Phyllis Hyman: An Appreciation

Peter Robinson on the life and career of an exceptional talent who never quite had the success she deserved.

Phyllis Hyman isn’t a name familiar to many.  Trawling through the internet one can find all kinds of testimonies.  The overriding sense is that hers is a missed opportunity.  She could have been as big as Whitney, a rival to Anita Baker, whilst Nancy Wilson said she had a voice which was comparable with Sarah Vaughn.  Yet she languishes in the cult soul company of many black women of the late ‘70s through to the ‘90s who never quite had the success their talent deserved.

2021’s Cherry Red/SoulMusic comprehensive 9-CD box set, Phyllis Hyman: Old Friend – The Deluxe Collections 1976-1998, presented pretty much all of her recorded output and is a testament to what an exceptional talent she was. Wading through nine CDs is always quite a task but these complete recordings span three different record labels and so rather lend themselves to guiding the listener through her career in three acts.  Each also seems to rather conveniently follow the trajectory of her life as a singer as well.

Born in Pittsburgh, Hyman began her career after attending music school performing in a number of groups before, via an acting part in Lenny, heading to New York.  She’d been discovered by Sid Maurer, a record company veteran who got her work in the New York club scene.  She quickly gained a following and a reputation which meant her audience often included singers and musicians from bands on their New York tour dates looking for after hours entertainment.  It was one such evening which resulted in her break into the industry.

Drummer Norman Connors had been unable to employ his chosen singer, Jean Carne, for his upcoming album due to contractual reasons.  After attending one of Hyman’s club performances he knew he’d found an ideal replacement.  After guesting on three tracks of his You Are My Starship album with a stunning cover of The Stylistics Betcha By Golly Wow (which is one of the six bonus tracks included on the first disc), Hyman was signed to Buddha Records for whom she would record her first two albums.

Her eponymous debut came out in 1977, and remains a very solid slice of ’70s soul.  Opener Loving You Losing You sets the tone, being a nicely arranged mid-tempo number with Hyman sounding both relaxed and effortless throughout the song’s gentle shifts.  The album has an unusual sequence alternating between up-tempo and ballads through most of it.  The opening seven tracks are uniformly strong there’s a lovely reading of the familiar One Thing On My Mind and Deliver The Love is another of the highlights; a lovely slice of Philly soul and these tracks heralded the arrive of a woman with a lovely sense of timing showing off her love of jazz.  Yet the standout track is the ballad I Don’t Want To Lose You.  It stands out because it highlights what a gently powerful vocalist Hyman was.  In the hands of many this would have been an excuse to belt it out but Hyman’s voice glides through the song.  The song introduces something which Hyman would revisit time and again, a mastery of know restraint.  The bonus material also includes both sides of a single she cut with Blue Moon Records.

A second album for Buddha followed, Sing A Song which was released worldwide but not in the USA due to the label being absorbed into the Arista label.  Hyman was to follow suit and Clive Davis, label head, decided to take Hyman in a different direction.  The result was Somewhere In My Lifetime, an amalgam of six of the original tracks plus four new recordings.  It’s not surprising to discover that Somewhere In My Lifetime is something of a game of two halves.  Davis and the Arista team clearly wanted to move Hyman into the pop crossover territory.  The opening half includes all the newly recorded material and seems to have been designed to play to the current markets they felt they could put Phyllis into.  The opener is a radical re-interpretation of the big Exile hit Kiss You All Over which she morphs coquettishly into something all her own, whilst So Strange is an uptempo number (with some nice scat vocals) clearly aimed at the disco market.  The title track, meanwhile, is a classic soulful power ballad aimed squarely at the pop market. 

Produced by Barry Manilow, this is the kind of thing Davis would go onto break Whitney Houston into the stratosphere eight years later.  Truth is you can’t help hearing those echoes in this production, showing both Hyman’s vocal range and power.  It’s the kind of thing which could easily go right over the top but whilst Manilow’s arrangement builds and builds this crests the crescendo, staying just the right side of the histrionic.  It sounds like a classic and its failure to chart feels baffling.  The remaining tracks were pulled from the Sing A Song album and are further examples of the solid soulful side of Hyman that Buddha had clearly charted as the next move in her career.  Through much of this material, especially Soon Come Again, there are echoes of another soon to be Arista artist; Dionne Warwick.  Another highlight is a lovely rendition of the jazz standard Here’s That Rainy Day which closes the original album.  Disc two presents the remaining Sing A Song tracks as bonus tracks, showing off a funkier side that Davis and Arista clearly weren’t all that keen as a route she should take.

After this somewhat mixed bag of material Hyman was paired with production hotshots James Mtume and Reggie Lucas.  Hot off the heels of a huge album with Stephanie Mills, You Know How To Love Me is one of the highlights of the whole set.  The title track remains a stone cold soul classic which found a huge following amongst British soul fans and the rest of the album follows suit.  This a record full of breezy post-disco soul and a handful of decent ballads which, anyone familiar with the work of Mtume & Lucas, is a constant pleasure on the ears.  If the title track is highlight, second single Under Your Spell is almost as good.  It’s a great voice paired with material which fits Hyman’s gently powerful voice.  This saw her finally make some inroads into the Billboard R&B charts and almost hit the British top 40 pop charts.  The bonus material here hints at what was happening to Hyman’s career outside of music.

In 1981 she landed a part in a Broadway show, Sophisticated Ladies.  This was a revue style show  celebrating the music of Duke Ellington whose cast included Gregory Hines.  It ran for over 750 performances and won two Tony Awards and was nominated for a further six – including Hyman herself as best actress in a musical.  Her In A Sentimental Mood, from the cast recording is included alongside three guest vocal spots she recorded on former John Coltrane sideman McCoy Tyner’s 1982 album Looking Out.  Here we get a tantalising glimpse at a parallel career Hyman could have had as an accomplished jazz singer.

