Phyllis Hyman’s sultry voice and her ability to convey true emotion with such vigor coupled with her unwavering belief in herself and her talent despite her challenges in finding love, battling mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse not only sets her apart as a singer, songwriter, actress, and humanitarian but also demonstrates that she’s not your average woman.
Born on July 6, 1949, Hyman was raised in a primarily African American area on the Southside of Pittsburgh and was the oldest of seven children. No one would have guessed that Hyman’s musical background was cultivated in junior high, high school, college choral classes and the All-City Pittsburgh Choir considering that her vocal abilities are jazz-influenced. After receiving the very first musical scholarship at Robert Morris University, she decided to leave to focus on her musical career.
In 1973, she took a job on a cruise ship and once she returned to Miami, she worked three years consistently with her own band she started called Phyllis Hyman and the P/H Factor. Phyllis and her band moved to New York in order to gain more exposure. Larry Alexander, her love interest and manager, was able to score them a job at Rust Browns; an uptown jazz club. Gaining exposure sure wasn’t hard for Hyman and her band.
Although, only about ten people showed up at her opening night, word quickly spread of the talented singer and within the second week artist’s such as Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, and Ashford and Simpson were all mesmerized by her beauty and extremely captivating voice. In 1977, with all the hype that she was receiving, as a lead vocalist she recorded two songs for Norman Connor’s album for Buddha which was both well-received on the R&B charts.
She then signed with Buddha Records and made her first solo album which was charted on Billboard Top 200, had two singles make it to the R&B charts, and was also named R&B’s best vocalist of 1977 by World Record Magazine. She also married Larry Alexander, her boyfriend of 5 years, in 1978. With her musical success and her love life soaring, life couldn’t get better for the songstress. Later on in the year, Buddha Records was bought by Clive Davis, the president of Arista. Clive also bought the rights to Hyman’s music and recording contract.
As she began to make more and more albums under Arista Records, of course, the accolades followed suit. However, somewhere along the way she felt she was being misunderstood and manipulated to be something she wasn’t. Hyman was never a pop singer, but Davis felt it was the push she needed to crossover. He was more interested into turning her into what was selling rather than investing in what she had to offer.
While that argument persisted, she wasted no time and went to pursue other opportunities such playing the role of Etta in the Broadway musical Duke Ellington and the Sophisticated Ladies, a tribute to Duke Ellington’s astounding musical works. It was such a great hit she received the Theatre World Award for Most Promising New Talent and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. Although, she made great triumphs in her career, she still faced considerable troubles.
Hyman separated from her husband Larry in 1982 and after her poor selling album “The Goddess of Love”, Arista stopped production for Hyman in 1983 and started to focus on other female singers. Contractually obligated, she couldn’t create more of her own music, she put her efforts towards album features, acting in national commercials, television appearances, movies, creating commercial jingles, and performed at AIDS benefit concerts. In 1985 she showed signs of mental health problems that interfered with her work.
That same year she was diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. After Hyman was released from Arista Records she signed with Philadelphia Int’l Records, which seemed promising. Hyman’s musical style seemed to be well suited at Philadelphia, because she released her album titled “Living All Alone” and it was her bestselling thus far.
Even when things were getting better for Hyman, she still struggled with her disorder and decided to self-medicate with cocaine and alcohol which leaded into a dependency. She obtained all of this success with no one to share it with, which made her feel insecure and the loneliest she’s ever felt.
She was the muse of her songs and spoke from true honesty. Sadly, Hyman couldn’t overcome her sadness and committed suicide on June 30 1995; just a week before her 46th birthday. Despite this tragedy, Phyllis Hyman left behind something that will never be erased. She was a funny, kindhearted, empathetic, and hardworking woman. Her voice healed the disturbed, and as she spoke truth into individual’s lives, she remained true to herself. She gave her all selflessly in search of love, which is truly something we all can love and respect.
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