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Listening Report & Record Store Day Preview: Esther Marrow’s 1972 Fantasy Records Lost Classic

Mark Smotroff loves synchronicity…

I do love moments like this when the stars seemingly align out of nowhere to present me with something new and special.  This story starts last Fall when my new barber gifted me a stack of vinyl from his collection that he thought I might like. He’s been mostly streaming these days and we bonded quickly discovering a mutual passion for music. 

Among the albums he gave me — which range from the mid-1950s to the mid-‘70s — was a Fantasy Records LP which I’d never seen before by Esther Marrow. Now, just a year or two earlier I’d discovered Ms. Marrow’s first solo album at a flea market on Flying Dutchman Records which I love (even though it didn’t have a cover… I’ve yet to find another copy!).  

So with my barber recommending her album, I started to wonder anew about who this artist really was and why she didn’t have many recordings out? After some input from fellow music fanatics on Facebook and a bit of exploring on the Interwebs, I realized why I hadn’t really “heard” of her: she was busy as a session and support musician most of her career.

Her list of support performance work is quite astounding beginning with Duke Ellington’s first legendary Sacred Concert in 1965. In addition to subsequently touring with Duke for four years (according to the Wiki) along the way she supported Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea and Bob Dylan! She even reportedly shared stages with Mahalia Jackson! 

No wonder she’s known as “Queen” Esther Marrow!

Anyhow, getting back to that “star alignment” I mentioned at the start of this admittedly rambling listening report, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Craft Recordings was planning to bring out a reissue of Esther Marrow’s 1972 album on Fantasy — called Sister Woman — for Record Store Day!

Things happen for a reason, folks…  

I received an advance copy of the new reissue and I’m super pleased. It is arguably a better edition than the rare original like the one my barber friend gave me. This is remastered in an all-analog process by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio and is pressed on 180-gram black vinyl at RTI.  The album is well centered and dead quiet. So all those check boxes are accounted for, no questions.  

This album sounds a bit brighter than my original and that is OK as the old version sounded a bit reigned in to my ear. There is no contest about the vinyl being better on the new one. It is important to understand that by 1972, Fantasy Records seemed to be more or less following the lead of its pressing facilities which had switched to ultra-thin (and sometimes noisy) Dynaflex vinyl formulations. RCA, inventors of Dynaflex, likely pressed this as it is super flimsy, very much like early 70s Motown and Tamla Records discs of the period. 

So this new version is a big improvement in that regard. 

But just having a nice pressing is not usually enough to warrant shelling out hard earned cash for one of these spiffy reissues. 

Fortunately the music on Sister Woman is pretty grand! The rhythm sections here — including the great Bernard Purdie, Idris Muhammad and Jimmy Johnson on drums, Cornell Dupree on guitar and Chuck Rainey on bass  — deliver the goods.

And then there are the tunes. I’ll start with some of the covers on Side Two for choice examples including a reggae inspired take on Brook Benton’s classic “Rainy Night In Georgia” — which sounds like a template for later reggae-funk-soul from Grace Jones in the 1980s.  The slow gospel-funk arrangement of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” builds into a quite epic version.  I love the opening song “Woman In The Window” and “Things Ain’t Right” is as poignant today as it was in 1972 (and there is a great Jimmy Johnson drum break here which I’m surprised no one has sampled yet).

So, yeah, I’m happy with this reissue and it will be my go-to copy for play.

Of course some of you collectors out there may be wondering what I’ll be doing with my original copy? Well in addition to it being a gift, that copy is autographed by Queen Esther herself, so it will stay in safe keeping side-by-side the new pressing for some time to come.  

Doing my part to preserve music history!

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