Whilst working on this she recorded her next album Can’t We Fall In Love Again.  All but three of its tracks were produced by Norman Connors, who’d originally given her her break into recording.  Although not as consistent as her previous effort there are a number of highlights.  Best of the lot is another duet with Connors, Can’t We Fall In Love Again, which landed her first top 10 R&B single.  There’s also a nice cover of Don’t Tell Me, Tell Her, originally recorded by Odyssey plus another UK soul underground favourite, You Sure Look Good To Me.

By the time of her next album other key issues were beginning to influence Hyman in ways which would continue to plague her through the course of the rest of her life; namely a bipolar disorder. This manifested itself in crippling self doubt about both her image (she was 6ft 1in tall) and abilities leading to bouts of depression all of which she self-medicated through drugs and alcohol.    These would play an increasingly destabilising role in her life and her career.

By 1983 Hyman’s stock at Arista was falling but her reputation as a great singer lead to a record produced by two people both keen to work with her considerable talents.  Production duties were split between upcoming producer Narada Michael Walden and a man responsible for some of the finest early 70’s soul, Thom Bell.  The result, Goddess Of Love, would be her last for Arista.  The opening three songs, produced by Walden, bring her sound right up to date and for the almost the first time we start to hear a solid electronic sound.  The opening track Riding The Tiger was the lead single and has a strong pop overtones whilst title track has a slightly rockier edge to it.  Not for the last time it feels like someone shoehorning something “modern” onto a singer who does a good job but there’s a sense of it not being a comfortable fit.  The Bell produced material is better.  It still has an ’80s feel which sometimes strays more towards pop than soul, but this is a better fit for her voice.  Closer Twenty Five Miles To Anywhere is another of her numerous standout ballads throughout this collection and one of what would become something increasingly prevalent in her later recordings: a sense she wasn’t just singing the pain in the song but living it.

After being dropped by Arista Hyman was quickly picked up by Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff who were reviving their Philadelphia International record company after a rather barren phase in the early 80’s.  Both artist and label saw this as a chance to restore their fortunes and 1986’s Living All Alone does exactly that.  Whereas the contemporary sound of the previous album failed to ignite this is a completely different proposition.  From the title opener this feels like a comeback with Hyman really putting her heart and soul into the vocal.  Album works partly because the songs are so much better.  Thom Bell is back again with three song-writing contributions but these are better songs and there’s two Nick Martinelli (Loose Ends, Five Star, FLB, Terri Wells) productions which are highlights in a very strong set.  The bonus material includes a duet with Barry Manilow alongside a featured vocal on a Grover Washington Jr single which, once again shows off Hyman’s criminally underused jazz phrasing.

Hyman’s second album for the Philadelphia International label was the one which finally gave Hyman an R&B chart topper with Don’t Want To Change The World.  As the sleeve notes point out, it was a very run of the mill swing track typical of the period and not the sort of thing you’d associate with her.  Listening to the whole of the Prime Of Life album, it’s not even one of the strongest tracks but a hit, is a hit and Hyman embraced it.  The rest of the album follows the blueprint set out in its predecessor with Martinelli R&B top 10 follow up When You Get Right Down To It being another highlight but it’s the two songs Hyman penned the lyrics to which give some insight into more of the struggles she was facing. 

I Can’t Take It Anymore and Living In Confusion (the third R&B top 10 hit on the album) both have quite breezy musical backdrops but appear to give a glimpse into the pain behind the facade of a woman supposedly at their prime hinted at in the album title.  I Can’t Take It.. is the song of a woman struggling and wanting to “pack her bags and leave” in search of something better.  Whilst …Confusion… is essentially a song about a woman’s turbulent relationship but its chorus “Seems like I’m always going through changes, living in confusion” could just as easily be Hyman singing to a mirror.  As the early 90’s progressed that seemed all the more true.

The truth was that Hyman was anything but in her prime.  The drugs and alcohol continued to create havoc and her mental health only exacerbated her problems.  This manifested in late appearances and no shows at concerts.   This wasn’t helped by delays to the schedule and release of 1995’s I Refuse To Be Lonely.  By the time of its September release Hyman had succumbed to her mental health issues and ended her life on 30 June in the middle of a run of appearances at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.  Finally it had all become too much.

The great shame is that she’d produced another album filled with great performances.  For all the surrounding chaos it is another album full of strident performances although there’s a lot here which, considering the circumstances, throws a lot of additional weight behind the songs.  Much of the material is quite downbeat and there is a palpable sense that the pain and struggle articulated on this set in particular is all too real. 

Old Friend‘s final disc additional material recorded during her time with the Philadelphia International.  Originally released in 1998 this included material recorded shortly before her passing.  It’s an above average set of outtakes which only goes to further cement her legacy as a powerhouse singer. Unusually for a retrospective such as this, the booklet doesn’t include much in the way of a detailed narrative of the singer herself.  Instead it contains deeply personal narratives about the special talent that Hyman possessed in expressing the feelings of women, as a live performer, and an artist in general.  It hints that there’s a parallel universe somewhere where Hyman is recognised as a singer who stands alongside the Houstons, Knights, Bakers, Warwicks, and a slew of others in this world as one of the finest soul singers to set foot in a recording studio.  The fact that she remains a voice whose talent is recognised by only a select few remains a mystery.  This superb collection only makes that feel more baffling. 

❉ Phyllis Hyman: ‘Old Friend – The Deluxe Collections 1976-1998’ (SoulMusic Records SMCR5200BX) was released 30 July 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £39.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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