NOTE: In 1962, with her career having run out of gas, Little Esther became "Esther Phillips", a name supposedly taken from a Phillips gas station (how apropos!). It worked: she had around a dozen R&B chart hits from that point on, including a #1 hit with "Release Me", late that year. However, I'm only going to talk about her career prior to that name change.
Boy, you think you know someone. All these years I thought that Little Esther's real name was Esther Mae Jones, since many newspaper blurbs refer to her that way. It turns out that her birth name was really Esther Mae Washington, born in Galveston, Texas on December 23, 1935 to Frank F. A. "Arthur" Washington and Lucille Green. When she was only a few months old, the family moved to Houston, but her parents divorced soon after.
In 1940, her father lived in Houston and claimed to be single, so the divorce would have taken place before then. Esther, her brother Frank Jr., and her sister Marietta, were all living in Houston with their aunt Mary in 1940. There was another sister, Gertrude, but I don't know where she was. Esther, along with her mother and siblings, relocated to Los Angeles around 1941, but in 1944, Esther moved back to Houston to be with her father, spending summers with her mother in L.A.
Where did Esther's "Jones" surname come from? I haven't been able to find out. The usual explanation is that her mother married someone named "Jones", who adopted Esther. However, mother Lucille was referred to as "Lucille Washington" in 1954 (long after the "Esther Mae Jones" name appeared in papers), and, if I have the right one, there was a Lucille Washington who was born in 1908; died with that name in Los Angeles in 1975; and had a Social Security number issued in Texas.
Esther initially made a name for herself by teaming up with bandleader Johnny Otis. But how did this come about? Otis himself completely confuses the issue. In his 1968 book, "Listen To The Lambs", he said he heard Esther singing in a talent show at the Largo Theater on 103rd Street in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Esther maintained that she did perform in a talent show, singing Dinah Washington's "Baby Get Lost". However, when Esther died, Otis wrote this (which appeared in the August 20, 1984 Jet): "I've lost a daughter.... People think I first found her as a singer, that's not true. I had a chicken ranch and I had little kids in the neighborhood run and catch chickens for me. And Esther was one of the little kids . . . And then one day, we were resting and having some lemonade and she started singing those Dinah Washington songs. And I said, 'Girl, I didn't know you could sing like that.'"
One way or another, she impressed Otis tremendously, because, in spite of her age (13), he incorporated her into his band.
Around August 1949, Otis' band did a session for Modern Records. Two of the songs were instrumentals ("Thursday Night Blues" and "Good Old Blues") and two others featured Esther ("I Gotta Guy" and "Mean Ole Gal"). Esther's voice on these is remarkable. It's a powerful, controlled voice, not what you expect from someone who was a couple of months shy of her 14th birthday (and you can certainly hear the Dinah Washington influence).
Her first record, released in November 1949, was "I Gotta Guy", backed with Otis' "Thursday Night Blues". But there was a problem: Modern's label read "I Gotta Gal - vocal Esther Jones". The next month it was reissued with the correct title (and vocal by "Little" Esther), but not before the original had been reviewed in the December 3 Billboard. It received a 73 ("Thrush Esther Jones leaves hardly a note unbent as she weaves her way appealingly thru a bluesy ballad."). [And yes, you can forget the mythical story about Otis and Savoy Records's owner, Herman Lubinsky, deciding to call her "Little Esther" in January 1950.]
However, by the time the record came out, Otis had already switched his band to the Savoy label. Ralph Bass, who would go on to make a name for himself at Federal/King as a talent scout, producer, and a&r man, was, at this time, working for Herman Lubinsky's Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey. Bass came to Johnny Otis' Los Angeles club, the Barrelhouse, liked what he heard, and recommended that Lubinsky sign the entire show: the Johnny Otis Orchestra, Melvin "Mel Walker" Lightsy (his male singer), Floyd Hollis (his MC, comedian, and other male singer), the Robins, and, of course, Esther Mae Jones. [Note that it's seen as both "Barrelhouse" and "Barrel House". Otis spelled the name of his club as a single word.]
This is the story that Terrell "Ty Terrell" Leonard, tenor of the Robins, told Todd Baptista about how the deal went down:
Lubinsky flew out to California and took in the show for himself. Meeting with Otis, he offered a $20 bill to buy the group drinks. Telling Lubinsky that the quartet didn't drink, Leonard recalled that Otis offered them only $2 in their dressing room. Upon learning that the original amount was $20, [bass Bobby] Nunn set out after Otis to get the rest of the money. Otis, in turn, chased Lubinsky out the door. Running down the street, the 53-year old Lubinsky turned to see Otis not far behind, Nunn in close pursuit, Leonard and the Richard brothers [the two other members of the Robins] chasing their bass, and many of the club patrons following along, hoping to get a glimpse of any ensuing action. "I came all the way out here to make you stars and this is how you treat me?!", Lubinsky reportedly bellowed, understandably utilizing more colorful language at the time. [I guess Lubinsky needed the exercise, because he signed them anyway. Of course, I really don't believe the story at all; it doesn't sound realistic (and I can't imagine Lubinsky parting with $20 to buy them drinks).]
On November 10, 1949 Otis and company held their first Savoy session. The five songs recorded were: "Boogie Guitar" (instrumental), "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'" (vocal by Leon Sims), "There's Rain In My Eyes" (the Robins), "Hangover Blues" (instrumental), and "Get Together Blues" (Little Esther and Junior).
Who was Leon Sims? It's a name that's never mentioned anywhere else. It turns out to be an early alias for Floyd Hollis, whom Otis used as an MC and comic, as well as an additional singer. His most famous pseudonym, soon to be adopted, was "Redd Lyte". [I tried to find out something about Hollis and failed miserably. There's not a single trace of him outside of being part of Otis' unit. He disappears completely after May 1952. However, see my Mel Walker article for my best guess as to who he was.]
Who was "Junior"? In this case, I have no idea, but he was NOT Morris "Junior Ryder" Riden (who wouldn't even meet Otis until 1952). He could be Floyd Hollis also, but whoever he is, he's barely on the record at all! For no particular reason, he duets with Esther for only about eight seconds at the end of the song.
On December 1, the band had another session, laying down six more tracks: "I'm Not Falling In Love With You" (vocal by Otis' pianist, Devonia Williams), "If It's So Baby" (the Robins), "Our Romance Is Gone" (the Robins), "If I Didn't Love You So" (the Robins), "There's Rain In My Eyes" (the Robins), and "Double Crossing Blues" (Little Esther & the Robins).
With only 20 minutes left on the studio clock, Otis gave Esther the chance to try a song called "Double Crossing Blues", and told the Robins to back her up. Although recorded almost as an afterthought, this song would go on to become one of Savoy's best‑selling records.
"Double Crossing Blues" was destined to become a winner. It features repartee between Little Esther and Bobby Nunn, bass of the Robins, culminating in:
Esther: You belong out in the forest fighting a big old grizzly bear.
Bobby: How come you ain't out in the forest?
Esther: I'm a lady!
Bobby: They got lady bears out there!
Of course, to fully understand why the song was as big a hit as it was, you need to know that "lady bear" was black slang for an ugly woman who was sexually aggressive!
"Double Crossing Blues" had originally been submitted to Otis by songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson, under the title "What's The Matter Daddy?" Otis fooled around with it, adding the above dialog, which came from Apus and Estrellita's comedy act. Ralph Bass sent a dub of the song to Lubinsky, who didn't like it. It probably would have remained unreleased except for the lucky coincidence that Bill Cook, host of the "Musical Caravan" on New‧ark's WAAT, happened to be in Lubinsky's office when it was playing. Cook took the dub, played it on his show that evening, and the rest, as they say, is history.
One person who didn't remember that "Double Crossing Blues" had been written by Jessie Mae Robinson was Johnny Otis. It was his name, and his alone, that appeared on the label as author. Jessie sued, won an out-of-court settlement in March 1950, and copyrighted the song under her own name on May 22 of that year. While I agree that it was the repartee that made the song a hit, Otis neither wrote that (by his own admission), nor the song itself. It's not like Jessie was some wanna-be songwriter. She'd already written "Mellow Man Blues" (Dinah Washington) and "Rooming House Boogie" (Amos Milburn). She'd go on to pen "Blue Light Boogie" (Louis Jordan), "Black Night" (Charles Brown), "I Went To Your Wedding" (Patti Page), "Keep It A Secret" (Jo Stafford), "Sneakin' Around" (B. B. King), and songs that would be recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Dinah Shore.
So now we know that "Double Crossing Blues" was the clear winner from that session, when it became Esther's first Savoy release in January 1950. What's not so easy to determine is the flip. You've got two choices: "Back Alley Blues" by the Beale St. Gang and "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'" by Leon Sims and the Johnny Otis Orchestra. They both show up in Billboard at various times. Since "Double Crossing Blues" was such a big hit, the flip side was dragged along with it on the charts and "Back Alley Blues" was mentioned through July 1950. However, "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'" was mentioned in the Cash Box review of the record in January 1950, a February 1950 chart, and a May 1950 Savoy ad. So which was the original flip? I just don't know, although "Back Alley Blues" is the far more common pairing.
