Sophisticated Lady: The Essence Of Phyllis Hyman

On 30th June 1995, Phyllis Hyman was found unconscious in her New York apartment. After Hyman failed to arrive for her show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Lennice Malina, her concerned personal assistant, went to the singer’s home to check on her. Surrounded by bottles of pills, Hyman had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, where she died hours later. It would seem that Hyman had finally succeed in ending her own life on her third attempt; beside her, a note was found, explaining how she was too ‘tired’ to go on living and though it was cold comfort, she reassured her family and friends, ‘Those that I love know who you are. May God bless you.’

Growing up in Pittsburgh, where she was born on 6th July 1949, Hyman, the eldest of seven siblings, had worshipped singers like Nina Simone and James Brown from an early age. Discovering that she had a powerful and stirring voice of her own, Hyman attended a musical school, however, as she later stated, ‘I always knew I could sing but I didn’t always want to do it professionally.’ In 1971, went on tour with the group New Direction, before joining the Pittsburgh-based bands, All the People and The Hondo Beat. By 1975, Hyman had come to the attention of trumpeter Sid Maurer, who had set up his own label, Roadshow Records. Impressed by her immense talent, Maurer immediately signed Hyman and she moved to New York.

Following a stint performing in some of the city’s hottest nightclubs, Hyman met the jazz drummer and arranger Norman Connors who was looking for a female vocalist for several tracks on his forthcoming album, You Are My Starship, scheduled for release by New York label, Buddah Records. You Are My Starship went to number 5 in the US R&B charts and the single Betcha By Golly Wow, a cover of the 1972 hit by The Stylistics, for which Hyman provided the vocals, received considerable airplay from R&B radio stations nationwide. As a result, Hyman was signed to Buddah Records herself, and released her first album Phyllis Hyman in 1977, followed by Sing a Song in 1978.

A takeover of Buddah Records saw Hyman’s transferral to Arista under the guidance of music mogul Clive Davis, and she released her third album, Somewhere in My Lifetime under them in 1979. Hyman had made a five-year deal with Arista and her fourth album, You Know How to Love Me along with the title single made Hyman a rising star. In 1981, Hyman’s fifth album, Can’t We Fall in Love Again? and the single of the same name, a duet with Michael Henderson, whom she had worked with on You Are My Starship, saw her reach her highest chart positions yet.

Above: Phyllis Hyman – You Know How to Love Me (1979)

Nevertheless, it was an unhappy period for Hyman, as she remembered, ‘I’d say I was pretty much overlooked or ignored…I’d say that about 70% of the time being with that company was a nightmare.’ Disappointed by the musical path she felt Arista were forcing her to take, Hyman became increasingly difficult to work with and Goddess of Love, her sixth album, was her final one for the label. Davis had already turned his focus onto another young singer, Whitney Houston, and Hyman believed that she was not getting the amount of professional support she needed; after a serious disagreement, she was subsequently dropped by Arista.

At the same time as recording her studio albums, Hyman starred in the Broadway musical, Sophisticated Ladies, featuring numbers by the legendary composer and bandleader, Duke Ellington. The revue ran from 1981 until 1983, with Hyman’s intense and commanding stage presence winning her the praise of countless New York critics. In the 1985 independent horror film, Too Scared to Scream, Hyman made a memorable cameo. With her statuesque height of 6’ 2” and her classically beautiful and sensual features, Hyman was in demand by the fashion industry. Due to her sharp wit and keen sense of humour, she was also regularly invited as a guest on popular television programmes. But the breakthrough that would catapult her to major stardom eluded her, and as music journalist David Nathan noted, Pop radio didn’t know who Phyllis Hyman was.’

Hyman’s personal life was also becoming complicated. A brief marriage to Larry Alexander, the brother of jazz pianist Monty Alexander, soon dissolved. Rumours abounded about her sexuality, with claims that she was attracted to and enjoyed affairs with both sexes including one of her female assistants; but whatever her preference, Hyman apparently failed to find lasting love, and its absence became the theme of many of her songs.

Living All Alone, Hyman’s seventh album and the first with her new label, Philadelphia International Records was not as well-received as some of her earlier works; on the other hand, it is often cited by fans as their favourite. Certainly, the singles taken from it Living All Alone and Old Friend are among Hyman’s most sultry and haunting recordings, mirroring the despair that had privately begun to consume her. A diagnosis with bipolar disorder left Hyman needing medication, which she often refused to take for fear it might damage her voice and her ability to perform. Instead, she chose to fight her demons with alcohol and cocaine.

In 1991, Hyman released Prime of My Life, which was to be her last album before her death and strangely prescient as to the events of that June day four years later. On the day she would have turned 46, a memorial service was held for Hyman at StPeter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Hyman’s distraught family thanked all of those in attendance and expressed their gratitude for her ‘essence’ which, through her music, had ‘brought together so many.’

Two posthumous albums followed; I Refuse to Be Lonely (1995) and Forever With You (1998) and Hyman’s magnificent voice and glamorous appearance continue to win her legions of fresh admirers. Frank Sheffield, a close friend of Hyman’s revealed that, of all her songs, the one she considered to be the soundtrack of her entire life’ was You Just Don’t Know, the sixth track from Living All Alone. Few knew what Phyllis Hyman was going through, and as one of her sisters recalled, You would see her on stage and think she can’t possibly be depressed,’ but her voice could never hide her pain, which, as Hyman said herself, ‘I sing about a lot.’

Above: Phyllis Hyman – You Just Don’t Know (1986)


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