I could start by talking about Phyllis Hyman and music. But that would be easy, because - for the most part - she delivered. The material may have not always been wonderful but the Voice was there. Soulful, emotive, full of feeling. Rather than catalogue her musical career, I'd rather take time out to reflect on the woman behind the music. As much as anyone who has spent any time around an artist can ever say, I can only share my thoughts on a woman who touched thousands with her music but never seemed able to fully accept the acknowledgement and love that people wanted to express.
That may be a good place to start since readers of Blues & Soul and Phyllis' many, many fans on both sides of the Atlantic are still in shock in regard to the circumstances of her passing. How someone so talented, so appreciated for her music end her own life?
Yes, there was a suicide note and yes, an overdose. Phyllis didn't accidentally take too many pills: it was the culmination of years of self-doubt, insecurity, and so little self-love. It didn't matter what people around Phyllis told her about how much they cared about her: deep down inside she didn't believe or accept it fully.
I remember my first encounter with Phyllis Hyman. It was in the spring of 1977 in Manhattan and we lived just one block apart - me on 56th. Street, Phyllis and her then-husband Larry Alexander on 55th.
She talked of her early beginnings in Pittsburgh, her move to Florida (where she met Larry, who also managed her at the time) where she worked consistently with her own group before moving to New York in 1976. Singing at a local restaurant, word soon got out about this tall, lovely and very talented vocalist who was wowing audiences with her didtinctive style. Pretty soon, Ashford & Simpson, Al Jarreau, George Benson, and Lamont Dozier - among others - had made it down to Rust Brown's to hera Phyllis sing and it was a visit by Norman Connors that led to Phyllis' first exposure through work on his "You Are My Starship" album.
That first time, Phyllis was upbeat, optimistic......a smart cookie. She'd obviously learned a lot about the business from observation and her experiences as a performer capable of earning a living without a record deal. While "friendship" is a word that's often hard to apply in relationships that have "business" as the mutual bond, I did consider my relationship with Phyllis transcended that of mere journalist and artist.
Since we lived in the same neighborhood, we ran into each other and I can remember sitting in her apartment (in a building which was also home to sax man Gary Bartz), playing her some songs I'd written and demo-ed. Hubby Larry waxed a little more lyrical than Phyllis about the tunes(and, I might add, my own unique vocal style) but Phyllis showed her support by coming down to a rehearsal I was having with my band.
She also attended a show I did with the band - quite by accident! I was singing at Broady's, a spot close to the restaurant where Phyllis had gotten her start in New York - and while I clearly didn't blow her away with my vocal performance (except on my rendition of the old blues tune "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water"), she was polite and encouraging.
About a year later, I was at Sigma Sound in New York. Producers James Mtume and Reggie Lucas were working with Phyllis on the final vocal for "You Know How To Love Me". Mtume, a man with much wisdom, wit, and a penchant for truth telling, no matter what the circumstances, was trying to get Phyllis to hold on to one note - for a long time! She started getting mad with him and it was her anger and frustration that triggered her to actually end up doing just what he wanted! Ironically, that song gave Phyllis her biggest hit for Arista Records, a company she clearly didn't care for.
In a 1987 interview with "Blues & Soul", she was blunt about it: "......I'd say about 70% of the time being in the company was a nightmare." Off the record, during the time she was at Arista, she would often tell me how much she disliked working with Clive Davis, the label's president, especially since Arista had "inherited" her contract when they took over Buddah (her previous recording affiliation) in 1977.
In our personal conversations, she would say how she felt that Arista never gave her the full treatment afforded to other artists signed to them by Clive. She resented what she perceived as the company's inability to deal with her as a strong, black - and to be honest - opinionated woman and it didn't help matters much that husband - manager Larry, who often spoke on her behalf as a cushion between her and Clive, was on his way out of her life on both counts.
I had observed that Phyllis was a tough cookie and as the years went by, I saw more and more of the angrier side of her personality, interspersed between her straight-ahead humour and downright earthiness. While she appeared sophisticated and classy, she could be uncommonly frank and one observation she made about the people I hung out with was particularly biting. She'd had occasion to be around some of my closer friends and she made no bones about telling me that she suspected some of their motives, that she considered that some of them might actually only be interested in my 'position' in the music industry rather than me as a person. The comment didn't sit well with me, although I knew there was some truth to it. It didn't sit well because I knew Phyllis had her own share of 'hangers-on' and I didn't think she had any right to judge me when she was dealing with the same stuff......
That candor didn't stop us relating and oftentimes, Phyllis would open up and express her thoughts on problems that she felt she was encountering. She was blunt about racism. "I'm going to go out on a lecture tour of major black colleges throughout the States to talk about the whole business of black people getting into the music industry," she said in '87. "It's very important to me that we support each other and I don't think that happens nearly enough for my liking....."
Dealing with "the business" obviously had it's share of challenges but Phyllis, like everyone else, also had other, more personal concerns. She admitted that her marriage to Larry had been a major set-back although she had found a new mate by the time 1983 rolled around: ".....I am happy because my mate understands me. I feel relaxed with him because he's the first man I have ever known - ever - who has no hangups about my job," Phyllis said in another B&S interview. She added, "....all my career success is fine but it doesn't mean an awful lot unless you've got someone to share it with...."
