Wednesday, February 03, 2010

I Can Stand a Little Esther

One of the hardest words in eastern spirituality is "surrender". There are many things I can do, but that one takes an enormous effort even though releasing all effort is the point of it. Resisting, however, is something I long ago turned into an art.

For years I had resisted listening to the music of Esther Phillips, and for not particularly logical reasons. Back in the mid-1970s I became obsessed with Dinah Washington. Many people said that I would "just love" Esther as the rightful heir to Washington. Why, she'd even recorded Washington's signature tune "What a Difference a Day Makes", in a disco version no less. I heard that version, considered it blasphemy (and I don't even think it's one of Washington's better songs) and thought I'd closed the book on Phillips forever.

Yet, through the years I'd read bits of reviews and stories about her. Her drug and drama filled life echoed many a jazz or blues peer, and I became intrigued by what I might be missing.

A few weeks ago, the image of Phillips on the above album called out at me from one of the bins at Community Thrift on Valencia with "$1.50" plastered on her left cheek. I bought it mainly because it had a favorite tune, "Native New Yorker". But a couple of track into this out-of-print and I was hooked.

Hours later I'd download a few dozen of her best tunes. I hear little of Washington in her voice. Both have a sense of humor, but Washington was about forging through the blues like a captain of a tiny vessel while Phillips seems to be about diving into the depths, wrapped in her jewels of pain as she falls to the bottom of the sea.

As another California monsoon approaches and San Francisco near 120% of its annual rainfall, this seems like the perfect Phillips tune for the next couple of days.

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At 11:51 PM, Blogger Lorenzo Lapis Lazuli said...

Great tune from Esther. I, too, hear much Dinah Washington in her voice, that hard-edged yet sultry tone. I remember years ago having an almost angry reaction to any jazz artist that achieved commercial success, Esther included. It took me far too long to realize how silly, selfish and off-target this was. It was only after meeting and interacting with jazz musicians that I learned that often those commercial ventures represented a very minor part of their lives, but helped pay the bills for all of the rest.

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Lorenzo - I think there is a touch of Washington in her voice, but with a bit more fatalistic bite. Though Washington's life ended sadly, she always seemed to have a survivor's spirit.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger The Blue Elephant said...

Thanks for causing me to stop for a second hearing of Esther Philips. There is room for two singers whose "mood" is the same. When I came out in 1960, in the first gay bar I went to, a well-known bar called Don's on Nob HIll (close to the high-toned lesbian bar, the Gaslight, that previously had been Sally Stanford's brothel), they played Dinah Washington continuously, so I "came out" to Dinah whose voice and sound fit perfectly the search for hope and happiness in a harsh time for gay people -- they are voices that deeply met our needs -- sweet but tough, sad but strong, braving the fear, confusion, and longing at a time when we used the word "gay" with heavy irony to throw our defiance in the face of those who would do us harm. At the time, when Dinah sang, "What a Difference a Day Makes" I knew that first hand as the day (or night) of coming out made a great difference!

At 4:38 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Jim - That's a great story about Dinah and coming out. A much better theme and singer than Diana Ross and "I'm Coming Out" when I was about the same age. Dinah reportedly had a huge gay fan base, and she loved them dearly.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger jason said...

goodness....thank you for introducing me to her. Off to look for more.

At 5:47 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Jason - She's worth the search.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger willow said...

Hey, I'm going to listen to more of her. Thanks, Mr. Thief! (I had fun catching up on some of the posts I missed)

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Willow - The girl had heat, soul and heartbreak to spare.


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