On January 11, 1950 there was another Savoy session in Los Angeles: "Turkey Hop, Parts 1 and 2" (the Robins), "Blues Nocturne" (instrumental), "Cry Baby" (Mel Walker), "Lover's Lane Boogie" (Little Esther & the Robins), "I Found Out My Troubles" (the Robins).
"Double Crossing Blues" and "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'" were reviewed in the January 21, 1950 Cash Box: "Pair of sides which music ops [juke box owners] should get next to are these set up by maestro Johnny Otis. Top deck ["Double Crossing Blues"] is a hot blues number with Little Esther and the Robins highlighted. Music weaves in a slow moody pace, and is the sort that consistently wins juke box play. Flip is a medium tempo'd jump number with Leon Sims handling the vocal work. It's the top side that should get the gravy."
So, "Double Crossing Blues" got a great review and was taking off. I'd overlooked it, but Billy Vera pointed out that this was the reason Modern changed her billing from Esther Jones to "Little" Esther on its corrected label of "I Gotta Guy".
"Double Crossing Blues" entered the national R&B charts on February 4; by March 4 it had reached the #1 position, where it would stay for nine of the 22 weeks it spent on the list. It was also the #1 played juke box record for five weeks. Because of it, Little Esther became the youngest female singer to have a #1 R&B hit.
The next Savoy session was held on February 13, 1950: "Misery" (Little Esther), "I'm Through" (the Robins), "I'm Living O.K." (the Robins), "Ain't No Use Beggin'" (the Robins), and "You're Fine But Not My Kind" (the Robins). You can see that they had high hopes for the Robins.
Then, Savoy announced the "Savoy Barrelhouse Caravan" tour, with Johnny Otis, Little Esther, the Robins, Mel Walker, and Floyd Hollis (who was now calling himself "Redd Lyte"). The Robins were originally intended to be a part of this, but before it began, they and Otis had a falling out over money, and they were history (at least as far as the tour; you've probably heard that they'd become the Coasters eventually).
It's probable, therefore, that the group shown in a 1950 promotional photo with Little Esther and billed as the Blue Notes (guitarist Pete Lewis, tenor saxman Lorenzo Holden, bassist Mario Delagarde, and Mel Walker) performed the Robins' material during the Barrelhouse Caravan tour. (For a couple of years, Otis' shows would advertise the Blue Notes [sometimes the 4 Blue Notes]; they had varying membership.)
Before the tour kicked off, there was one more Savoy session (on February 27): "Cool And Easy" (instrumental), "Mistrustin' Blues" (Little Esther & Mel Walker), "Dreamin' Blues" (Mel Walker), and "Cupid's Boogie" (Little Esther & Mel Walker).
In March, Savoy released "Mistrustin' Blues", backed with "Misery". They were reviewed in the March 18, 1950 Cash Box: "Little Esther is presently hot as a pistol in juke boxes everywhere and you can never tell when one of her platters is going to turn into another smash. 'Mistrustin' Blues' gets an added dash of sauce with a chorus that has Mel Walker joining the thrush in excellent fashion. Disk features a blues intro that is inviting and the strong tempo of a low-down beat winding in and around Little Esther's vocalizing. 'Misery' shows Esther again in a torchy, effective ballad with a lot of shmaltz. Walker turns in a very good job. If there was such a thing as a 'Jazz 'N' Blues' sleeper this disk would grab it!" Considering where it is in the paragraph, I'm not sure what "Walker turns in a very good job" is supposed to mean; he wasn't on "Misery".
"Mistrustin' Blues" became Esther's second #1 hit in a row. It entered the R&B charts on April 8, was #1 by May 6, spent 4 weeks at the top, and 16 weeks in total on the charts. "Misery" made the charts too, but only to #9, for a single week.
The "Savoy Barrelhouse Caravan" tour kicked off in March 1950. On March 30, the Otis unit appeared at the City Auditorium in Atlanta along with Herb Lance. Esther was billed the "13-Year.-Old Singing Sensation" (although she was now an aging 14). Also advertised were Mel Walker and the Blue Notes (who would be used to back Esther on "Double Crossing Blues" in place of the Robins). The March 25 Pittsburgh Courier said: "As for Little Esther, she really has a voice. It rivals Dinah Washington's for bell-like clearness and distinctive qualities . . . and with a feelin'."
Soon after, in April, Modern released the remaining songs from that October 1949 session: "Mean Ole Gal" and "Good Old Blues". That same month, Esther made her first appearance at the Apollo Theater (the week of April 14). As would happen several times in the future, Little Esther ("14-Year-Old Sensation!") was the headliner, with Otis' name second on the bill. Mel Walker and Redd Lyte were also named (but in much smaller letters).
Because of Esther's age, there were some complications, as reported by the New York Age of April 15:
A newcomer arrives in the entertainment world just a little bit different from all the rest is making her first New York appearance at the 125th Street Apollo for the week beginning on Friday, April 14. [Hey, I didn't write that; I just copied it.] Her name: Little Esther. She's recorded "Double Crossing Blues," "Mistrustin' Blues," "Misery" and other tunes which have set the jazz world on its ear during a few months. She's only 14 years old. And for this engagement, special permission for her appearance had to be obtained by the Apollo management. [New York State had child labor laws governing minors under 16.] There's a uniqueness about her style. Little Esther is not just another blues singer, but a child star with talent so unusual that she has . . . in a flash . . . captured the imagination of thousands. [The ". . ." are theirs.]
"Mean Ole Gal" and "Good Old Blues" were reviewed in the April 15, 1950 Cash Box: "'Mean Ole Gal' features the 'hot as a pistol' voice of Little Esther doing great things to a standard blues number. There is a plaintiveness to Little Esther's singing that is gripping. Reverse is an instrumental with a nice beat and a kind of tootling refrain hard to describe but nice to listen to. Both sides are worthy of any op's attention. Check that reed sound on the Otis offering."
While they were on tour, they did some recording in Baltimore on May 3, 1950. I only know of two songs recorded: "Just Can't Get Free" (Little Esther & the Beltones) and "My Heart Tells Me" (Mel Walker).
Who were the Beltones? One day, in late April 1950, a group called the Metronomes found themselves at Baltimore's Royal Theater, which was now hosting the Johnny Otis Show. With "Double Crossing Blues" still riding high on the charts, Savoy's owner, Herman Lubinsky, came down to Baltimore to record her, and looked around for another group to back her in the same way the Robins had. The group he picked was the Metronomes.
On May 3, 1950 the Metronomes recorded "Just Can't Get Free" behind Little Esther. It was released later that month, but the label had no mention of the Metronomes; for some reason, the group had magically become the "Beltones". (While "Just Can't Get Free" wasn't a hit, keep your eye on the Metronomes; they'll soon become the 4 Buddies.)
[Actually, this whole thing doesn't make much sense. I can certainly understand Lubinsky wanting to recreate the excitement (and success) of "Double Crossing Blues", but they didn't even try with "Just Can't Get Free". The Metronomes/Beltones were only used as a generic studio group behind Esther, who was doing a straight ballad. There was nothing at all exciting or unusual about the Esther-group interaction. I imagine that Otis' Blue Notes were good enough singers to back Esther during live performances, but, except for Mel Walker, not good enough for studio work.]
The May 4, 1950 California Eagle reported that the entourage had signed with Ben Bart's Universal Attractions booking agency. Keeping with the practice of talking about the star that people were most interested in, the article was headed "Little Esther Under Bart Banner". It managed to mention Johnny Otis, Mel Walker, and Redd Lyte as also having been signed.
As long as I brought it up, let's look at how Esther was billed on records. With "Double Crossing Blues", the label read "JOHNNY OTIS QUINTETTE, The Robins and Little Esther". The next offering, "Mistrustin' Blues", had "LITTLE ESTHER with MEL WALKER, THE JOHNNY OTIS ORCH." By the time of "Cupid's Boogie", it was "LITTLE ESTHER and Mel Walker with Johnny Otis Orchestra" (the flip had "the Beltones" in small letters too). In the future, "Deceivin' Blues" would have "LITTLE ESTHER and Mel Walker", as would "Far Away Blues". After that, everyone got the same size font.
In May, Savoy issued "Cupid's Boogie" and "Just Can't Get Free" (while the 78 was printed correctly, the 45 read "Cupid Boogie"). They received Cash Box's Award O' The Week on June 3:
There's no stopping this gal! Following on the heels of her sock success via "Mistrustin' Blues" and "Double Crossing Blues," chirp Little Esther comes up with a big one in this excellent rendition of "Cupid Boogie" and "Just Can't Get Free." The gal's great set of tonsils pitch the flavor of this pair in top notch manner from start to finish. Top deck is the one they'll go wild about. Mellow tempo of the Johnny Otis ork coupled with Little Esther's superb vocal job will surely catch on in a big way.
The gal really sells a song, and that's what music ops and fans alike are buying today. Tune rolls in moderate tempo with a winning set of lyrics to match the excellence of the vocal performance On the other end with "Just Can't Get Free," Little Esther once again comes up with a potential winner in a melancholy bit of blues patter. Vocal addition of Mel Walker on the side brightens the wax all the more. The biscuit is a cinch to score - ops should grab it.
Once again, a reviewer seems to be confused about which side Mel Walker is on. Strange. I'm surprised they didn't mention that the really cute "Cupid's Boogie" could have been subtitled "A Match Definitely Not Made In Heaven".
