Esther Phillips – Capricorn Princess
Released 8th April 2016
Reissue of 1976 Disco/Soul crossover from veteran R n B star Esther Phillips whose career began way back in the late 1940s. Ian Canty sees the glitterball collide with the heat of the street
Esther Phillips was 40 when she cut this recording, 26 years after her début disc “Double Crossing Blues” in 1950 (a number one in the US R n B chart). In the intervening time she suffered badly with drug addiction (which sadly would eventually contribute towards her death in 1984), but still managed to score hit singles in the US (“Release Me” being the biggest, reaching 8 in the Billboard charts during 1962). Though obviously hampered by these bad habits, Esther was forward looking and moved with the times with great success on the Disco scene. Her souped-up cover of “What A Difference A Day Makes” even gave her a taste of success in the UK charts by climbing all the way to number 6 the year before this LP was released.
Though not having a big hit single like like “What” there’s much to enjoy on this record, her last for the Kudu label. Esther had a big voice, a “proper” singer but full of expression and personality. One of the pitfalls of Disco from my point of view was the faceless element but it’s not an issue here. In the extensive sleeve-notes SoulMusic founder David Nathan says “she had this very tough, don’t give a F attitude, but when you got to know her she was very funny and warm”. He also remarks she had a streetwise wit and all these elements come through clearly on the different songs on this record, even though none of the tracks on here are self penned.
This album begins with the high stepping Disco of “Magic’s In The Air” and like all the tracks that take on this “new” (at the time) sound by Esther and her band, through her upfront vocals they manage to steer things down up expected paths, like the simple toy-town repeated keyboard riff here, or the Proto-Electro cover of Janis Ian’s “Boy, I Really Tied One On”. This track is pivotal to understanding Esther Phillips at this point in time and it’s impossible not to feel a little sad knowing how things ended up. Basically the story of waking up the morning after the night before when the song’s narrator had been stoned out of their head, it must have been familiar ground for her. Even knowing that she managed to infuse the song with an innate humour making it one to both laugh and cry to.
Elsewhere she goes back to her Soul roots with ballads, the pick of which for me is “I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do” where Esther says “I couldn’t care less” about her man – there’s no doubt she was a tough cookie indeed and possibly difficult to work with (she once introduced a gig in New York saying words to the effect “You better enjoy it , because I’m not playing the Bottom Fuckin’ Line ever again”!). “Candy” that follows seems to me to be a bit tongue in cheek in the performance, about “the perfect man”! “All The Way Down” has elements of the tough attitude too, along with a street-level world-view – this one really has the Funk written all over it, a long flute riddled intro, uptight vibes, very tasty indeed.
This re-issue comes with some terrific sleeve-notes riddle with great stories about Esther. I’m not the biggest Disco fan in the world, but this LP gets it right, being a fresh and varied take on the Disco/Funk/Soul of the time that stretches the boundaries of each genre and all presented with that incredible voice. Nice work.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here