Born on July 6, 1949, in Philadelphia, PA (some sources give year as 1950); died on June 30, 1995; oldest of seven brothers and sisters; raised in Pittsburgh; married Larry Alexander, late 1970s (later divorced). Education: Attended Robert Morris Business College.
When Phyllis Hyman committed suicide in June of 1995, she closed the book on a career that had long been deeply appreciated by connoisseurs of romantic jazz and rhythm-and-blues singing. A commanding physical presence and riveting stage performer, Hyman was a tragic figure beset by personal troubles. Never quite achieving the popularity that her prodigious talent seemed to justify, she nevertheless left behind a legacy of deeply felt recordings and unforgettable live performances.
Phyllis Hyman was born in Philadelphia, most likely on July 6, 1949, and raised in Pittsburgh. (Some sources give the year as 1950, but numerous press reports of her death mentioned that she had been ready to celebrate her forty-sixth birthday.) She was the oldest of seven brothers and sisters. An elementary school teacher noticed and nurtured her vocal talents, but she grew up poor and aimed at first toward a solid career as a legal secretary, attending the Robert Morris Business College.
A six-foot, one-inch beauty, Hyman made her way to New York in her early twenties, dreaming of a career in the entertainment industry. Almost immediately she began to find work at least intermittently as a vocalist, and by 1974 she had formed her own band, Phyllis Hyman and the PH Factor. By the next year she had become a fixture of New York's stylish Upper West Side, making regular appearances at two clubs a few blocks apart, Rust Brown's and Mikell's. Influential figures in the black music industry circulated through these clubs, and Hyman in 1976 attracted the attention of percussionist and producer Norman Connors, who gave her a shot at wider exposure--a featured-performer slot on his album You Are My Starship. The album included Hyman's hit remake of the Stylistics' ballad "Betcha By Golly Wow," which dented R&B charts and helped Hyman make the acquaintance of the song's co-composer, Linda Creed.
On the strength of "Betcha By Golly Wow" and other songs on the album, Hyman was signed to the Arista label in 1977 and released the album Phyllis Hyman. Arista specialized in sophisticated black vocal music with a hint of jazz--the lifeblood of the emerging "quiet storm" format that had gotten its start at the radio station of the premier black educational institution Howard University. The label offered the young singer a congenial environment, and demonstrated its faith in its new recruit by having high-flying vocal star Barry Manilow produce one of her early releases, resulting in the R&B top-fifteen hit "Somewhere in My Lifetime." Hyman also scored a hit with the disco-inflected "You Know How to Love Me."
Hyman married her manager Larry Alexander in the late 1970s, but both the personal and professional associations ended in divorce. For the rest of the singer's life the search for a romantic partner would cause her emotional trouble. She told Jet magazine in 1981 that she hoped for a relationship: "I don't really want to say need because to me--an aggressive, liberated woman--need sounds too pathetic. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe need and want sometimes go together. Maybe I do need and want a man."
At the time, though, the singer was very much occupied with her still-growing career. She won a spot in Broadway's Duke Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies, and once again flourished in a role where her talent as a live performer could be showcased. Hyman was nominated for a Tony award in 1981, and remained with the cast of the show for three years. (The musical's original cast LP includes Hyman's rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood.") Her recordings made after the run of the musical were only modestly successful; some have attributed the singer's problems at retail to the difficulty fans and music-industry figures encounter when they try to categorize her music: did Hyman sing R&B? Jazz? Pop? The question was never definitively answered, for Hyman's talent crossed lines.
In 1986 Hyman moved to the Philadelphia International label, where she worked with "Philly Soul" producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and made what some feel were her best recordings, although the upper reaches of stardom continued to elude her. On 1986's Living All Alone (which carried, in the words of Boston Globe writer Frederic Biddle, "very dark emotional undertones" with its title-track refrain of "I can't stand this living all alone") and 1991's Prime of My Life (which featured a brief venture into rap music), Hyman hit her stride with lush, sad romantic ballads that may fairly be called tragic.
By the late 1980s Hyman's live shows reliably filled large urban theaters--Harlem's Apollo, Oakland's Paramount, the gloriously ornate Fox in St. Louis. Often dressed in African-inspired clothing, a fez atop her head, Hyman as a stage performer had few peers. Never resting on the natural beauty of her contralto voice, she was given to surprises like a perfectly whistled version of the title track of "Living All Alone" at a Blue Note performance in 1993. Hyman's short performance in Spike Lee's film School Daze also gives an idea of her capabilities.
Living All Alone featured a new Linda Creed composition entitled "Old Friend" which increasingly often became part of Hyman's live show. The two women had long been good friends, and Creed's death in 1993 may have been one of the events that started Hyman on a downward spiral. She gained weight and was rumored to be battling drug and alcohol addictions. During her appearance on television's Arsenio Hall Show viewers were touched and saddened by her frank confession of loneliness and unhappiness. On June 30, 1995, just before she was slated to appear at the Apollo with star vocal group The Whispers, Phyllis Hyman committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills. At her memorial service her sister Sakeema said that the singer had suffered from "addiction and depression."
Her death only intensified the admiration that fans felt for her music, and no fewer than four posthumous releases appeared over the next three and a half years: I Refuse to Be Lonely and Forever with You consisted of unreleased Philadelphia International material, and Arista and Roadshow, Norman Connors' label, released compilations. A different sort of tribute came from The Whispers, who starred and toured in a stage musical about Hyman's career entitled Thank God! The Beat Goes On. Jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, quoted in Jet magazine, said, "When I think of all the talents that I've known over the years, I considered Sarah Vaughan and Phyllis Hyman as having the greatest voices, greatest instruments ever, the greatest pipes." It seemed all the more tragic that Hyman's greatness had been so little heralded.
by James M. Manheim
Phyllis Hyman's Career
Moved to New York, early 1970s; formed band Phyllis Hyman and the PH Factor, 1974; featured on Norman Connors album You Are My Starship, 1976; signed to Arista label, 1977; worked with producer Barry Manilow, late 1970s, resulting in hit "Somewhere in My Lifetime"; cast member Sophisticated Ladies (Duke Ellington tribute), late 1970s-early 1980s; signed with Philadelphia International label, 1986; recorded albums Living All Alone, 1986, and Prime of My Life, 1991; appeared in Spike Lee film School Daze, 1988. Several posthumous album releases.
- Selected discography
- Phyllis Hyman Arista, 1977.
- Somewhere in My Lifetime Arista, 1978.
- Sing a Song Arista, 1979.
- You Know How to Love Me Arista, 1979.
- Can't We Fall in Love Again Arista, 1981.
- Goddess of Love Arista, 1983.
- Living All Alone Philadelphia International, 1986.
- Prime of My Life Philadelphia International, 1991.
- I Refuse to Be Lonely Philadelphia International, 1996.
- Forever with You Philadelphia International, 1998.
- Phyllis Hyman Remembered Roadshow, 1998.
- Phyllis Hyman: The Legacy of Phyllis Hyman Arista, 1998.
- One on One Hip-O, 1998.
- Phylladelphia: The Gamble-Huff Years WestSide, 1999.
- Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1998, p. F2.
- Billboard, August 8, 1998, p. 23.
- Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, July 9, 1995, p. D3.
- Jet, July 24, 1995, p. 52.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 9, 1995, p. C3.