As did Esther's prior two releases, "Cupid's Boogie" went straight to the top, entering the national R&B charts on June 10. Everything says that "Cupid's Boogie" was Esther's third #1 hit, and technically, it was. However, I've only taken the "Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records" chart into consideration and, on that, it only made #2 (kept out of the top spot by Joe Liggins' "Pink Champagne"). But, on July 8, it became #1 on the "Most Played Juke Box Rhythm & Blues Records" chart for a week, so I'm not going to quibble. (Besides, I love the song.)
On June 16, 1950, the Otis aggregation was at the CIO Hall in Cleveland; the next night, it was the Sunset Terrace Ballroom in Indianapolis. The first paragraph of the June 17 Indianapolis Recorder is interesting:
Little Esther, the Double Crossin' sensation will bring her super-duper Blues revue to the Sunset Terrace Ballroom Saturday nite, June 17. Little Esther, 14-year-old child prodigy, born in California under destitute circumstances, has now been acclaimed America's record making sweetheart. Being a child, she has a special permit from the state of California to make this tour. She travels in her own bus and her teachers hold classes in many subjects of primary education daily as she travels from city to city. It so happened that she graduated from many of these courses just this past June 9 and commencement exercises were held on the highway.
Why do I find this interesting? For several reasons. First, it's now her revue, not Johnny Otis'. She was actually born in Texas, but I suppose that press agents have to simplify things in order to exaggerate what's left. Was she raised "under destitute circumstances"? I don't know; this is the only time that was ever mentioned. We now know that California had strict child labor laws too. The article went on to name the others on the show as Redd Lyte, the 4 Blue Notes, the Robbins [sic], Mel Walker, and Johnny Otis and his Barrel House orchestra (although the Robins certainly weren't there). Finally, keep all the tutoring in mind; you'll need to remember it in 1954. And something else to keep in mind: the word "acclaimed" in press agent statements has no meaning whatever.
As long as they were in the mid-West, they held another Savoy session (on June 20, 1950), this time in Chicago: "Lost Dream Blues" (Little Esther), "Deceivin' Blues" (Little Esther & Mel Walker), "Lonely Blues" (Mel Walker), "Strange Woman" (Mel Walker), "Freight Train Boogie" (instrumental), and "Good Time Blues" (instrumental).
On July 1, 1950, Little Esther, along with Johnny Otis, Mel Walker, and Redd Lyte, made the cover of Cash Box magazine.
In the meanwhile, Billboard had been holding a survey of Top Selling Rhythm & Blues artists. When the final votes were in (reported in the July 15 issue), the Johnny Otis Orchestra was in the #1 position with 3061 points (1779 of them due to "Double Crossing Blues") and Little Esther was in the #2 slot with 3028 points (the same 1779 from "Double Crossing Blues"). Far behind, at #3 (2475 points) was Ivory Joe Hunter.
Little Esther even made a Time Magazine article (the July 17, 1950 edition). I haven't read the whole thing (titled "Big Little Girl"), but it begins:
"Little Esther" Jones is only 14; but she is a big girl (137 lbs.) with a big voice and a following that may set other coffee-colored coloraturas such as Lena Home and Dinah Washington looking over their shoulders. One of Little Esther's records, Double Crossing Blues, has been among the ten bestselling "race" records for 22 weeks; two others, Cupid's Boogie and Mistrustin' Blues, have been up in the big time more than a month.
On August 10, Little Esther and Redd Lyte were at the Roosevelt Theater in Pittsburgh. I imagine the rest of the gang was there too, but they were the only ones mentioned in the small ad.
Their next Savoy session was held in New York City on August 12, 1950: "Sunset To Dawn" (Mel Walker), "Wedding Boogie" (Little Esther, Mel Walker, and Lee Graves), "Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)" (Little Esther & Mel Walker), and "Love Will Break Your Heart" (Little Esther & Mel Walker).
Also in August, Savoy released "Deceivin' Blues", backed with "Lost Dream Blues". They were reviewed in the September 9, 1950 Billboard. Of "Lost Dream Blues" (85), they said: "The young thrush does a standout slow blues in her best heartfelt note-twisting way, with nonpareil ork support setting her off to advantage." "Deceivin' Blues" (84) got this: "Esther gets an assist from throaty Mel Walker in another topnotch slow blues. Structure of this one has a neat little twist which should snag fast attention." "Deceivin' Blues" was another smash, her fourth in a row. This one climbed to #4 on the R&B charts.
On September 7 Little Esther was, once again, the headline star at the Apollo ("America's Child Wonder Of Song"). Mel, Redd, and Johnny were also mentioned. The September 9 New York Age said that "so stringent are New York's child labor laws that special permission of the Mayor was required before her appearance was made possible." Call me a cynic (why not? it's what I call myself), but I really doubt that mayor Vincent Impellitteri would have gotten involved with something like this.
On September 14, 1950, the Otis show was at Roseland in Taunton, Massachusetts. But they were back in New York on September 19, 1950 to hold yet another Savoy session: "Don't Play With Fire" (unknown), "Rockin' Blues" (instrumental), "I Don't Care" (Little Esther), "I Dream" (Little Esther & Mel Walker).
In October, Savoy issued "Wedding Boogie" and "Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)". Both have Little Esther and Mel Walker, with the addition of Lee Graves (a trumpeter in Otis' orchestra) as the preacher on "Wedding Boogie". I get the feeling that "Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues)" was another label misprint, since Savoy ads called it "Faraway Xmas Blues".
They were reviewed in the October 28, 1950 Billboard with "Wedding Boogie" garnering an 85 ("This is a production piece with many amusing moments and featuring Little Esther, Mel Walker and Lee Graves as well as Otis. Potentially a big one."). "Far Away Blues" wasn't far behind with an 83 ("The sizzling hot Little Esther and Mel Walker team a Christmas blues which figures to be a coin grabber.").
Both "Wedding Boogie" and "Far Away Blues" made it to the R&B charts, both peaking at #6.
So, let's review. Before she'd turned 15, Little Esther had been on seven songs that made the Billboard R&B Top Ten in a single year. Not too bad.
On December 7, the unit appeared at the Coliseum in El Paso, Texas. The next night, they were at the Armory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Only Johnny Otis and Little Esther ("Child Star") were billed in the ads. The night after that, they were at the Sports Center in Tucson, Arizona. Also in December, Savoy released "Love Will Break Your Heart" and "I Don't Care".
The December 9, 1950 Cash Box voted "Double Crossing Blues" the second Best Jazz 'N Blues Record Of 1950 (Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind" was #1). Little Esther was also the #2 Best Jazz 'N Blues Artist Of 1950, again right behind Ivory Joe (but only by 31 points out of some 45,000). Not a bad present for her 15th birthday.
December 24 found Little Esther at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. Her name was the only one printed in the ad, which was really tiny.
On January 13, 1951, Billboard reviewed "I Don't Care" and "Love Will Break Your Heart". For a change they weren't thrilled by either side. Of "I Don't Care", they said: "Little Esther goes it alone on a bluesy ballad of only slight substance - name values will have to carry this one." (That is, people might play it on a juke box only because they know who she is.) "Love Will Break Your Heart" got this: "Formula blues in the 'I Almost Lost My Mind' pattern doesn't stack up too strongly save for the presence of the strong Esther-Walker-Otis combine." Also on January 13, the Johnny Otis troupe appeared at the Coliseum in El Paso, Texas.
On January 20, 1951, the Otis orchestra, along with Little Esther, Mel Walker, Redd Lyte, and the "4 Blue Notes" appeared at the Kaliko Kat in Wichita, Kansas as the "Double Crossin' Blues Revue".
And then, something strange happened. While Johnny Otis continued to record for Savoy, Little Esther started recording for Federal (backed by the Earle Warren Orchestra). Earle Warren had been an alto sax player and vocalist with Count Basie and was now the road manager of Otis' orchestra. Was Otis' orchestra actually used on Federal with Earle Warren's name as a cover? I asked the question of Billy Vera and this was his answer:
Yes, absolutely. It was the pseudonym used for the Otis band because he was signed to Mercury. Esther was still underage and not officially contracted to Savoy [so there was no trouble getting her away from it].
Ralph Bass, who'd produced the Savoy records, made a deal with Syd Nathan to have his own label, Federal, and his own publishing company, co-owned with Nathan: Armo Music. Bass brought the whole Otis Caravan, minus Mel Walker, to Federal, including the band guitarist, Pete Lewis. Bass recorded numerous Leiber & Stoller songs on Federal with Jimmy Witherspoon, Little Willie Littlefield and others.
Some of the Federal records say Earle Warren Orch and I have one Little Esther that says the J & O Orch, obviously Johnny. Earle at that time was the lead alto, as he had been with Basie.
During this period, Johnny told me, they played Kansas City and Ben Webster (a former sax star with Duke Ellington) came backstage to say hello. His drinking had become problematic so he'd come home to live with his mother and had pawned his saxophone. Otis offered him a job and had to get it out of pawn for him. Ben and Pete Lewis roomed together on the road and admired each other's playing: Ben the jazzman and Pete the bluesman.
Ralph Bass brought Esther and others to Federal while Otis waited out his contract with Savoy. But [when it had expired] Mercury offered a better deal.
