DAVID NATHAN'S DIARY- January 1, 2021: Personal Reflections on 2020

Esther Phillips & King Curtis
Photo Credit
Atlantic Records

I started January 1, 2020 celebrating the beginning of a new year with my dear longtime friend P.P. Arnold, who I first met in 1966 when she decided to move to London after a stint with Ike & Tina Turner as an Ikette and recorded the now-classic “The First Cut Is The Deepest.”  Being a ‘child’ of the sun and never a fan of the winter’s cold, I was happy to be in Spain with Pat, her friends and family as we toasted 2020 and all manner of possibilities…

March 13, 2020 – the beginning of self-containment in London.  I could say ‘isolation’ or ‘lockdown’ and I choose ‘self-containment’ since it was just that.  Aside from a dramatic second-degree burns incident at home in June – thankfully now fully healed and undetectable – that led to an overnight stay at St. Thomas’ Hospital and a few days of respite near the River Thames in the autumn, my modest flat in South London has been my refuge, sometimes my ‘prison’… Then, oftentimes – in a living room transformed from a drab space that seemed more like an office than a home  into a vibrant plant-bedecked – the place I couldn’t wait to spend time, a creative zone for doing My Classic Soul podcasts (thanks to MCS producer John Hughes) virtually with my peeps, Janine Coveney, Michael Lewis, Jason King,  talkin’ about essential albums and artists (Chaka Khan, George Benson, Donny Hathaway, Sylvester, Roberta Flack, Ashford & Simpson, The Isley Brothers, Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat). 

Then there was finding a massive folder of my poems, lyrics, song titles, dating back to 1976, a rich treasure trove that is finally being uncovered: narrating the first two poems (“Billie In Blue,” “Nomadic Juxtapositions And The Musings Of A Forgotten Pharaoh”) and putting them on SoundCloud.  First time ever to share my poetry publicly and it was scary…and I’m ready to share more!

Somehow, through a funk of loneliness that marked some days and nights of this past nine months, I rallied.  Getting up in the mornings and going to bed that night with no face-to-face contacts, no hugs, no kisses, no…well-you-know-what-I-mean…tested my endurance, my resilience and yes, long walks helped…but, echoing the words of one, Michael Masser from ‘The Greatest Love Of All….”I learned to depend on me…”

Music.  As it has so many times in my life, it was music, specifically soul music that got me through the long days and longer nights.  Whether it was having the privilege to work on projects like the beautiful Roberta Flack “First Take” 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition and the sumptuous “Aretha” 4-CD box set (which will be released in July of this new year), both with my esteemed colleague Patrick Milligan or putting together box sets for my SoulMusic Records label (via Cherry Red in the UK) or discovering new soulful tracks on Spotify as I bopped down the street, mask on, avoiding joggers’ dripping sweat if they came too close on my daily walks, it was – as it has been for the past five decades – music that made me smile, sometimes made me tear up…

I learned that “Thankful For What I Got,” the title track for the third disc of a great anthology of Atlantic and Reprise recordings by the legendary Barbara Lews that I put together in 2020 meant so much more to me in a year often filled with gloom, doom, lying politicians (as if that was something new….not) and fear of an unseen virus.  My ‘liked songs’ also included William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got” and while there were no gangster leans, diamonds in the back, cadillacs or sunroof tops anywhere in my London neighbourhood, the sentiment rang true….

