Sweeping The Nation
Fellow blogger “Sweeping The Nation” is currently running a feature where every day this month a different guest picks a track they think everyone needs to hear. The selections so far have been suitably eclectic, and I’ve reposted an extended version of mine below. For the other 30 check out Sweeping The Nation.
On Monday the 13th of December 1971 in a studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Esther Phillips recorded a cover version that almost 35 years later remains one of the finest songs ever committed to tape.
Cover versions are much maligned, too often tossed out as a cheap B-side or worse still what’s commonly known as the ‘Jo Whiley‘: dictionary definition “ironic, wacky and always unbearable cover, often of an R&B track performed by insipid indie guitar group (see entry for The Kooks)”. Thankfully “Home Is Where The Hatred” is a world away from this.
Gil Scott Heron’s original is itself something of a classic, so it was not a song to take on lightly. Esther however was a formidable woman and produced a performance of such remarkable intensity and beauty that, in my opinion at least, it outstrips the original.
Starting out with the name Little Esther, Phillips made her recording debut at the tender age of 14, and experienced more highs and lows in her life than most. She was chronically addicted to heroin within a few years of her debut, an addiction which restricted her output in the fifties. After almost dropping out of music altogether, she made a comeback in 1962 when her version of the country standard “Release Me” became a hit (yes, the Englebert Humperdinck one). Almost immediately her record label went bankrupt.
By this point she was no longer Little Esther, if myth be believed the surname was picked up when passing a Phillips gas station. She continued to battle drug and personal problems in the 60’s, but for all the lows there were some highs. Signing for Atlantic, an inspired 1965 cover of “And I Love Her” (re-titled with a Him) caught the attention of the Beatles, who brought Phillips over to the UK to appear on a special edition of the BBC’s Ready, Steady, Go.
“Home is Where The Hatred Is” was recorded for another new label – the fledgling Kudo – and after yet another spell in rehab. The lyrics lay out a stark tale of the destruction wrought by a lifetime of addiction, a fairly daring subject for an addict (Esther) to tackle, and she later admitted that it was the hardest lyric she’d ever performed.
“Stand as far away from me as you can, and ask me why
Hang on to your rosary beads… close your eyes to watch me die“
But what a performance! Phillips, who has one of the classic expressive soul voices (part Nina Simone, but also fully her own), drew on what was by now a sixteen year battle with drug abuse to put that emotion in every line and syllable. At times her voice seems close to breaking while at others she sounds fiercely defiant.
And it’s not just the vocal performance that makes this one of the most painfully beautiful records ever made. Kudu regarded the signing of Esther as a huge privilege and as such drafted in the finest backing musicians they could assemble. Nowadays people rarely bother to record with real string sections due to cost and the ready availability of fairly decent keyboard versions, but here the strings take the breath away. There are about ten seconds which when I first heard the record (on Coldcut’s seminal Solid Steel radio show) sent shivers down my spine and caused me to rewind and repeat, rewind and repeat, rewind and repeat. As Esther sings “home is where I live inside, my white powder dreams” the strings reply in dramatic defiant fashion, but then as she continues “home was once an empty vacuum, that’s filled now… with my silent screams” they almost scream for her. If I had to pick my all time favourite ten seconds of music this would probably be it. I can’t actually describe how good it is.
The track is best listened to with headphones, or with decent speakers to appreciate the mix which somehow allows every instrument a tiny part of the sound spectrum that is theirs alone. Stereo rarely get used like this any more either, so you get the delicious alto sax of Hank Crawford in the left ear while a trumpet comes in on the right. The arrangement was done by Pee Wee Ellis and the fantastic drums by James Brown’s stickman Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie. From the backing singers and keyboards to the guitars, its like a who’s who of the finest musicians of the era. Nominated for a Grammy in 1972, the album lost out to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted And Black“. Aretha promptly gave the Grammy to Phillips saying “From A Whisper To A Scream” quite simply deserved it more.
As a student I remember stumbling across a vinyl copy for a ridiculous amount of money in a now long defunct Kentish Town record shop. These were after all the days when some albums were pretty hard to find, or at least harder than typing an artist’s name into Soulseek and then ten minutes later possessing everything they’ve ever recorded. Thankfully in the 1990s the track became more widely available as part of the Blaxploitation compilations and on a fantastic best of the Kudu years CD. If you don’t already own the album or any of these compilations, a tenner will never be better spent.
Delete this MP3 (or record it at a higher quality), chuck everyone out of the house, draw the curtains, turn off the lights and sit in the middle of the speakers and soak up the majesty of this recording. Wonderful!
Esther Phillips – “Home Is Where The Hatred Is (MP3)”
Gil Scott Heron – “Home Is Where The Hatred Is (MP3)” – The original version. Is this better than Esther’s version… its close.
Esther Phillips – “Home Is Where The Hatred Is (Paul Nice mix) (MP3)” – From a nice, in fact Paul Nice mix tape.
Anita Lane – “Home Is Where The Hatred Is (MP3)” – cover by Australian singer songwriter. Not sure about this one.
Kanye West feat. Common – “My Way Home (MP3)” – Kanye & Common pick Gil’s pocket with fine results
Esther Phillips – “Just Say Goodbye (YouTube)” – Esther in a fetching cardy
Esther Phillips – “What a Difference a Day Makes (YouTube)” – She is D.I.S.C.O