The January 20, 1951 Cash Box had a blurb titled "Little Esther Signs Contract With New Federal Label":
Bursting into the jazz and blues picture with a spurt, officials of Federal Records, King's new subsidiary, this week signed Little Esther to a recording contract. The Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County on January 5 appointed Lucille Washington, her mother, guardian for Little Esther and at the same time approved a new contract between the child singer and Federal, according to a statement by Federal executives. Little Esther is due to arrive in Cincinnati some time next week to make her first waxings on the new label. The session will be under the direction of Ralph Bass. [It would take place on January 27.]
One reason Esther jumped ship is that someone realized Savoy was cheating her out of royalties and had her sue Savoy. The May 19, 1951 Billboard had an article titled "Little Esther Brings Suit":
Esther May Jones, who does business under the pseudonym of Little Esther, filed suit this week against Savoy Records, seeking an accounting of her record sales, payment for services rendered and an injunction to restrain Savoy from continuing to market her records. Suit was filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, and the papers were delivered to the sheriff for service.
The claim disaffirmed any contract she may have made with Savoy on [the] grounds that she is a minor. It also disaffirms any contract which may have been made in her behalf. She seeks an accounting and payment for her services on a series of recordings, a number of which were rhythm and blues hits of substance last year. These recordings include Double Crossing Blues, Mistrusting Blues, Cupid's Boogie and Deceiving Blues. Esther is represented by attorney Jack Pearl. She now records for King Records.
Probably Herman Lubinsky's worst nightmare. Someone who expects him to actually pay royalties (and, a minor who could repudiate her contract).
Herman couldn't let her get away with this, so, wrote the June 30, 1951 Billboard, "Savoy Claims 50G on Esther":
Savoy Records Topper [boss], Herman Lubinsky, this week filed a reply and counterclaim to a suit brought against his diskery last month by rhythm and blues artist Little Esther, whose real name is Esther May [sic] Jones. Diskery alleges that the chanter was an unknown whose reputation as an artist was made via her Savoy recordings and at considerable expense and effort to the label. Diskery also claims that the singer broke her contract by signing with King label.
Lubinsky asks $50,000 in damages, alleging that Little Esther's switch in labels financially hurt Savoy's unreleased masters. Diskery also asks an injunction to restrain further violations of the contract it claims to hold with the artist. Jack Cohn represents Savoy.
It took a year for the suits to be resolved, so we'll pick it up again in May 1952. [Of course, Esther was now hooked up with Syd Nathan's Federal Records and Syd was also known to be a tiny bit reluctant to part with any royalties. Actually, I can imagine Herman and Syd getting together for a beer and laughing themselves sick over how much they weren't going to pay her.] And, by the way, Jack Pearl, the lawyer representing Esther, was related to Syd Nathan by marriage. I'm sure that was just a coincidence.
Was the switch from Savoy to Federal a good idea for Esther? Not in terms of hit records. As I said a few paragraphs back, she'd been on some half-dozen Top Ten hits, all of them on Savoy. I hate to ruin the suspense, but it would be a year before a Federal release made the charts (and it would be her only hit on the label).
Savoy immediately signed Linda Hopkins to record with Otis and (hopefully) be their new Little Esther. But, while Linda Hopkins recorded with Otis, it was Esther who continued to tour with him.
On January 27, 1951 Esther recorded four songs for Federal. The first two were standard Little Esther tunes: "Lookin' For A Man (To Satisfy My Soul)" and "Other Lips, Other Arms". The second two, an attempt to recreate the magic of Little Esther and the Robins, were done with Federal's new group, the Dominoes: "Heart To Heart" and "The Deacon Moves In". The Dominoes' first record, "Do Something For Me", hadn't yet hit the Billboard charts, so Ralph Bass was just trying combinations to see what worked.
"Heart To Heart" is pretty much a duet between Little Esther and Dominoes' lead Clyde McPhatter, but not a great one: it's keyed for Esther's voice, and Clyde sounds uncomfortable with how low he has to sing. However, "The Deacon Moves In", is a wonderful repartee between Little Esther and Dominoes' second tenor Charlie White; it should have been (but wasn't) a monster hit.
On February 9, the Otis crowd (including Esther, Mel, and Redd) appeared at the Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Federal released "The Deacon Moves In" and "Other Lips, Other Arms" in February 1951. "The Deacon Moves In" was credited to "LITTLE ESTHER" and, in much smaller letters, "Vocal By Little Esther and The Dominoes". The sides were reviewed in the March 3 Billboard, which gave "The Deacon Moves In" a whopping 86 ("Dominoes quartet joins Little Esther for an exciting novelty performance that crashes to a wild climax."). The flip only got a 74 ("The young thrush debuts on Federal with an expressive, husky slow ballad job, with neat orking in back.").
Also in March (probably), Esther had a second Federal session: "Don't Make A Fool Out of Me", "I'm A Bad, Bad Girl", "Cryin' And Singin' The Blues", and "Tell Him That I Need Him So".
A third March event was Savoy issuing the Little Esther-Mel Walker duet "I Dream" on its Regent subsidiary. The flip was the Johnny Otis instrumental, "Hangover Blues". "I Dream" was reviewed in the March 31 Cash Box, which said: "A terrifically unusual sounding disk is dished out here by Johnny Otis with Little Esther and Mel Walker going to town on the vocals. This ballad has a tremendous amount of appeal and could easily reach the heights that Little Esther's former disks have gone to." (In spite of that, it's one Little Esther/Mel Walker song that I don't like at all.)
On March 23, 1951, the whole aggregation was back at the Apollo Theater, with Esther once again the headliner. The show's write-up, in the March 24 New York Age let us know that: "This is a real occasion for Little Esther, because though it's her third appearance at the Apollo, it's her last as a child star. For Esther's turning sixteen, and after that age the law places no prohibitions on her appearances in New York Theaters." Since she wouldn't reach sixteen until late December, I guess the Apollo knew that she wasn't going to return before that.
Remember when Cash Box voted "Double Crossing Blues" the second Best Jazz 'N Blues Record Of 1950 and Little Esther the #2 Best Jazz 'N Blues Artist Of 1950? On the stage of the Apollo Theater, both Johnny Otis and Little Esther received awards for making the most money in the R&B field for juke box operators. (Not, you notice, for making good music, but for making music that made big bucks for others.)
In April 1951, Federal issued "I'm A Bad, Bad Girl", backed with "Don't Make A Fool Out of Me". They were reviewed in the April 21 Cash Box: "Little Esther continues on her winning ways with two good sides here. Each end is a slow driving thing on which Esther displays her broken vocal type of rendition while the orchestra helps her out with some magnificent backing. Ops know how this little girl pulls in the coins."
They started a week at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC on April 27. While there, they received awards from Billboard. A photo showed Ralph Bass, Mel Walker, Johnny Otis, and Esther.
The tour continued, and, on May 28, they were at the CIO Hall in Dayton, Ohio. Once again, it was Esther's name that was in large letters in the ad. Then it was off to Cleveland, where they appeared at the Pla-Mor on June 2.
In early July 1951, Federal issued "Heart To Heart", backed with "Lookin' For A Man (To Satisfy My Soul)". They were reviewed in the July 14 Billboard, with "Heart To Heart" receiving an 84: "Little Esther is paired happily with the Dominoes for a winning reading of a fine oldie. It's the group's gasping lead voice [interesting way of describing Clyde McPhatter] who steals the side. Has a money-making feel." "Lookin' For A Man" only received a 75: "Esther goes it herself on a fairly routine blues and does it pleasantly." This time, with two Top Ten hits to their credit, the Dominoes' name was printed on the label as large as Esther's.
On July 21, they were all back at the Coliseum in El Paso, Texas. September 3 found them at the Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta. Also on the show were Jackie Brenston and Arbee Stidham.
In October 1951, Federal issued "Cryin' And Singin' The Blues", backed with "Tell Him That I Need Him So". October 12 found them at the Paradise Theater in Detroit (replacing the outgoing Dominoes and Dinah Washington). On October 19 they appeared at the Public Auditorium in Cleveland and on November 2, they opened at the Majestic, in Pittsburgh, replacing the Joe Morris Orchestra
"Cryin' And Singin' The Blues" and "Tell Him That I Need Him So" were reviewed in the November 3 Billboard. The top side got a 75 ("Esther pipes a medium blues with feeling and drive") and the flip a 71 ("Medium beat blues ballad gets an okay go").
On November 8, 1951, she had another session for Federal: "Ring-A-Ding-Doo" (a duet with Mel Walker), "I'll Be There", "The Crying Blues", and "Summertime".
Also in November, Savoy released "Get Together Blues" (the not-quite-duet Esther had done with the mysterious "Junior" a year before). It was backed with "Chittlin' Switch" by the Johnny Otis Orchestra with vocal by a mysterious group called the Vocaleers (no relation, of course, to Joe Duncan's New York group). The January 9, 1951 session sheet says it's a group called the "Barreleers" (as in Barrelhouse), although it's "Vocaleers" on the label. My guess is that the group is actually Linda Hopkins, Mel Walker, and Redd Lyte (and possibly Johnny himself). Note that this is the same song that would be recorded by the Robins (and released as by the "Drifters") called "Sacroiliac Swing".
The Otis unit opened at Philadelphia's Earle Theater on November 22, 1951. Esther sang "Misery" and "Double Crossing Blues" (presumably with the Blue Notes, whoever they may have been at this point). Remember, Linda Hopkins didn't tour with the unit.
