Esther Phillips was often compared to that of Nina Simone because of her nasal singing qualities. Born as Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, she began singing at a very young age. She found her passion for music while singing in her local church choir. After her parents divorced, she spent time traveling back in forth between Houston (her father’s home) and Los Angeles where her mother lived. It was Esther’s sister who entered her into a talent contest, at which she was discovered by Johnny Otis.
Otis was so impressed with Esther that he took her into the studio for a recording session with Modern Records. She was later added to his live revue. She was often dubbed as “Little Esther,” and had much success when she teamed up with the vocal quartet, The Robins, on the hit single, “Double Crossin Blues.” In 1951, Esther parted ways with Otis after a falling out over money.
She later returned to live with her father after falling on hard times and experimenting with drugs. However, she continued to work in small nightclubs in the south when she was not in the hospital.
Esther signed on with Kenny Rogers’ brother in 1962 on the Lenox label. She then decided to change her name to Esther Phillips, choosing her last name from a nearby Phillips gas station. She recorded a country-soul rendition of the soon-to-be standard, “Release Me.” After Lenox went bankrupt, Esther was able to sign on with Atlantic Records. Her biggest hit came in 1975 with the release of “What a Difference a Day Makes.” She died in Los Angeles in 1984.