DIVA. A reference made to a female performer (usually an opera singer). In the popular vernacular of the music business, particularly in black music circles, the term diva takes on a whole other meaning. It implies that a female artist is demanding, difficult, uncompromising, inflexible. It can also be considered a term of endearment, referring to the incredible talent they possess, making them a cut above the rest. In addition to these 'Diva Qualities', Phyllis was also very elegant, statuesque, radiant, photogenic, and jazzy. Phyllis Hyman was truly a SOPHISTICATED LADY!!
With so much media attention focussed on current would-be's, wanna-be's and has been's, it's rare to find any pertinent coverage of the women who make up the backbone of today's R&B, Pop and Jazz fields. Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and a host of girl groups owe a tip of the hat to their predecessors, women who didn't glide so easily to the top of the charts, or at least with such frequency. Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne, Marlena Shaw, Melba Moore, Chaka Khan, and Angela Bofill have all been recording for many years as underappreciated Divas. Unlike Houston, Carey, and Braxton however, these women's careers have progressed like quiet thunder, providing them with regular touring work (while also fighting brutal & unfair record companies), and also being constantly in demand as guest vocalists on a variety of albums/CDs.
Devoted fans of the late singer Phyllis Hyman describe her as a songstress extraordinaire with a no-nonsense attitude, and a lavish, larger than life stage persona. Deep-voiced and statuesque, Phyllis sang with a life affirming energy and emotional intensity found in few other female vocalists. Born in Pittsburgh in 1949 (and raised in Philadelphia), 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. Phyllis 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 1970's).
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 Hyman was signed to Arista Records. Her premiere album for the label 'Somewhere In My Lifetime', was released in 1978 ('Somewhere In My Lifetime' included many tracks that Phyllis recorded for a 2nd album at Buddah titled 'Sing A Song', which is now available on CD!).
The title track for 'Somewhere..' (produced by then newcomer Barry Manilow, a longtime admirer of Hyman's) 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' (1979, Arista) album hit the record stores, and the title track became one of Hyman's biggest hits. The 1979 album became a then best seller for Phyllis, even though Clive Davis wasn't enthusiastic with the finished project. She would include the hit title track it in her repertoire until the time of her passing. The album, which also contained fan favorites like 'Complete Me' & 'Under Your Spell', was remastered & re-released in 2002 with informative liner notes & comments by producer James Mtume. The remastered CD also featured a rare unreleased 1977 track ('You're The One').
In addition to having a hit album in 1979, Phyllis also lent her talents to the original soundtrack for 'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh' (starring Julius 'Dr.J.' Erving!), which was a minor hit despite being slayed by most critics, but it was a lot of fun for basketball fans. Phyllis sang 'Magic Mona', which was the theme song for one of the central characters played by Stockard Channing.
In 1981 Phyllis co-starred (with Gregory Hines & Judith Jamison) in the hit Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington, 'Sophisticated Ladies' and continued in the role for two and a half 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) featuring the title track (a duet with Michael Henderson), and 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 thirty pounds!) and sporting chandelier-sized earrings, a Hyman trademark. The album (produced by Narada Michael Walden & Thom Bell), although containing two strong tracks, was considered patchy at best and Phyllis, discontented with the material chosen for this project was blunt about her feelings toward Arista records 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 Hyman's final Arista album, and even though it is a highly sought collector's item, Arista never released it on CD, and all of the songs are scattered on a variety of Phyllis compilations released by Arista /BMG.
Phyllis was left unrecorded for four years due to contractual discrepancies with Arista, and since she was still 'legally' bound to the Clive Davis-operated company, signing with another label wasn't possible. Arista records also tried to destroy Hyman's career by deleting key albums/CDs, and also by preventing her from recording full legth albums elsewhere. During Phyllis' tenure as a prisoner at Arista, the label used all of it's resources to promote Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin & Whitney Houston's self-titled debut album in 1985 (Angela Bofill was barely holding on at the label herself at this time). While legal battles ensued, Phyllis appeared on numerous movie soundtracks & albums as a guest vocalist, most notably with Chuck Mangione, Barry 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 Hyman 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 the new success that Phyllis was enjoying 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' (1976), 'Two Scared To Scream' (1983) and a co-starring role with Fred Williamson in the action drama 'The Kill Reflex' (1991).
'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 uptempo hit song, 'Don't Wanna Change The World', was enthusiastically received by clubs and radio, attaining international status and becoming her FIRST number one record according to Billboard. When the song's popularity soared, P.I.R./Zoo issued a remixed version to accommodate the demands of disk 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 that 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 Hyman 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 and on June 30th, 1995, only hours before a scheduled performance (opening for The Whispers) at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Phyllis' lifeless body was found in her apartment where all efforts to revive her failed. 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.
In the posthumous released, 'I Refuse To Be Lonely' (1995, P.I.R./Zoo/BMG), Phyllis alluded to her inner struggle on several songs, five of which she co-wrote. Her most intimate and emotional project yet, 'I Refuse To Be Lonely' had reached the top 15 on Billboard's R&B chart, proving that talent of this caliber will always stand the test of time. Three years later, 'Forever With You' (1998, P.I.R./BMG), was released with the title being chosen by Hyman's loyal fans. 'Forever With You' is an awesome collection of unreleased songs that Phyllis recorded for Philadelphia International Records between 1986 and 1995, and it conveys the rich emotions that we have all come to associate with Hyman.
Most recently in 2003, Michael Grimaldi spearheaded the release of a special Phyllis Hyman compilation. The CD titled 'In Between The Heartaches-The Soul Of A Diva' (2003, Expansion Records), is being heralded as a classy tribute to the lost Diva, and it's packaging (liner notes, photos, etc.) is probably the best ever designed for a Hyman CD. The CD features many rare tracks including 3 with McCoy Tyner, 'Magic Mona', and a host of previously unreleased gems. While fans rejoice over Grimaldi's project, Arista/BMG continues to release redundant compilations for Phyllis including 'The Essence Of Phyllis Hyman' & 'The Ultimate Phyllis Hyman', which is nothing but a watered down version of 'The Legacy Of Phyllis Hyman'. All is not lost for Hyman's most devoted fans, as Grimaldi has revealed the existence of additional rare music, and future projects to honor The Sophisticated Lady's gift of song.
Phyllis Hyman's passing has left a void in the entertainment world, and in the hearts of many, including her most devoted fans. We wish that Phyllis knew how much she was loved & appreciated, and her legacy is a testimony to her tremendous gift of song. Phyllis Hyman will never be forgotten!
NOTE - This updated & expanded Phyllis Hyman Biography (2004) is based on an article that originally
appeared in the Toronto-based ICON MAGAZINE. Special thanks to both
Michael Grimaldi & Vincent Wolfe, who wrote the original text back in 1995.
This edition of Phyllis' Biography was created especially for the
Phyllis Hyman::Sophisticated Lady Website