"Get Together Blues" was reviewed in the November 24 Billboard: "Esther delivers rather frigidly in her bent-note style a blues of rather ordinary quality." Although a couple of commas would have been nice, it looks like they'd changed reviewers to one who was less impressed with Esther than the former one.
Then, Federal released "Ring-A-Ding-Doo", backed with "The Crying Blues" in December. Cleverly concealing the identities of the players from Savoy, "Ring-A-Ding-Doo" was credited to "LITTLE ESTHER and MEL, With the J. and O. Orchestra".
Billboard reported (in its November 21 issue) that "Mercury Records, which has been making rapid strides in the rhythm and blues field since Bobby Shad, formerly chief of Sittin' In diskery, New York, became director of Merc's jump wing, added two more important artists. Shad inked Little Esther and Johnny Otis' jump crew, both of whom got their start with Savoy and switched to King a year ago. Shad will cut the first session by both artists early in December in California. They will work together and do individual sides in the first waxing session. They inked five-year papers...."
A month later, the December 22, 1951 Pittsburgh Courier had an article titled "Billboard's Honoree Johnny Otis and Ork Ink 100-G Disctract [a cutesy way of saying 'recording contract']". It said, in part, "Johnny Otis, his orchestra, entertainers, and Little Esther are set for a series of recording sessions in Hollywood with Mercury label whom Otis just inked a long term $100,000 pact. [Please, guys, hire a proofreader!] Mercury has an extensive program mapped out for their newest star and his package attractions." Note that the $100,000 is an absurd figure and that Little Esther was never, to my knowledge, on any Mercury cuts.
On December 22, 1951, Cash Box reviewed "The Crying Blues" and "Ring-A-Ding-Doo": "The upper level ["The Crying Blues"] is a potent tune that gets a dynamic interpretation from Little Esther and Mel. This number is done heartully [sic] by Esther to the wailing backing offered by Mel. The bottom dish is a jump tune that the same artists carry through with a fine beat. The top half is loaded and ops oughat [sic] get with it now." Although Mel Walker isn't named on "The Crying Blues", that's him pretending to cry. (I guess the reviewer just guessed that it was Walker on that side.) On February 23, "Ring-A-Ding-Doo" entered the national R&B charts, but it was only there for two weeks and only rose to #8. This would be Esther's last national hit for 10 years.
The Otis show played the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles during Christmas week 1951.
Esther started off 1952 with two Federal sessions in January (exact dates unknown). At the first, she did "Better Beware", "Somebody New", and "Bring My Lovin' Back To Me". The second gave us "Aged And Mellow", "I Paid My Dues", "Ramblin' Blues", and "The Storm".
In February, Federal issued the Gershwin standard, "Summertime", backed with "The Storm". They were reviewed in the March 1, 1952 Cash Box: "An old classic is run through by Little Esther, who gives it a real low down blues treatment. Esther chants this tuneful number in dynamic style. The ork backing is strong, with harmonica featured in spots. Under level has Esther vocalizing a pretty tune with sounds of thunder and showers throughout."
On March 7, the Otis band appeared at the Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg, Florida. Then, on the 16th, they were at the Paradise Amusement Hall in Nashville and, on the 31st, the Barrel House Revue pulled into the Auditorium in Atlanta. Also on the bill there were Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Roscoe Gordon, Big John Greer, and Preston Love.
In April 1952, Federal released "Better Beware", coupled with "I'll Be There". The disc received Cash Box's Award O' The Week on April 12.
April 14 found them at the Textile Hall in Greenville, South Carolina and, on the 17th, Footguard Hall in Hartford, Connecticut. (In the ad, Mel Walker was called "Harlem's New Singing Star".) The next night they appeared at Roseland in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Then, it was back to the Apollo Theater, where they (including Willie Mae Thornton, now a part of the tour) opened, for a week, on April 25, 1952. Keep in mind that Willie Mae's monster hit of "Hound Dog" was almost a year away from being issued.
May's Federal release was "Aged And Mellow" ("I like my men like I like my whiskey: aged and mellow"), coupled with "Bring My Lovin' Back To Me".
That same month, reported the May 17, 1952 Cash Box, the lawsuits brought by Esther against Savoy and Savoy against Esther were settled through arbitration. (Frank Walker, president of MGM acted as arbitrator.) Esther's contract with Savoy was proven invalid and "The decision calls for Little Esther to get a lump sum in the neighborhood of $6,000 from Savoy. This figure is based on a disputed 650,000 records on which the artist gets 1 1/2 cents per record providing both sides were done by her and 3/4 of a cent if only one side was done by her." I can still hear Lubinsky crying.
May 25 and 26 found them at the Sunset Terrace in Indianapolis. There was a big article announcing the show in the May 24 Indianapolis Recorder. Esther was expected to sing "Just Can't Be Free" [sic] "Cupid's Boogie", "Deceivin' Blues", and "Double Crossing Blues". Mel Walker was called "Mr. Blues Himself" and "augmenting the great attraction are Redd Lyte, Willie Mae Thornton and the 4 Blue Notes. Featured during the evening will be such juke box hits as 'Misery', 'Dreamin', 'Cry Baby', 'Turkey Hop', 'Little Red Hen', and 'Mistrustin' Blues'." A later lineup of Blue Notes, pictured with Esther, consisted of James Von Streeter (tenor sax), Don Johnson (trumpet), George Washington (trombone), and Little Arthur Mathews (vocalist). I don't know when Little Arthur was there in the early 50s, but he was with Otis steadily from about 1954 on. I stated previously that Redd Lyte disappears completely after May 1952, so it's possible that Little Arthur was brought aboard then to replace him.
From there, they went to the Labor Temple in Minneapolis for a May 29 dance.
"Bring My Lovin' Back To Me" and "Aged And Mellow" were reviewed in the June 7, 1952 Billboard. "Bring My Lovin' Back To Me" received a 77 ("Blues item gets strong performance from Little Esther with top-notch orking to support her."). "Aged And Mellow" was rated an 80 ("Tune has clever lyrics and Little Esther makes the most of them with her distinctive vocal style.")
Then, it was up to the Pacific Northwest, where the unit appeared at the Club Delisa in Portland, Oregon on July 4. From there it was off to Seattle and Tacoma in Washington. It was probably during this part of the tour that Otis met Morris Riden. Just 14, Morris auditioned for Otis. Here's the story from the Doo Wop Society Of Southern California:
Born Morris Riden on October 18, 1937, in Atlanta, Georgia, he moved with his family to Portland, Oregon, when he was eight. He was a popular 14-year-old singer in his new hometown when The Johnny Otis Orchestra came to town to play at the McElroy Ballroom. Otis's main vocalist, Mel Walker, happened to be in jail on a narcotics charge at the time, so the teenager got the chance to sing two of Walker's songs, "Gee Baby" and "Rockin' Blues" with the band. Otis was so impressed that he later managed to talk the boy's parents into letting him go on the road. "A big mistake," Junior Ryder said many years later.
Since the name Morris Riden didn't have much of a ring to it, Otis called him Junior Ryder. [Therefore, as I stated before, he couldn't have been the "Junior" on "Get Together Blues", recorded in November 1949.]
Another Federal session: on July 25, 1952, Esther recorded four more songs, two of them duets with Bobby Nunn (who had been, and would again be, the bass of the Robins): "Hollerin' and Screamin'" and "Mainliner" (as solos); "Saturday Night Daddy" and "You Took My Love Too Fast" (with Bobby Nunn). All four tunes had been written by Leiber & Stoller. Note that the unidentified group on "Saturday Night Daddy" and "Mainliner" is NOT the Robins.
On August 5, there was a second summer Federal session, with four more tunes written by Leiber & Stoller. This time, two of the songs were duets with Little Willie Littlefield (only identified on the labels as "Little Willie"). The tunes were: "Flesh, Blood and Bones" and "Street Lights" (as solos); "Last Laugh Blues" and "Turn The Lamps Down Low" (with Little Willie).
Also in August, Federal released "Ramblin' Blues", paired with "Somebody New". They were reviewed in the August 8, 1952 Cash Box. "Ramblin' Blues" (B+): "Little Esther lends her stylized delivery to a fast rhythm blues and the result is top flight. Ork backing is strong." "Somebody New" (B): "The lower lid is a change of pace that has Esther handling a slow tempo item. Esther's piping and the lush orking make this a solid coupling."
Esther and Johnny Otis (the rest weren't mentioned) were at the Third Annual Youth Cavalcade Of Health held on August 25 at Will Rogers Memorial Park in Watts. There was no end of talent there: Earl Bostic, Joe Liggins, Toni Harper, the Hollywood 4 Flames, T-Bone Walker, Scat Man Crothers, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy "T99" Nelson, and Little Willie Littlefield were all present.
On August 31, 1952, the unit was at the Elks Auditorium (Los Angeles). A blurb mentioned that they'd been in Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, and San Francisco (no specific venues named) and were off to Texas and the mid-West.