And then there was Esther, as in Phillips.  Stories.  Memories.  An earth mama whose salty-pepper-laced-with-tart-cherry voice could be bitter, sweet, sometimes soft…and always real.  One of my ‘dream’ projects, a 5-CD box set of Esther’s work for Lenox, Roulette and Atlantic remains virtually my favourite reissue of all I’ve done over decades.  Yes, it’s personal.  You see, aged 17, I met Esther in 1965 as the founder of the then-newly created UK Appreciation Society for Nina Simone.  Esther, a self-confessed addict who was trying to overcome, looking for a career break, or more accurately, a life break was in London.  She was intrigued that a bespectacled British teenager knew anything about her music and thrilled that the members of the Nina fan club had ‘voted’ for her as their second favourite singer!  I never told her there were just thirty members voting…

Sitting in her hotel room, watching her mood turn blue as her then-manager told her she had to come back to the U.S. for a gig opening for….yeah…Tom Jones in Bermuda, I inadvertently changed her vibe.  ‘Miss Phillips,” I tentatively proffered, after staring at an object of utter curiosity on the dresser. “Can I ask what this is?”  Esther Phillips, born Esther Mae Jones, roared!  “That’s my wig, sugar!” she laughed so hard, almost falling off the bed. It was indeed a blonde wig on a wig stand…and but a year later, I saw her wearing it on the cover of an Atlantic LP, “The Country Side Of Esther Phillips” in 1966….

Over the years, particularly after I moved to the U.S. in 1975 to write for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” magazine, Esther and I encountered each other on a few more occasions, more often than not, experiences that were filled with humour, drama and ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ face-offs with record executives (‘where’s my MONEY?’) included…

August 8, 1984, Esther passed on to the next realm after her body simply gave out from too-much-pain-not-enough-love at the age of 48…  She was not everyone’s cup of tea, vocally.  Her nasal-sometimes-apple-cider-vinegar-without-the-apple bluesy-edged style was not mass market.   No matter.  She lived what she sang and honouring her with “Brand New Day: The Lenox/Atlantic/Roulette Recordings” was, in a turbulent year of uncertainty truly soothed my soul…

Perfect that I chose to call the box set ‘Brand New Day’ (the Van Morrison song) since that is indeed what I face.  No doubt you do too.  Music, oh music, continues to lift my spirit. The gorgeous alternate version of the “West Side Story” classic “Somewhere” by the forever Queen Of Soul, Aretha (who had the grace and generosity to give the 1972 Grammy Award she had received to Esther since she felt she deserved it, an unprecedented move indeed) released as a digital single is fitting in so many ways….

And then…finally…who else but the ‘Queen of Twitter’…yes, ‘Auntie’ Dionne Warwick (responsible for enchanting me with her voice back in 1964 at the very start of my journey into soul music, so to speak) who helped me put a pep in my step today as I went for my wrapped-up-scarf-gloves-and-woolen-beanie-hat walk on January 1, 2021.  A rarity from a 2000 soundtrack (“Isn’t She Great”) written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David entitled “On My Way”- brought to my attention by Jack Bowers of The Dionne Warwick Appreciation Network and Joe Marchese of “Second Disc” fame was on repeat as I walked through a deserted park today… “I don’t’ know where I’m going but I’m on my way… My dream is out there…never gonna stop till the dream is mine…” 

While music continues to be my living, breathing and vibrant foundation, there are three films that - as an unforgettable year drew to a close and with the dawning of The Age Of Aquarius (on December 21st, 2020, for real) - touched my heart and moved me mightily: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in which Viola Davis' outstanding performance as Ma Rainey immediately evoked my personal memories of Esther Phillips in her 'no-nonsense-don't-try-it' stance; the poignant and wipe-away-my-tears romance  Sylvie's Love with late '50s/early '60s jazz as its undercurrent - from the moment it began with the voice of the legendary Nancy Wilson singing "The Nearness Of You," I was hooked; and SOUL, the Disney/Pixar animated movie about which I actually knew nothing (other than that Jamie Foxx was the lead actor!) before I watched it. 

No words to adequately describe how the storyline impacted me other than to say it is so aligned with how I've come to view my own life journey,  I am simply filled with eternal gratitude and appreciation for all the dear friends and angels who have been there for me for in 2020… you know who you are…

Ever thankful, sending peace, health and happiness to all for 2021 and beyond....

David Nathan

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