In 1965 if The Beatles asked then The Beatles got. The Fabs were making a TV show, “The Music of Lennon & McCartney”, for Granada TV. Their guests included Mersey mates from the NEMS stable, Brit popettes Marianne Faithfull & Lulu, Peter Sellers doing that Shakespearian “A Hard Day’s Night”. Also joining them was Esther Phillips, 15 years as a recording artist & appearing outside of the USA for the first time. In 1950, as “Little” Esther & just 14 years old, she enjoyed 7 Top 10 singles (3 at #1), 5 of them with “Blues” in the title. Miss Phillips had a tough ride in the Fifties. After a split with the influential Johnny Otis the hits didn’t come as easy as her addiction to heroin. It was 1962 before she had more success with covers of country songs.
“And I Love Him” was the title track of Esther’s first LP with Atlantic. Covering Beatles’ songs was a thing in 1965 &, as John Lennon says, this was one of their favourites. The gender-switching “Her” to “Him” was a stroke, the arrangement is spare, the vocal sophisticated & sensual, two things I knew little of when I was 12 but it sounded good then & it still does. Esther stuck around & in 1972 was with Kudu, an offshoot of jazz label CTI. “From A Whisper To A Scream” includes her version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, a sombre tale of addiction & it’s perfect. The whole LP is treat, good songs arranged by Pee Wee Ellis, off of the James Brown Revue, played by stellar session men. Allen Toussaint’s title track & Marvin Gaye’s “Baby I’m For Real” are delights that I’m only just discovering.
In 1975 a discofied take on “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes”, a song made popular by her influence Dinah Washington, was a worldwide hit. She continued to record until 1984 when unfortunately, at the age of just 48, her hard-living past caused a much too early death. Esther Phillips had an individual voice which brought gritty quality to whatever material she was handed.
Of course in the mid-60s I was all about the Big Beat whether it was the energetic British take on Rock & Roll & the Blues or the new Motown sound that was calling out around the world. Everything that came before, the show business cabaret crooners, the vapid teen idols, trad jazz, was so over, stranded in the olden days by the new frontier of 60s modernity. (Yeah, I was so much older then…). Nancy Wilson’s cool supper club jazz stylings were absolutely off my radar but “The Girl With The Honey Coated Voice”, “Fancy Miss Nancy”, found a receptive audience with her interpretations of stage & screen standards. In 1963 her 4 LPs all reached the US Top 20.
The following year her single “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” claimed the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording though she thought it was a pop song & there’s still a touch of jazz. No labels just classy, urban & urbane. This is so cosmopolitan I want to smoke a pastel coloured Sobranie…& like it. Ms Wilson seized the time, a guest on many US TV shows as a singer & an actress. She has continued to sing her stories, always warm, effortless, & elegant, always popular. It is more than her longevity that has made her a Jazz great. If you are so inclined check her performances from the early 1960s when she was young, assured, drop-dead gorgeous & straight from the fridge.
And then came Dionne Warwick. We knew that our own Cilla Black had pinched a UK hit off her by getting in early with a cover of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” but Dionne came right back with her first single of 1964 “Walk On By”. Her partnership with songwriters/producers Bacharach & David, from 1962 to 1971 was irresistible. At Scepter Records they were given the freedom to create definitive versions of original instant classics. The productions were often sparse, leaving Dionne’s soulful voice to do that thing she does. My favourites, the eerie “Walk On By”, the quirky drumbeat of “You Can Have Him” (not a B & D song) & the perfect “Are You There (With Another Girl)”. There were 31 Top 40 hits for the trio in this time.
Dionne had 5 million reasons for leaving Scepter in 1971 & though Bacharach & David followed her to Warner Bros they ended their songwriting relationship the following year. She worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jerry Ragovoy & Thom Bell but, apart from “Then Came You”, recorded with the Spinners, the hits were fewer & smaller. Ms Warwick was not ready to join the golden oldie circuit. A generation of musicians & composers had learned about well-crafted pop music from her records & were only too pleased to work with her. Similarly listeners had grown up with her too. There was more success, of female singers only Aretha Franklin has had more hits. Dionne Warwick is a legend. A few years ago I hit upon copies of her Greatest Hits Vol I & II, released on Wand, a Scepter subsidiary in 1970. It was payday & they turned out to be in mint condition…a result. Both records are quality from start to finish, filling the house with the beautiful noise of the best of swinging sixties sophistication.