Federal released "Saturday Night Daddy" and "Mainliner" in October 1952; they were reviewed in the October 11 Cash Box. "Saturday Night Daddy" received a "C+": "Little Esther chants a slow beat blues with an unnamed male vocalist lending a powerful assist." I don't understand the "unnamed male vocalist" statement, since label credit clearly says "Little Esther & Bobby Nunn". "Mainliner" got a "B+": "A rhythmic foot-tapper is the material for the chantress and she belts it out with a lively reading that stamps this as one of her better sides. Novelty noises and chorus chants round out the disk in potent style."
They were all at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City on October 19, 1952. Then, it was back to Indianapolis' Sunset Terrace on November 2.
Also in November, Federal released "Last Laugh Blues", backed with "Flesh, Blood And Bones". They were reviewed in the November 22 Billboard (which gave a review of "Last Laugh Blues", but left off both its title and its rating): "Little Esther and Little Willie team up on a routine blues tune. The only notable thing about the disk is Little Esther's laughing sing-off" [the ending of the song]. The flip, named, got a 75: "A rhythm rocker is sold well by the young chirp as she tells of her desire for a real live daddy. Ork backing is good."
The gang was back at the Apollo Theater the week of November 28, 1952, along with Sally Blair, Sammy Hinds, and Leroy Strange.
Between that show and a December 26 appearance at the Palace Theater in Dayton, Ohio, Esther left the Otis organization, appearing instead with the Duke Hampton Orchestra. Clarke "Duke" Hampton, Jr., who played several instruments, including the vibes, led an orchestra composed of his brothers and sisters (one of whom was trombonist Slide Hampton).
Why did she leave Otis? There was never anything in the press about it. Possibly she didn't like that Willie Mae Thornton was starting to get more applause, bigger raves, and more press coverage than she was. Another possibility is that she was about to turn 17 and may have felt that she could do better financially on her own than as part of the Otis organization. She did, however, remain on good terms with Otis and would appear with him occasionally over the years.
On January 13, 1953, Little Esther appeared with Duke Hampton again, this time at the Bijou Theater in Nashville. This and the Palace in Dayton are the only two documented appearances she made with Hampton
Also in January, Federal issued "Turn The Lamps Down Low", coupled with "Hollerin' And Screamin'", which were reviewed in the February 14 Billboard. Of "Hollerin' And Screamin'" (74), they said: "The fem chirp delivers one of her usual readings on the boogie blues daily." [sic; did they mean "ditty"?] "Turn The Lamps Down Low" got a 72: "The pair come thru with a good enough reading on some adequate material."
By February 11, 1953, Esther was associated with the Tab Smith Orchestra, along with Bob "H-Bomb" Ferguson, when they all played the Delux Bar [that seems to be the way it was spelled] in Sanford, Florida. From there, they went to the Manhattan Casino (St. Petersburg, Florida) on February 13 and Baker's Patio (Fort Pierce, Florida) on February 21. On March 1, it was the Paradise Amusement Club in Nashville. Since Duke Hampton, Tab Smith, and Esther were all handled by Universal Attractions, they might have been the ones to set up these pairings.
Sometime in March, Esther did some more recording for Federal: "Sweet Lips", "Cherry Wine", "Love Oh Love", and a cover of Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog" (as in "I'll show her!"?). In my opinion, "Hound Dog" (another Leiber & Stoller composition) comes nowhere near Willie Mae's version, but it isn't bad.
Also in March, Federal released not one, but two Little Esther records: "You Took My Love Too Fast", backed by "Street Lights" and "Hound Dog", coupled with "Sweet Lips".
The first of these was reviewed in the April 4, 1953 Billboard, with "Street Lights" rated 80: "Little Esther's penetrating style comes thru with impressive impact in the moody blues. It's her best waxing since she joined the label and could grab coins." "You Took My Love Too Fast" wasn't far behind, with a 75: "Bobby Nunn joins the songstress here, and together they hand the bouncy item a rewarding performance. Side has a strong beat and in spite of a routine lyric could pull loot."
Cash Box reviewed "Hound Dog" on April 11, giving it a "B+": "Little Esther's version of the nation's number two tune is a solid and exciting treatment that could cut itself a piece of pie in areas not already covered. Guitar gets a big play on this etching and does itself proud." "Sweet Lips" was rated "B": "Flip is a change of pace item for the gal. Little Esther chants a tender and romantic ballad with warmth."
Sometime in April 1953, Little Esther appeared at the Band Box in New York. On April 24, she headlined at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Also on the bill were the 5 Royales and Arnett Cobb.
[Note that around this time, papers started referring to screen star Esther Williams as "Little Esther". This stuff never gets any easier.]
This totally useless blurb appeared in the May 23 Pittsburgh Courier: "LITTLE ESTHER HEADLINER NOW - Theatergoers recall the child-singing star who thrilled as part of the package presented by Bandleader Johnny Otis several seasons back; she was Little Esther whose recordings on the Federal label made her a juke box favorite." And??? Is she actually headlining anyplace that readers should know about?
Esther was back with Tab Smith and H-Bomb Ferguson for a June 5 dance at the Superior Ballroom in Cleveland. The next night, they were all at the Twin City Elks in Farrell, Pennsylvania.
By this time, Little Esther's days with Federal were over. It looks like she'd had a two-year contract with them, which wasn't renewed after only a single hit.
By July, she'd hooked up with Decca and had her first session on July 14, 1953: "If You Want Me", "Talkin' All Out My Head", "Stop Cryin'", and "Please Don't Send Me ('Cause I Got Nowhere To Go)".
In August, Decca issued "If You Want Me", backed with "Talkin' All Out My Head". Not to be outdone, Federal released "Cherry Wine", coupled with "Love Oh Love" the same month.
Also in August (the 8th), Esther appeared at the Paducah Roller Rink in Paducah, Kentucky. Also on the bill were the Swallows and the Hal Singer Orchestra. She never again seemed to appear with Tab Smith.
"Talkin' All Out My Head" and "If You Want Me" were reviewed in the August 29, 1953 Cash Box. The former got a "B" ("Little Esther, on her first release for Decca, squeels [sic] a slow blues. The tune is a cute light hearted romantic bouncer.") and the latter a "B+ ("Flip is a slow romantic blues with Little Esther singing a tender, warm and sensuous vocal.").
"Cherry Wine" and "Love Oh Love" were reviewed in the September 5 Billboard: "It's me or the cherry wine, chants Little Esther. The side is in her distinctive style, with a lively piano in the backing." They gave it a 73. Of "Love Oh Love (72), they said: "A change of pace from the flip. This is a slow, measured blues. 'I can't find my true love,' chants Esther with considerable heart."
On September 13, 1953, Little Esther and the Du Droppers were at the Circle Theater in Cleveland, along with Eddie Boyd and his Third Degree Orchestra.
Esther had another session for Decca on September 29, 1953. The known titles are: "Sit Back Down" and "He's A No Good Man".
In October 1953, Decca issued "Stop Cryin'", backed with "Please Don't Send Me ('Cause I Got Nowhere To Go)". They were reviewed in the November 7 Cash Box, with "Stop Cryin'" receiving a "B+" ("Little Esther does a grand job on a slow emotional blues. Gal sings with much feeling against a soft instrumental backing."). The flip got a "B" ("Little Esther belts a quick beat bounce in which she pleads not to be sent away as she has no place to go. Side moves.").
1954 was a busy year for Esther, but little of it had to do with music.
It started off normally enough. On February 1, she appeared with Oscar Black at the Elks Home in Petersburg, Virginia. On February 21, she was at Sports Towne, in Buffalo, New York.
Decca released "Sit Back Down" and "He's A No Good Man" in March and they were reviewed in the March 27 Billboard. "Sit Back Down" got a 73 ("The songstress turns in a strong reading of the blues. In it she tells her fella to take it easy (she's working now) and devote all his energy to romance. Should attract some juke coin."). "He's A No Good Man" rated a 70 ("The guy in question is good at loving, but pretty near worthless otherwise. Little Esther describes his failings convincingly.").
You've probably forgotten by now, but I told you back in June 1950 to remember that Esther, due to her age, traveled with tutors. The April 29, 1954 Jet had a blurb titled "Teen-Age Singer Little Esther Sued By Ex-Teacher". It read:
Charging that she has not been paid for six months of tutoring blues-shouting teen-ager Esther (Little Esther) Jones, Los Angeles teacher Mrs. Love Jordan filed a suit for $2,298 in alleged back wages in superior court. Mrs. Jordan said she was hired - at $363 monthly - by the singer's mother, Mrs. Lucille Washington, to act as the singer's teacher during a nationwide tour last year. The teacher's lawyer said that Little Esther was currently in Houston, Texas, where she is reportedly recovering from an illness.
This requires some comments. First, Esther is still called "Jones", but her mother is Lucille Washington. Therefore, I'm still in the dark about where "Jones" came from. More important, what, exactly, is she doing in Houston (where her father lived)? The answer is hinted at in the May 27, 1954 California Eagle: "Little Esther back in town. The thrush appears to be in blooming health. Looks big bodied and shapely. Maybe that rumored 'habit' is blackstrap molasses and vitamin B."
And maybe it isn't. By this time, Esther was addicted to heroin, with alcohol to wash it down. She was only 18 and had probably been introduced to drugs by Mel Walker, who was arrested many times on drug-related charges. (He was ultimately found dead in a Los Angeles alley in April 1964.)