Unfortunately, Phyllis' personal life remained in flux. She and I never discussed the details but I could tell that everything in that area of her life never seemed stable. The full extent of the inner problems she might have been dealing with only surfaced as the 80's became the 90's. I remember going to see Phyllis backstage at the Greek Theater in the late 80's: she was still surrounded by 'cronies' and her manner had become increasingly brash and loud. Honestly, she was never too far away from a drink or two and her reputation for being 'difficult' grew: I noted in a 1991 article, "More than once...... she was considered too demanding, occasionally difficult, and for sure, temperamental."
In a self-confessional mode around the time of the release of her "Prime Of My Life" album, Phyllis herself laid it on the line: "I probably had a reputation. My mouth could be very deadly and I could curse you out and feel OK about it. I didn't know any better. Now, that all feels very ugly and I've discovered I have a choice in how I deal with people." Admitting that to the public she may have appeared strong and confident, Phyllis, by this time in her early 40's, was again straight- forward about what she'd been going through: "I haven't been happy for the past 25 years. I've been through a lot of therapy and I discovered that I'd been playing the game of life, smiling on the outside. I was a very insecure person, suffering from low self-esteem. I acted my way through my life, through my career. I guess things came to a head when I reached a really low point (1990) last year....."
The real key to Phyllis' state of mind lay in her comments about herself in 1991: "Up until 5 years ago, I didn't listen that much to myself.....When people would say they loved my voice, I'd wonder, ' why are you moved?'. Now I'm beginning to understand how people can be turned on by my singing.....I've been told that people can feel a lot more love and calm coming from me these days."
Still, there was frustration. The last interview we did together was Phyllis was in Los Angeles for a show with Will Downing. In spite of a desire to deal with her personal 'demons', Phyllis exhibited. Before Will's appearance, she wandered out into the audience, smiling and greeting people, and continuing to do so during Will's opening number. When her own portion of the show began, her road manager brought out a musical stand so Phyllis could see the lyrics to songs from her new album and, on cue, he would remove the stand once she finished a song from the LP. He'd bring it back out everytime she had to do another tune from "Prime Of My Life" and the whole episode seemed unprofessional and a little strange.
Days later, we had an interview set for 10:00 am, specifically for an article that Zoo Records had requested to use as feature they could circulate across the country. I called Phyllis 20 minutes ahead of time to let her know I was running late. She snapped back, "Why do we have to do this now? I want to watch my soap operas on TV! Well, just hurry up and get here..."
Through all our years of relating, I was alittle put out by her manner. When I arrived, she was just as terse. Once in the room, I found Phyllis sprawled across her bed, relaxed, but intent on watching TV rather than talking. I was patient and finally she realised that we did need to do the job at hand. As it turned out, the interview was warm, personal. Phyllis again expressed her thoughts on dealing with the music biz: "I've spent a lot of these years trying to understand the record industry, what's considered 'politically' correct, all that stuff... Being a woman and particularly a black woman in this business isn't easy...."
Still, there were the personal issues: "aside from all the prssures of surviving in this industry, I've also had to deal with the questions all women deal with. You know, do I want to be in a relationship? Do I want to have children? It's hard to meet men when you're an entertainer and we're in a society that says you're 'supposed' to have a partner. The fact that I'm a strong, independant kind of woman hasn't made it easier either, because guys do get intimidated by me, by my height, by my physical appearance..." She had a problem with her weight: "It's all about losing these pounds! That's definitely one of my goals for '92. I may have used my weight as one of the ways to keep guys away and I'm definitely carrying around some extra pounds I don't need!"
Career-wise, things were looking up: Phyllis had her first No. 1 R&B hit in 1991 with "Don't Want To Change The World" and her Zoo album was her biggest seller, eclipsing "Living All Alone, her 1987 milestone LP. She was constantly touring, either in concert with artists like Will Downing or in jazz-flavoured clubs like Blues Alley in D.C. or the Blue Note in New York.
But still, Phyllis would come to the brink of handling the deeply personal issues that prevented her from experiencing true fulfillment in life and seemingly retreat. She was apparently diagnosed as being clinically depressed and in spite of encouraging words from those around her, she would continue to drink, put on weight and become 'difficult' to work with. The deaths of her grandmother and mother within the past year didn't help but who knows what state of mind ultimately led Phyllis to decide to commit suicide.
She told a close friend that Friday, June 30 would be her last concert. He thought she meant she was leaving the business until she explained what she really meant. He apparently called others who knew her and tried to persuade her that ending her own life was not the answer. It was to no avail and when I heard the news myself, I could only think back to the warm and vivacious woman I had first met in 1977. Sure, we had our differences. But underneath all the bravado and loudness that became part of her persona as the years went by, I suspected there was a little girl just wanting to feel fully loved and cared for.
Phyllis Hyman never really knew how much folks loved her and she seemingly never discovered the kind of self-love that we must all embrace to be able to experience true fulfillment. Like so many enetertainers, she had a problem dealing with the expression of love by thousands and the lack of love from just one individual. She contributed so much through her music, and truly, an old friend, she is deeply missed by many, many people the world over. I consider it a privilege to have known her personally and her music will be part of my life forever.
(David Nathan has worked as a music journalist for Blues & Soul and Billboard. He also wrote the liner notes for the CD "Loving You Losing You- The Classic Balladry of Phyllis Hyman")
My name is Walid. Email me if you are interested in Phyllis Hyman or if you would like to receive the PH Internet Newsletter.
Back To PH Tributes