Given the right breaks, Phyllis Hyman's soulful voice might have reached as many millions as Whitney Houston's, Patti Labelle's or Gladys Knight's have. Instead, Hyman had to settle for a cult following on the R&B and jazz scenes, though she did shine on Broadway in the early Eighties
Deep-voiced and statuesque, Phyllis Hyman sang with a life-affirming energy and emotional intensity found in few other female vocalists. Born in Philadelphia in 1949 (and raised in Pittsburgh), her professional career began in New York City where, during an engagement, she was spotted by producer Norman Connors and contemporaries Jean Carne and Roberta Flack, among others. She was immediately offered a guest appearance on Connors’ “You Are My Starship” album (1976), which included her classic rendition of “Betcha By Golly Wow” (previously a hit for The Stylistics in the early 1970s).
In 1977 Buddah Records released her self-titled debut LP, which featured the hits “Loving You/Losing You” and “I Don’t Wanna Lose You”. A year later she was signed to Arista Records. Her premiere album for the label, “Somewhere In My Lifetime”, was released in 1978 (it included many tracks that she recorded for a second album at Buddah titled “Sing A Song”, which is now available on CD!). The title track for the album–produced by a newcomer named Barry Manilow, a longtime admirer of hers–became Phyllis’ first solo radio hit. A cover version of Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” was remixed for club play as part of Arista’s promotion, showcasing her versatility. The following year, the James Mtume-/Reggie Lucas-produced “You Know How To Love Me” album, also on Arista, hit the record stores, and the title track became one of her biggest dance anthems. She would include it in her repertoire until the time of her passing. The album, which also contained fan favorites like “Complete Me” and “Under Your Spell”, was remastered & re-released in the US in 2002.
In 1981 Phyllis co-starred (with Gregory Hines and Judith Jamison) in the hit Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington “Sophisticated Ladies” and continued in the role for 2-1/2 years, garnering a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award for Best newcomer (the original cast recording was released by RCA and the CD is now out of print). While performing in “Ladies”, Phyllis cut her next album, “Can’t We Fall In Love Again” (1981) with the title track a duet with Michael Henderson and the album itself a production by Norman Connors. Phyllis was at the peak of her career at this point, and was widely recognized as a New York celebrity. She was everywhere! The follow-up album, “Goddess Of Love” (1983), featured a sensational cover shot of Hyman at her most seductive, draped in a silver bugle beaded gown (which, according to Phyllis, weighed 30 pounds!) and sporting chandelier-sized earrings, a Hyman trademark. The album (produced by Narada Michael Walden and Thom Bell), although containing two strong tracks, was patchy at best and Phyllis, discontented with the material chosen for this project, was blunt about her feelings toward Arista and its cavalier attitude towards her. “Firstly, I came to the label because of the takeover of Buddah. So I didn’t have much choice in the matter,” she recalled. “There were some nice records, but I’d say I was pretty much overlooked and ignored.” Ironically, the title “Goddess of Love” stuck with Phyllis as a term of endearment from both critics and fans. “Goddess” would be her final Arista album, and even though it is a highly sought collector’s item, Arista never released it on CD, though many of the songs can be found on a variety of Phyllis Hyman compilations.
She didn’t record for four years due to contractual discrepancies with Arista, and since she was still legally bound to the Clive Davis-owned company, signing with another label wasn’t possible. Arista also tried to destroy Hyman’s career by deleting key albums/CDs, and by preventing her from recording full-length albums elsewhere. During her tenure as a “prisoner” at Arista, the label used all of its resources to promote Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston‘s self-titled debut album in 1985, while Angela Bofill was barely holding on herself. As legal battles continued, Phyllis appeared on numerous movie soundtracks and albums as a guest vocalist, most notably with Chuck Mangione, Manilow, The Whispers and The Four Tops. Keeping in the public eye, Phyllis also toured extensively with her band, did a college lecture tour and lent her voice to several television commercials.
In mid-1985 Phyllis was finally free from Arista, and in 1986 she recorded the classic “Living All Alone” album for the resurgent Philadelphia International record label (released through Manhattan/EMI and produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff). The release of the first single, “Old Friend”, brought her back to the forefront of the industry with saturated radio play, international concert bookings, talk-show appearances and countless magazine articles. Arista also attempted to cash in on her new success by releasing the shabby “Under Your Spell” compilation, which totally missed the mark. Phyllis also had a cameo role in the Spike Lee film School Daze (1988), performing the jazzy tune “Be One”, to which a video was later released. Other film appearances include Lenny (1974), Too Scared to Scream (1985) and a co-starring role with Fred Williamson in the action drama The Kill Reflex (1989). “Prime of My Life” (1991, P.I.R./Zoo/BMG) was Phyllis’ eagerly awaited follow-up album after a four-year lull, but was well worth the wait as she took an active role in selecting the material. While making the album, she agonized over a recent breakup. “It made the songs difficult to record, but the results were fabulous,” Phyllis conceded. The up-tempo song “Don’t Wanna Change The World” was enthusiastically received by clubs and radio, attaining international status and becoming her first #1 record, according to Billboard. When the song’s popularity soared, P.I.R./Zoo issued a remixed version to accommodate the demands of disc jockeys around the country.
In 1992 Phyllis was voted Number One Best Female Vocalist in the United Kingdom by Blues & Soul magazine readers, beating out the likes of Anita Baker, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. During this time Phyllis became involved in combating the AIDS crisis by lending her voice to countless benefit shows and visiting wards and hospices in and around New York. Many patients requested Phyllis’ presence, which left the singer feeling inadequate and perplexed as to their reasons for wanting to see her as opposed to a family member or friends. The visits took a heavier toll on Phyllis than she realized. By now, her own personal problems were becoming evident. An ongoing battle with alcohol and weight gain, combined with career and financial woes, were making life difficult for her and those around her. In 1993 she was dealt another blow when both her mother and grandmother died within a month of one another.
Although Phyllis continued to record new material and perform live, her bouts of depression were clearly overwhelming her. Her irrational, self-destructive behavior was becoming common knowledge to those inside the music industry, her friends and also her fans. On June 30, 1995, only hours before a scheduled performance at the Apollo Theater in New York, Phyllis’ lifeless body was found in her apartment; she had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and left a suicide note. Her suicide, while shocking, was not a surprise to many insiders. We, like so many others who know her, believed she would pull her life together. Sadly, we were mistaken.