Then it gets strange. The July 8, 1954 California Eagle reported: "Little Esther, the blues-rhythm thrush has been married ten days to Rickey De Montrand, a Boston chap whose socialite family have stock in cranberry sauce cannery." The July 29 Jet echoed this: "Blues singer Little Esther Jones is introducing Rickey De Montrand to Los Angeles pals as her husband. He comes from a wealthy Boston family."
Nah, I don't think so. Actually, he was born Rickey Roger Montrond (he stuck the "de" in later and most reports misspelled it "Montrand"). His father (per the 1940 census) was a laborer in a Taunton, Massachusetts cranberry bog. However "wealthy" and "socialite" make a much more exciting read, don't they? (At least they got the name of the fruit correct.)
Was she actually married to him? I can't find a marriage record (which doesn't, of course, rule it out). What I can find is a little blurb in the October 7, 1954 California Eagle, only a scant three months after the supposed happy event: "Ricky [sic] De Montrand has switched his attentions from Little Esther to another little miss!" Doesn't actually sound like a marriage to me. If it was, it certainly wasn't much of one.
But wait, it gets better. The very next week, the October 14 California Eagle announced the engagement of "dapper Ricky Da Montrond" [they keep trying to get his name right] to "Lovely Helen G. Rigsby, gay young socialite" (of whom I can't find a single trace outside of this one article). "The popular young couple plan to take the marriage vows Christmas Eve at the home of Miss Rigsby.... Suave Da Montrand [now they're back to this] hails from Boston and was formerly wed to Little Esther, the blues thrush. Ricky contends that he [line left out of the blurb] amiably and are still good friends." Rickey would get married and divorced a few times over the years.
There were ads for Little Ester being at Pat's Palace in San Pedro, California from November 18 to December 2. However, I don't think she was there at all. The November 20 Cleveland Call And Post had an article titled "Little Esther Joins Kids Who Got Bad Break". It said, in part:
Reports this week that Little Esther Jones, the nationally famous child recording star was arrested in Los Angeles last week on suspicion of prostitution and dope addiction brings into sharp focus the fate which befalls many young prodigies.
Little Esther who gave her age as 19 [she was actually a month away from that age] was taken into custody at the busy corner of 47th and Broadway [in Los Angeles], the singer was 'street-walking', police said, and in her statement to the officers she allegedly admitted "working Broadway, hustling for the past few months."
Police said the singer also admitted the "H-habit for about four months. I take a jolt every four days, about half a paper. My last show [sic; should be "shot"] was day before yesterday."
Last year her mother, after a series of emotional involvements of her own, left the girl; and six months ago, her father had to go to Chicago and bring his daughter home, reportedly to take a dope cure.
This explains a lot, except where she found the time to marry Rickey (if that ever even happened).
The November 20, 1954 New York Age wasn't happy about things either:
REPORT FROM West Coast that Little Esther, famous a few years ago as a child singing star, was jailed on a narcotics and (of all things) soliciting charge, IS DISTURBING to say the least. PERHAPS NO OTHER youngster, even including Toni Harper, attracted more attention than "Little Esther" then only 13. ORKSTER JOHNNY Otis who discovered her thought Little Esther had more talent than any child he'd seen at her age. NOW ALL THAT promise is out the window, so to speak. [Strange capitalization is theirs.]
Let's put one falsehood to rest. A couple of sources says her condition was worsened by "being in the same room when Johnny Ace shot himself (accidentally) on Christmas Day, 1954, while in-between shows in Houston...." Actually, wherever Esther was on Christmas Day 1954, it wasn't in the room with Johnny Ace (although I can't rule out her being with her father in Houston, or even in the audience of the Houston City Auditorium that night).
There was nothing in the press about what her punishment was, but it couldn't have been all that much, because she was back on the road by March 1955, appearing at the Ritz Ballroom, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the 18th. Whereas once she was the show's headliner, she was now listed after the Harptones, Stick McGhee, and Annie Laurie.
Little Esther made it back to the Apollo the week of April 22, 1955. This time, the Clovers were the main draw; Esther was listed below bandleader Paul Williams (although in the same size font). The April 23 New York Age said: "Little Esther, a sensational artist in her first records of 'Misery' and 'Double Crossing Blues' a few years ago, ends her long absence at the Apollo theatre. A grown up lady now, Esther has lost the childish awkwardness of youth, and is now an accomplished showman with a style of her own."
They bring up an interesting point: while her voice was that of a mature woman, right from her 13-year-old beginnings, nothing ever said what she was like as a performer. Was she an awkward teenager on stage or was she as professional as her voice?
However, the Ritz and the Apollo were the only two appearances I could find for her in 1955.
And then, another chance. Esther returned to Savoy Records, home of all but one of her chart songs. On May 2, 1956, she recorded four new songs: "Longing In My Heart", "You Can Bet Your Life", "T'Aint Whatcha Say, It's Whatcha Do", and "If It's News To You". Later that month, Savoy issued "You Can Bet Your Life", coupled with "T'aint Whatcha, Say It's Whatcha Do".
Billboard spotlighted the record on May 26 (along with the Clovers' "Love, Love, Love"): "Little Esther, who had some sock sides about five years ago, is singing better than ever - and on her old label. She wraps up the blues, 'You Can Bet Your Life' with an impressive flourish and a church sound to her style. The flip, also a blues, is belted out in fine fashion to a rousing backing. Watch this one."
[I'm not actually sure how "taint", as in "it ain't", is supposed to be spelled. Savoy had it as T'aint on the label, and as Tain't in ads. I would have written it as T'ain't myself.]
On Monday July 2, 1956 Esther was part of the Vacation Holiday Rock & Roll Show And Dance at the Memorial Auditorium in Fayetteville, West Virginia. She shared the stage with the Clovers, Chuck Willis, and the Joe Morris Orchestra.
I couldn't find any other appearances for her in 1956, but the August 4 Pittsburgh Courier said:
Little Esther (remember her?) who was a hit with the Johnny Otis band before she gave in to "the habit," is attempting a comeback on the Savoy Label with "You Can Bet Your Life" and "'Ttain't What You Do [sic, sic, sic]."
The only appearances I could find for Esther in all of 1957 were at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit for the week starting April 12, and the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia the week of May 31, where she shared the stage with Clyde McPhatter, Donnie Elbert, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Coasters, the Harptones, and Doc Bagby. Her name was in small letters and near the end.
It took Savoy a year to release her next record: "Longing In My Heart", backed with "If It's News To You", came out in June 1957. Cash Box rated them both "B" in their July 20, 1957 edition. "Longing In My Heart": "Little Esther wails a slow beat blues in a style that comes through with strength. The lass tells her love story with simplicity and effectiveness." "If It's News To You": "Little Esther rocks to a middle beat on the flip. Good Lindy dance item with Little Esther knocking out the beat in infectious fashion."
But all was not good with Esther. The August 17, 1957 New York Age reported: "Little Esther bagged for dope again. She was looking so good, too." The August 24 Cleveland Call And Post chimed in with: "NEW YORK CITY - 'Little' Esther ... was jailed last week on possession of narcotics. Little Esther, while standing on a street corner talking to two men, is alleged to have thrown her hand bag containing three caps of cocaine, when she saw detectives approaching." Note that at some point in the 1950s she'd relocated from Los Angeles to New York City.
There were no follow-up articles, so I don't know if she was actually sent to jail for the offense. However, she doesn't appear in person again until February 1959, when she showed up for a recording session.
In December 1958 Federal decided to issue the formerly-unreleased "I Paid My Dues", backed with a reissue of "Heart To Heart" (this time credited to "Little Esther And Clyde McPhatter And Group" - no mention of the Dominoes at all). They were reviewed in the December 15 Billboard, with "I Paid My Dues" getting two stars (but a kind of good review): "The gal offers a deeply felt blues with a band backing. Okay wax which fans will like." Whereas "Heart To Heart" had received an 84 rating when it was initially released in July 1951, now it got a dismal one star and a very strange review: "On this side Esther gives a sincere vocal with support from Clyde McPhatter and his group. McPhatter supports vocally, too [as opposed to what?]."
Esther's last-ever Savoy session was held on February 19, 1959: "It's So Good", "Do You Ever Think Of Me", and "Papa Do". Savoy released the first two the following month, and they were reviewed (three stars each) in the March 16 Billboard. "It's So Good": "Feelingful [sic] reading by thrush on exuberant blues. Dual market entry. [That is, it could be a hit in both the R&B and Pop fields.]". "Do You Ever Think Of Me?": "Expressive chanting on moving rockaballad. Fine programming for hip jocks."
The only appearance I could find for Esther in 1959 was at the Cleveland Arena on June 20. Also present were Jackie Wilson, Lavern Baker, the Upsetters, Sil Austin, Little Willie John, and Larry Darnell. This is a full two years after the last appearance I documented.
Sometime in 1960, she made some recordings for Morty Craft's Warwick label. I don't know the recording date, but I believe all the songs were done in a single session: "Feel Like I Wanna Cry", "The Chains", "Gee Baby", and "Wild Child".
