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Phillips, Esther Mae [Little Esther] (1935–1984)

James Head Biography Entry

Esther Mae "Little Esther" Phillips, jazz vocalist, pianist, organist, and trumpeter, was born Esther Mae Jones in Galveston, Texas, on December 23, 1935. She was the daughter of Arthur Jones and Lucille Washington. As a child she moved to California with her mother after her parents divorced and grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles. She was singing with the church choir when she was six and competing in local talent shows by the age of twelve.

Johnny Otis, a Los Angeles bandleader, discovered her when she competed in one of his club's talent contests. Otis signed Esther to a contract when she was fourteen. In 1949 she dropped out of school and joined his touring troupe. Little Esther made several hit recordings while touring with Otis from 1949 through 1952. When "Double Crossing Blues," recorded on the Savoy label in 1949, became a huge hit in 1950, she became the youngest R&B artist ever to reach Number 1 on the national charts. She quickly followed this success with another Number 1 song, "Cupid's Boogie." Other Phillips songs that made the Top 10 included "Misery," "Deceivin' Blues," and "Wedding Boogie." When Otis's group disbanded in 1952, Little Esther went solo. Over the next few years, she recorded more than thirty sides. Only one, "Ring-A-Ding-Do," hit the charts. It charted at Number 8 in 1952.

Unfortunately, Little Esther's career was on the skids before she turned twenty because of her addiction to heroin. In 1954 she moved to Houston, where she remained virtually inactive musically until the early 1960s, when she was “rediscovered” by a young Kenny Rogers at a Houston club. Rogers arranged to have Little Esther signed to his brother Lelan’s Lenox label. In 1963, using the name Esther Phillips (reportedly chosen from a Phillips gasoline station), she remodeled a country song, "Release Me," into a Number 1 rhythm-and-blues hit. By 1965 she had signed with Atlantic Records. She also made a 1965 appearance with the Beatles on a London BBC-TV program. In 1966 she had another hit record with "When A Woman Loves A Man." Her drug addiction, however, limited her activity for most of the 1960s.

But she rebounded in 1969 with recordings for Roulette and Epic, and with appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival and on the Johnny Carson Show. In the early 1970s, by this time back in Los Angeles, she began to perform and record again, for the Kudu label. Her live appearances and recordings helped rejuvenate her career by introducing her to a new generation of listeners. In 1972 Little Esther recorded the "biographical" record of her drug addiction, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is." She also recorded the successful albums From a Whisper to a Scream and Alone Again Naturally, both in 1972. In 1973 she was nominated for a Grammy award for "Best R&B Performance by a Female Vocalist."

Although she continued to record and perform throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, she had very little further success. Little Esther died of kidney and liver failure in Carson, California, on August 7, 1984. She was buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Lawrence Cohen, Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993). Leonard Feather, T he Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (New York: Horizon Press, 1966). Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, eds., The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies (New York: Horizon Press, 1976). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: Muze, 1998). Robert Santelli, Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). Eileen Southern, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982).


  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Women

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James Head, “Phillips, Esther Mae [Little Esther],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 04, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: