Saturday, December 03, 2011

Tragelaphus Strepsiceros Revisited

Together with Nina Simone's Colpix, Phillips and RCA LPs Esther Phillips's series of Kudu LPs is without doubt one of the highlights of 20th cen- tury female jazz & r&b vocals. Formed in summer 1971, the Kudu label was launched by Creed Taylor (of CTI Records); in July, the first LP was releas- ed. Kudu was to be a vehicle for »soul jazz« and Taylor described it as »a black awareness label, more commercial oriented than CTI and indi- genous to the black popular music of the United States.« The name of the label, referring to the African Kudu (tragelaphus strepsiceros), was meant to convey Afro-American consciousness, and so did the colors used for the logo (red, black, green) and the bee-striped (actually kudu-striped!) sleeve. Vic Chirumbolo, sales manager for CTI, said that »[t]he jazz on the Kudu label will capture r&b jazz as well as blues-oriented jazz as opposed to CTI, which features more experimental and universal jazz artists« (Billboard, July 31, 1971, p. 13). In January '72, Esther Phillips's first album was out, From A Whisper To A Scream (Kudu LP # KU-05).

In a June 1972 interview originally published in Living Blues # 17 (1974) and re-issued in The Voice of the Blues (eds. Jim O'Neal & Amy Van Singel, London-New York 2002, pp. 375-87), Esther had the following to say about how she came to Kudu:
I felt I had to get with a smaller company where they had time to concentrate on me. Fortunately, this is what's happening with CTI.
So this company that I record for now, which is Creed Taylor, Incorporated, CTI Records, Kudu, they have a jazz label with Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard - so they were looking for me out in California and, at this time, I was without a record company again. And we got together, they wanted one album, so I recorded From A Whisper To A Scream and it worked out very well. ... So far, other than Atlantic, who did promotion, this com- pany really gives you a lot of promotion, which I can really appreciate. They're doing a fantastic job. I'm very pleased with them at this point. (p. 382 f.)
In the September 1972 issue of Ebony magazine, her first Kudu LP got an enthusiastic review. After mentioning Esther's heroin addiction (»everything but heaven itself had conspired to do her in«), the critic praises her power of will and sees her as »the logical successor to the great Dinah Washington.« (Others, however, have stressed Esther's closeness in art & life to Billie Holiday which, to my mind, is a more fitting comparison.) He then goes on to review some of the main tracks of the LP (several of which were released on Kudu 45's and reached the Top 40 of the r&b charts in '72). The album's closing track, the 6½-minute monster blues »Scarred Knees«, is described as an »improvisatory "Umph-umph-umph" thing« ... well, if this was to mean that Esther hhmmms, squeaks and even hiccups (listen at 01:33!!) herself through part of the song, he's right. This is the song, the bluesiest tune on the album (never released as a 45) and the one which has Esther experimenting most with her voice; she really draws you in:

Esther Phillips: »Scarrred Knees« from the Kudu LP # KU-05 (1972):

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P.S. Did I mention that Esther Phillip's string of Kudu records started at the same time (in January 1972) as the Westbound / ABC record series of Denise LaSalle?


  1. Most interesting . . . never heard this version before. Ever heard the (I assume) original downhome version by Little Miss Janice, from the late 60s? I used to hear it on Brother Henderson's show on XERB way back in the day.

  2. I would like to hear Miss Janice's version, I know the song basically from Esther's version. Have to look around in the blogosphere ...