Little Esther: Long Days With the Diva

Little Esther: Long Days With the Diva

Written by Ken Sander

It’s 1977 and we are waiting on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills for talent manager Irene Pinn when her partner Jim Kellem (one of the two Jims who I worked with at Creative Management Associates (CMA, later ICM Partners) points to a new Fiat Spider convertible pulling up. It is looking a little lopsided and tilting toward the driver’s side. That can’t be good, I say to Jim and he laughs while R&B singer “Little Esther” Phillips struggles her way out of the bucket seat in the low-to-the-ground sports car.

Inside the Doheny office of KP Productions Irene tells me the Esther Phillips tour is about six weeks long. The first leg will be an All-Star Jazz tour in Hamburg, Germany, then a gig in Cannes, France at the Midem music convention and on to Caracas, Venezuela for ten days in an upscale night club.

A week later we all meet up in Hamburg. Esther is about forty years old and is about five foot four and solid. She can sing, no misunderstanding about that, and she has had two major hit records and many on the charts. Her first hit was “Double Crossing Blues,” with the Johnny Otis Quintet and the Robins (a vocal group), which was released in 1950 by Savoy Records and reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart. She was 15 at the time, hence the name “Little Esther,” and she is a four-time Grammy nominee. Esther had a distinctive voice and was a Jazz singer with blues and soul influences, But she has lived a hard life – and has not always been the victim.


She is the headliner of the German tour which means she closes the show. The day after we arrive in Hamburg we do a rehearsal at the concert hall, where the next night the first show of the tour begins.

The tour is called “The All-Star Jazz Tour” and includes musicians like jazz greats Gerry Mulligan, Nat Adderley and Buddy Rich. We are all on the bus zig-zagging across West Germany. It is a tiresome tour, with overnight bus trips sometimes lasting 16 hours with only ten-minute bathroom breaks and vending machine food stops. We go from North to South and back North, West, East and every which way. That is the concert business, and it has to do with the availability of concert halls. Bookings are put together with the only restriction being that you will be able to make the travel in time for the show. This tour was worse than most, but that is the life, and no one complains; we all get it.

It is the afternoon of the first show and the promoter tells me to have Esther back at the hall at 9:30 pm that night. While driving back to the hotel I tell her that, and her boyfriend says, “that’s bullsh*t! We don’t have to be back at the hall till eleven that night.” I repeat myself and they both are not buying it. I tell them that these are our instructions and Esther says, “fu*k them, I am not waiting around to go on stage for no one.” I am not winning this argument and I say to myself, screw it, I am only here to help. I call Jim Kellem in California, but it is like four in the morning in Los Angeles and he is sleeping. No answer.

We arrive at the concert hall at eleven and the promoter is frantic. The band has been ad-libbing and stalling for time. Esther is freaked out at this and her eyes are popping out of her head.

The promoter pushes her on stage. While she starts singing the promoter starts yelling at me. I tell him, “I told her over and over that we had to be there at 9:30 and her boyfriend said I was wrong.” We pulled him into our conversation and he tried to worm out of it. Esther can see the argument from the stage and she knows she is in for it.

She comes off stage and the promoter tells her she is fired from the tour. She starts crying and apologizing like crazy. I know she is not actually fired but that the German promoter wants to put the fear of God in her. “This is Germany; everyone here is on time, always,” he says, scolding her like she was caught shoplifting. “Please, I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry, please,” she pleads to me and the promoter in between sobs. The promoter knows he has her and keeps lecturing her for another five minutes.

In the car heading back to the hotel she is giving her boyfriend a bad time. He is squirming and I’m not minding it.

On the other hand the musicians are a very serious busload of jazz performers. There are no other road managers, so I make it a point to look after everyone. I am the youngest person on the bus and this will be the last time in my life I will ever be referred to as “The Kid.” I think I connected more with Nat Adderley than anyone else and late one night on the bus we were talking and he says, “you think Esther is difficult? you should do a tour with the Temptations. The Temps are first-rate hardasses and thankless MFs.” I guess so; I think to myself that he would know.

The bus is quiet for a tour bus and it is low-key and there is no friction between people. Everyone is cordial, but they are not best friends either; it is more like live and let live. Just professionals doing their job. I am sure the money was good for them.

Gerry Mulligan brought his wife along for the tour and sometimes the three of us would hang together for meals. Gerry was quiet and she and I did most of the talking. Every few minutes or so Gerry would hold his hands like he was playing the saxophone while pressing the invisible keys like he was working out a riff.

