Esther Phillips was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, on 23 December 1935.
She was brought up singing in church and, at the age of 13, was reluctant to enter a talent contest at the local Barrelhouse Club – a blues club owned by bandleader Johnny Otis (of Willie and the Hand Jive fame) – but her sister insisted.
She won the contest and Otis was so impressed that he recorded her for Modern Records and added her to his travelling revue (The California Rhythm and Blues Caravan), billed as “Little Esther”.
Her inimitable ravaged voice – part Nina Simone, part Dinah Washington – combined with patronage from Otis saw her soar to the US R&B chart top spot in 1950 with Double Crossing Blues, Mistrustin’ Blues and Cupid Boogie.
She was back at the top again in 1962 with her sublime cover of Release Me, this time with the help of Kenny Rogers, who had tipped his talent scout brother Lelan off to her potential (Lelan signed her to his Lenox label).
The subsequent album saw her tackle more emotion-sapping country standards, Charlie Rich‘s No Headstone On My Grave and Hank Williams‘ I Can’t Help It and Why Should We Try Anymore? providing a cathartic salve for hearts cruelly ripped apart.
Esther was a favourite performer of The Beatles, who had her appear on their British TV special in November 1965. She scored her third-biggest hit that year with her version of their song, And I Love Her.
In 1973, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female R&B Artist. She lost, but winner Aretha Franklin promptly handed her trophy over to Esther, who she said should have won.
Although her career was consistently disrupted by the trials of drug and alcohol addiction, she scored another Top 20 hit in 1975 with her remake of the Dinah Washington song What A Difference A Day Makes.
Esther Philips died on 8 August 1984, aged just 48, of complications from liver and kidney ailments.