"Feel Like I Wanna Cry" and "The Chains" were released in July 1960, but don't seem to have been reviewed. "Gee Baby" and "Wild Child" came out in December of that year and were reviewed in Billboard's December 31 edition: "Wild Child" (3 stars): "Little Esther returns to wax with a listenable performance of a swinging blues effort. Backing rocks, too. Side will interest her fans." "Gee Baby" got 2 stars: "Tender bluesy effort is sung with some style here by Esther, over attractive piano and ork support. Flip is stronger." The wording seems to indicate that Warwick never sent them the first record to review (or, at least, the reviewer wasn't aware of it). Note that "Gee Baby", a tune written by Johnny Otis, had been a Savoy Mel Walker vocal ten years previously.
The last known appearance for the old Little Esther was at Birdland in Newport, Rhode Island on March 2-5, 1961. She appeared along with Bernie Woods ("TV Artist" - and yes, they meant "Bennie Woods"). Strangely, the ad says that she's a "Capitol Recording Star", although there's nothing that indicates Esther ever recorded for Capitol. Just another of life's little mysteries.
After this, she reinvented herself as "Esther Phillips" and had a #1 hit (her last) with "Release Me" in late 1962 for Lenox (the label said Esther Phillips - "Little Esther").
There was an article about her in the February 2, 1963 Cleveland Call And Post, titled "Little Esther Makes Comeback". It read:
Remember back about 12 years ago. Who was the big rhythm and blues record artist at that time? Bet you will think of Little Esther and up until two months ago probably wondered "whatever became of her?"
Well, don't wonder any longer because Esther Hankerson, now turned 27, is proving good artists never die, they just wait for a record hit. Out of touch with things musically due to several bad breaks that she admits she overcame, Little Esther's "Release Me" is on every rock and roll fan's lips as they hum the tune.
Recently at the famed Apollo theatre [the week of January 11, 1963] tears rolled down her cheeks when she walked onstage and those who remembered her when she was the sensation with the Johnny Otis band back in the early 40s [sic] greeted her with an ovation. And she didn't disappoint them as she literally sang her heart out. [Literally? Boy, that must have been messy.]
And sitting out front with a happy smile was Bob Gans, the man who had faith enough in her past ability to sign her for his Lenox record firm. He was impressed when she walked into his office for an audition and rushed her into a studio to wax "Release Me." With sales hitting over 450,000 he just put out an album of the same name that should make her comeback complete.
With her husband Chuck as her personal manager, Little Esther vows to make the most of this opportunity. Instead of spending her money now on good times with false friends she's learned her lesson well and points to a growing bank account as her "real friend."
I don't know when it happened, but she's now married to Chuck Hankerson.
The only post-1962 recording that I want to mention is "Double Crossing Blues", done for Atlantic in 1964. Harking back to her Savoy days, the label credits "Little Esther" (no mention of "Phillips") and, on the side, in small letters, "with Jimmy Ricks". Too many vocal tricks for my taste, even from Ricks. (The good news is that authorship was credited solely to Jessie Mae Robinson.) After "Release Me", Esther would have 10 more Top 100 R&B hits, but only "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes" would crack the Top Ten.
The marriage to Hankerson didn't last, however, and, on July 4, 1979, she (as "Esther Phillips") married Clyde B. Atkins in Houston, Texas. In 1958, Atkins had become Sarah Vaughan's second husband (another of her marriages that didn't work out). He'd had a brief career as a professional football player, but had finally been let go by the Chicago Cardinals in 1954.
In 1973, Esther Phillips was nominated for a Grammy award for "Best Female Rhythm & Blues Vocalist". She lost to Aretha Franklin, but Aretha immediately turned the trophy over to Esther, saying that she should have won it.
In 1982, Gusto Records (which now owned the King/Federal catalog) released "The Deacon Moves In", backed with "Half Fast Boogie" (which was just a re-titled "You Took My Love Too Fast").
Esther Mae Washington Jones de Montrond [maybe] Hankerson Atkins died on August 7, 1984. (Coincidentally, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton had died around two weeks previously. And, although he had nothing to do with our story, Percy Mayfield passed away on August 11. Not a good time for R&B.) Esther had been performing up to the end and was scheduled to appear in an August 8 "All-Star Blues Revue" with Etta James, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner, and Harry "Sweets" Edison. While that cast stood silently on stage, Esther's recording of "Release Me" was played to the audience.
Did she ever kick the drug habit? I really don't know, although it was still going strong in the late 1960s and she was broke when she died, which is a possible indicator. However, she'd abused her body so much over the years that it was liver and kidney failure that actually killed her; she was only 48.
I still don't know why she and Johnny Otis parted company back in late 1952, but there are photos of them appearing together many, many years later. As Rev. Johnny Otis, he'd be the one to conduct her funeral service. At that service were her siblings, Marietta Barnes, Gertrude Miller, and Frank Washington, Jr. (Strangely, in two newspaper reports, Frank was called her step-brother, but Texas birth records show them both with the same parents.) Clyde Atkins was there too and, although they'd been divorced somewhere along the way, he was identified as her husband.
She had (per the September 2, 1985 Jet) initially been buried in an "unmarked pauper's grave". On April 28, 1985, Johnny Otis hosted a benefit concert to collect enough money to move her remains to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, where she was re-buried as "Esther Phillips".
As I said in the beginning, Little Esther had a remarkable voice for her age. Many of her early Savoy recordings rank among my favorites.
Special thanks to Billy Vera, Victor Pearlin, and Ferdie Gonzalez.
715 I Gotta Gal ["Vocal Esther Jones"] / [Thursday Night Blues - Johnny Otis] - 11/49
Original issue with incorrect title
715 I Gotta Guy ["Vocal 'Little' Esther"] / [Thursday Night Blues - Johnny Otis] - 12/49
Reissued with the correct title
SAVOY (with the Johnny Otis Orchestra)
731 Double Crossing Blues (The Robins & LE) / [Back Alley Blues - Beale St. Gang] - 1/50
alternate flip is "Ain't Nothin' Shakin'" - Johnny Otis Ork. (voc: Leon Sims [Floyd Hollis])
735 Mistrustin' Blues (LE & MW) / Misery (LE) - 3/50
748 Mean Ole Gal / [Good Old Blues - Johnny Otis Ork] - 4/50
750 Cupid's Boogie (LE & MW) / Just Can't Get Free (LE & Beltones) - 5/50
759 Deceivin' Blues Savoy (LE & MW) / Lost Dream Blues (LE) - 8/50
764 Wedding Boogie / Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues) (LE & MW) - 10/50
"Wedding Boogie" is by the "Johnny Otis Congregation:
Bride: Little Esther, Groom: Mel Walker, Preacher: Lee Graves"
775 Love Will Break Your Heart (LE & MW) / I Don't Care (LE) - 12/50
Lover's Lane Boogie (LE & Robins; recorded January 11, 1950)
FEDERAL (all credited to Little Esther, except as noted)
12016 The Deacon Moves In (with the Dominoes) / Other Lips, Other Arms - 2/51
REGENT (Savoy subsidiary)
1036 I Dream (MW & LE) / [Hangover Blues - Johnny Otis] - 3/51
12023 I'm A Bad, Bad Girl / Don't Make A Fool Out of Me - 4/51
12036 Lookin' For A Man (To Satisfy My Soul) / Heart To Heart (with The Dominoes) - 7/51
12042 Cryin' And Singin' The Blues / Tell Him That I Need Him So - 10/51
824 Get Together Blues (LE & Junior) / [Chittlin' Switch (JO Ork; with the Vocaleers)] - 11/51
12055 Ring-A-Ding-Doo (LE & MEL) / The Crying Blues - 12/51
12063 Summertime / The Storm - 2/52
12065 Better Beware / I'll Be There - 4/52
12078 Aged And Mellow / Bring My Lovin' Back To Me - 5/52
12090 Ramblin' Blues / Somebody New - 8/52
12100 Mainliner / Saturday Night Daddy (LE & BN) - 10/52
The uncredited group on both sides ISN'T the Robins
12108 Last Laugh Blues (LE & LW) / Flesh, Blood And Bones - 11/52
12115 Turn The Lamps Down Low (LE & LW) / Hollerin' And Screamin' - 1/53
12122 You Took My Love Too Fast (LE & BN) / Street Lights - 3/53
12126 Hound Dog / Sweet Lips - 3/53
12142 Cherry Wine / Love Oh Love - 8/53
28804 Talkin' All Out My Head / If You Want Me - 8/53
48305 Please Don't Send Me ('Cause I Got Nowhere To Go) / Stop Cryin' - 10/53
48314 He's A No Good Man / Sit Back Down - 3/54
1193 You Can Bet Your Life / T'aint Whatcha Say It's Whatcha Do - 5/56
1516 Longing In My Heart / If It's News To You - 6/57
12344 I Paid My Dues / Heart To Heart - 12/58
"Heart To Heart" by "Little Esther And Clyde McPhatter And Group"
1563 It's So Good / Do You Ever Think Of Me - 3/59
Papa Do (recorded February 19, 1959)
559 Feel Like I Wanna Cry / The Chains - 7/60
610 Gee Baby / Wild Child - 12/60
2144 The Deacon Moves In (Little Esther & the Dominoes) / Half Fast Boogie (Little Esther & Bobby Nunn) - 82
The latter is a re-titled "You Took My Love Too Fast"
LE = Little Esther
MW = Mel Walker
Junior = Junior ? (he's not Morris "Junior Ryder" Riden)
MEL = Mel Walker
BN = Bobby Nunn
LW = Little Willie [Littlefield]