On the bus, I talked to everyone. Buddy Rich and I were chatting one afternoon about touring and told me his next gig was in Toronto opening a new Hilton Inn. Some performers had a reputation for being difficult, but on this tour everyone played a part, and even though Esther was the headliner and closed the show that was in name only. There was no grandstanding or ego trips between performers. On stage, everyone fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Esther’s goodwill towards me lasts about three days and she starts getting testy again. Then she is either complaining about the tour or demanding something. There is also the boredom of the long bus rides and she has nothing better to do.

About a week into the tour we finally get to spend a night in a hotel. The overnight stop is a luxury because that day’s drive was only a few hours. She gets on the elevator with me and demands I give her a thousand dollars. Money that is the band’s pay. I tell her that the money I have on me is for the band, and she says, “fu*k that, give it to me!” I tell her no and she takes a roundhouse punch at me, barely missing my face. I didn’t react, just got off the elevator and it was never mentioned again. I was getting used to her, thinking, she is who she is and I had already decided that I would finish this tour and move on.

Finally, that leg of Esther’s tour ended – but there seemed to be a problem. Her boyfriend had been playing backgammon for money with Nat Adderley in the back of the bus. He had lost a lot of money and owed Nat big time. Esther was beside herself. But hey, it was not my problem. I do not know how it got resolved but I did know that Nat was not a gentleman you wanted to owe money to.

After Germany, we flew into Nice and were driven down to Cannes for Midem, the world’s biggest music business convention. It is a big deal with record companies, music publishers, distributors and such from all over the world. This is early February and the time and place where deals between these companies are made.

Esther is there to perform at one of the big evening affairs; so big that Anthony Quinn is hosting the event. It’s on a pier in the harbor that is filled with these tremendous yachts. Monte Carlo is just up the road past the Nice airport.

Irene has flown in and she and Esther are staying at the Hotel Barrière Le Majestic, a beautiful five-star international hotel across the main road from the harbor. The band and I stay in a three-star hotel on a hill overlooking the Marina. It was just so French, and not touristy, and the food was out of this world. So we did not mind the different hotel arrangements.

A few days later we fly to Madrid and transfer to a Pan Am jet to Caracas with a refueling stop in San Juan. We flew through the night and landed in San Juan at about three in the morning. They made us depart the plane and put us in a special area, so we did not have to clear US Customs. Around five am we re-boarded the plane and headed out for Caracas. In the dawn light flying over the Caribbean waters, the colors were remarkable. The light greens, turquoise, light and dark blues were so beautiful I was mesmerized.

We were staying at the Caracas Hilton and Raquel Welsh was performing there. Man, I had hoped to run into her but alas, it was not to be. We were doing a show a night at a high-end club. Ticket sales were so-so, with just over a half-full house every night, but still, things were OK. Sometimes at night after our show, I would go with some of the locals, club employees, to these after-hours night clubs and they were so lavish, but also wild with booze and drugs. There would be shows with dancing girls and salsa bands; it was like the old days at the Copacabana with photographers and cigarette girls, a real scene that would go on till dawn.

Still, Esther continued to cause problems. One night before she went on stage she deliberately stomped on her microphone breaking it and tried to blame me. I was not fazed. Then she wanted to have a picnic pig roast for the band and the new friends she had made in Caracas, but they didn’t allow enough time for the preparation and it was inedible. Esther wanted to blame me even for that.

Finally, we were finished with the tour and I was glad to go home. The morning that we were supposed to leave, I went to Esther’s room to get her and boyfriend’s luggage and to get them downstairs to the taxis. Everyone but me was going to Los Angeles, me to New York. Always one to surprise me, Esther had one more trick up her sleeve. She said she did not want to leave that day and maybe she would be up to it tomorrow.

That was a new one. I had never had a tour end like that. I called Jim Kellem and told him the situation, and he was okay with me leaving her there. I gave her and her boyfriend their tickets and money for the taxi to Caracas airport and said, goodbye and good luck.

I had gotten over being bothered by Esther’s stunts, but I was done. It was fine; the experience was already in my rearview mirror.

The next day at home in NY Irene calls me, exasperated, and fumes, “how could I leave Esther in Caracas?” I told Irene that Esther refused to leave – and the tour was over I also told Irene that I was finished. Although, she knew that already because I had told Kellem, but she played dumb and then told me, “in ten days we have a bus tour in Italy opening for Gloria Gaynor.”

Oh boy, I could not even consider being on another bus tour with Esther.

Next day Irene calls again and asks me some follow-up questions about the tour, which I answer and clarify.

Then she calls me again the day after and starts talking about Italy, and I say, “Irene I told you, I quit!”

What a difference a day makes.


Header image: Esther Phillips, 1976. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Irene Pinn Inc.

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