THE ALBUM ESTHER PHILLIPS -- Good Black is Hard to Crack (Mercury SRM-1-4005).; THE SHOWS BLUES ALLEY -- Tuesday through February 15.
There's this thing Esther Phillips does with her voice. You wouldn't exactly call it a trick, or even a vocal device. But whether she's shouting or crooning, scolding or cajoling, there'll be a shift in vibrato, a subtle quaver somewhere between a cackle and a sob. Like the nonconformist spring in a beloved mattress, it's a harbinger of sleepy sensuality to come.
It was just this sensuality, I suspect, that caused a jittery management to dub her "Little Esther" when Phillips made "Cupid's Boogie" a hit back in not-so-naughty 1950. Thirty-one years and a lot of bluesy recordings later, the turntable smolders under the friction of "Good Black Is Hard to Crack," leaving no doubt that there is nothing "little" about Phillips' jazzy, come-hither appeal.
Phillips is an interpreter of the highest caliber, meaning she can take the most ridiculous excuse of a tune, apply her special style and somehow cause it to make sense or, at the very least, move the listener. That's why her best-known songs have ranged from country chestnuts like "Release Me" to a feminine version of Lennon and McCartney's "And I Love Her." Such a versatile pose by any other name or gender would certainly sound as sweet, but it would probably belong to Frank Sinatra and be a whole lot more bankable.
"Good Black" opens with Willie Nelson's "Crazy," and if the way Phillips renders the song doesn't raise a goosebump or two, better have someone check your vital signs. Running through an emotional range as incredibly flexible as her vocal one, she evokes loneliness, vulnerability, anger and resignation -- sometimes within the same short phrase. If Linda Ronstadt has the capacity for shame, this should put her over the edge
Then there's "Reaching Out for Love with Love," in which the rather bland, disco-y musical accompaniment serves only to emphasize how little Phillips depends on format or structure to get a feeling across.
On songs like "Cry to Me," "You Can't See Thunder" and the Mabelle John/Joel Webster tune "City Lights," there's all the jazzy arrogance of Dinah Washington, the little-girl-lost quality of Linda Lewis or early Diana Ross and the gut-grabbing urgency of Aretha in her soul-salad days.
"What can I do?" shrieks Phillips, and one is hit with a sense of guilt by association, a need to account or atone for whatever situation would bring her to this agitated state. In the very next instant comes exoneration: The singer soothes and strokes, the spring creaks a new invitation, a welcome between the warm sheets once again.
Of course, to depend on vinyl as a means of getting the full measure of Phillips' style is to miss half the point. Granted, this week Washington will be brimming with blues and jazz performances, but to miss this leading lady's live action would be, well, crazy.