Nearly 22 years since she sang her last note, Phyllis Hyman presence still looms large in the music world. As a vocalist, she is one of the most unique and versatile voices ever. And yet, she remains underrated by much of the mainstream, as she unfortunately was for most of her career. On Mother’s Day, we at BeatsBoxingMayhem review the career of a singer adept at jazz, soul and dance, and who in her later years began to embrace and influence Hip-Hop culture.
FROM THE ASHES OF DISCO
Phyllis Hyman was born on July 6, 1949 in Philadelphia. The eldest of seven children, those who knew her marvel that she was always vocally inclined and had a “mature” sound even in her youth growing up in the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. After attending music school, she paid her dues in local groups throughout the early to mid-70s before achieving her big break upon relocating to New York City in 1975.
While working at a Manhattan nightclub, her singing caught the ear of Norman Connors, who featured her on the Stylistics remake “Betcha By Golly Wow.” The track was included on Connors’ hit album You Are My Starship and lead to Hyman inking a solo deal with Buddah Records.
Her self-titled debut came in 1977. The album is a nice overview of Hyman’s vocal versatility, starting off with the long-play disco track “Losing You,” and moving onto searing ballads like “I Don’t Want to Lose You,” and later dance tracks like “Beautiful Man of Mine and “One Thing On My Mind.” Under any setting, her voice was never overpowered or too heavy on the production.
The ballads proved fruitful for Hip-Hop producers. The album’s first slow jam, “No One Can Love You More,” would have its opening notes utilized by !llmind for Skyzoo’s “Dear Whoever,” and her lyrics (“Why should I play games?”) at the 39-second mark by Showbiz for Chi Ali and Fat Joe’s “Games and Things.”
Phyllis Hyman – “No One Can Love You More”
Skyzoo – “Dear Whoever”
Chi Ali ft. Fat Joe – “Games and Things”
That’s not to say there isn’t heat on the uptempo tracks. 9th Wonder seems to have been especially enamored with this album, using “Beautiful Man of Mine” for “The Cross,” off his celebrated God’s Stepson remake project.
“Beautiful Man of Mine” (4m mark)
9th Wonder x Nas – “The Cross”
9th revisited this album again and got the backdrop for the 2005’s “Star Agents” from Hyman’s “One Thing On My Mind.”
“One Thing On My Mind” (Sample at 3:46 mark)
ONTO THE BIG LEAGUES
Phyllis ran into a roadblock when she tried to follow-up her debut quickly with the 1978 sophomore project Sing a Song. Buddah Records had gone bankrupt, leaving her in limbo until Arista Records brought out their catalog. They brought in Phyllis as Clive Davis saw the 6’1 beauty as a potential breakout star.
But star in the eyes of Davis translates as “mainstream/pop star,” and her first Arista project, Somewhere In My Lifetime,” reflected that with the title track produced by Barry Manilow. Nonetheless, soulful tracks could still be found like “Living Inside Your Love.” One of strongest ballads, the plush “Be Careful,” showcased Phyllis’ powerful phrasing and became the inspiration for Wale’s 2011 mixtape track “Samples N Shit.”
Wale – “Samples N Shit”
And never one to miss a G-Funk sample, Snoop and Tha Eastsidaz found a gem with the opening chords of “Gonna Make Changes.”
“Gonna Make Changes”
Tha Eastsidaz – “Me and Mines”
HITS AND SETBACKS
Hyman scored her first Top 20 hit with the classic single “You Know How to Love Me,” which served as the title track for her 1981 album. The project was helmed by hitmakers Jame Mtume and Reggie Lucas. Despite this success, the tension with Arista and Clive Davis remained high as Hyman had not crossed over as intended.
But Hyman kept busy, receiving rave reviews for her Broadway work on Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, earning a Tony nomination.
During these years, two notable samples hit Hyman’s resume. The first was in the form of a guest spot on the soundtrack for A Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Method Man and Redman would have an “Ayo” moment over “Magic Mona.” The second is J. Cole’s “Roll Call” referencing “Just Another Face in the Crowd,” off Hyman’s fifth project Can’t We Fall In Love Again.
MAGIC MONA (opening chords)
Method Man x Redman – “Ayo”
JUST ANOTHER FACE IN THE CROWD(Opening chords)
J Cole – “Roll Call”
Rumored issues with Hyman’s temperament resulted in Mtume and Lucas not returning for the next album, Goddess of Love, which broke Top 20 on the R&B charts. Arista declined to renew Hyman’s contract, resulting in bitterness on her side due to the label clearly dumping her in favor of new stars like Whitney Houston and Angela Bofill.
THE QUIET STORM ERA
Her new label home, Philadelphia International, got her back on track with 1986’s Living All Alone. The heartfelt sadness of the title track made it one of her biggest hits and offered a glimpse into the real-life pain the singer was going through. Diagnosed as bipolar, she self-medicated with food, which caused dramatic shifts in weight, and drugs like cocaine. Still, the stage is where all such issues ceased, as evidenced by this masterful performance on Saturday Night Live.
The opening haunting chords of “Living All Alone” resonated with producer Nicolay of Foreign Exchange, who used it for “The Answer.”
“LIVING ALL ALONE”
Foreign Exchange “The Answer”
Another album cut proved to be a favorite of Wiz Khalifa and 9th Wonder, who both narrowed in on Phyllis’ crooning towards the end of “Ain’t You Had Enough Love.”
Little Brother – “Star”
Wiz Khalifa – “So Much”
Although she wouldn’t record another album for five years, the success of Living All Alone afforded Phyllis other opportunities, such as this prominent jazz number in Spike Lee’s School Daze.
THE HIP-HOP CROSSOVER
When Hyman returned in 1991 with Prime of My Life, the music scene was markedly different. