb Ferguson and the Tab Smith Combo for a series of one nighters. In February "Hollerin' And Screamin' " is released. The flip side is a tune by Little Willie Littlefield called "Turn The Lamps Down Low" for Federal #12115.

In April Esther does a turn on Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog" b/w "Sweet Lips" on #12126. Trade ads for the Federal label tout this release as the greatest record ever made by Little Esther. Later that month an intriguing bill is presented at Chicago's Regal Theater. It features Little Esther along with the Five Royales and Arnett Cobb's orchestra. A few weeks later Esther and The Five Royales are joined by Jimmy (Night Train) Forrest and Sonny Stitt for some dates in the Detroit area. In May the Pittsburgh Courier's annual popularity poll places Little Esther third in the female blues singer category after Ruth Brown and Esther's main influence Dinah Washington. During the summer the Decca label signs Esther away from King-Federal records, and once again Bobby Shad is involved as he was with the abortive signing for Mercury. In September a new series of touring dates is set with Little Esther joining The Clovers, Roscoe Gordon, and Chuck Willis. In October the last Federal release by Esther is "Cherry Wine" and "Love Oh Love" on #12142. By the end of the year Esther has her first release for Decca on #48305 - "Please Don't Send Me Home" and "Stop Crying".

By the time 1954 rolls around, Little Esther was a five year veteran of the touring and recording studio of the early fifties R & B world, and she was still a teenager, although by now she was a seasoned performer and had seen and heard just about everything. As the sound of Rhythm & Blues now moved into the mainstream of American consciousness, very little was heard from Esther over the next two years. In the spring of 1954 Decca released #48314 - "Sit Back Down" and "He's A No Good Man" which disappeared almost as soon as it was released. A year later Little Esther appears at New York's Apollo Theater on a bill with The Clovers, Little Willie John, and the band of Paul (Hucklebuck) Williams. Esther fades from the scene for almost a year and then makes news as she returns to Savoy Records where she first became a household name in the R & B world. Savoy #1193 is released soon, a pairing of "You Can Bet Your Life" and "Taint What 'Cha Do". The record does well especially in the Midwest where it is a top ten seller in Chicago and Gary, Indiana. In April of 1957 Little Esther appears at Chicago's Regal Theater with Al "Ol Swingmaster" Benson in an all star R & B show. In July Savoy releases #1516 featuring Esther on the tunes "Longing In My Heart" and "If It's News To You".

In March of 1959 "Do You Ever Think Of Me?" and "It's So Good" are released by Savoy Records on #1563. Later in the year finds her on Federal Records where a recording of "I Paid My Dues" and "Heart To Heart" is released on #12344. Unfortunately, this would be the last most people would see of Little Esther. Now the records weren't selling or being played on the radio, and the personal appearances were few and far between. Added to this was a nasty battle with drug addiction, and soon she was another performer who was headed down the path of personal destruction. From somewhere within, her professional pride won out and she was able to re-invent herself twice in the next two decades. The first time was in the early sixties an the world was about to experience the British invasion that would stand American pop music on its collective head. The newly renamed Esther Phillips (as legend has it, taken from an ad for Phillips Petroleum) hit it big in 1962 with a pop / country ballad called "Please Release Me" for the small independent label Lenox on #5555. The record was a top ten smash across the country and Esther was back in the limelight if only temporarily. Esther appeared on the BBC television show "Ready, Steady, Go" along with The Beatles in 1965. She was presented as a featured performer on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1966, but soon once again drifted into relative obscurity. Another decade or so as a mostly forgotten R & B pioneer passed with sporadic appearances such as for the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival. Albums for Atlantic featuring pop and country songs went largely unnoticed in the late 60s and early 70s. Now it was the mid-seventies and the disco era. Esther remade a tune that was a hit for her idol Dinah Washington, "What A Difference A Day Makes", and turned it inside out as a sensuous, heavy breathing disco hit. The top twenty record for Kudu #925 put Esther back in the spotlight. She also returned to her roots on a PBS special called "The Barrelhouse Reunion" where she once again teamed up with Johnny Otis and other R & B veterans such as Charles Brown and Peewee Crayton and relived the days of R & B's infancy on Central Avenue in Watts, California. Recognition also followed, at long last, when Esther won awards from Rolling Stone Magazine (Best R & B singer), Ebony Magazine (Best Female Blues Singer two years in a row), and the NAACP Image Award in 1975.

After more than twenty five years as a star performer, beginning at the age of thirteen, Esther certainly paid her dues in a way very few performers would ever be required to. She passed away barely fifty years old, but seemed to have lived a lot longer. Her legacy in music is preserved most especially on the compilation CDs "Memory Lane" for King, a "Best Of" for Rhino, and most importantly "The Complete Savoy Recordings With Johnny Otis" for Savoy. She was a true original and one of the landmark practitioners of the musical form we call R & B which is the basis for just about all of the music that dominates the scene today as well as for the last half century. Little Esther - we will always remember her and her music.

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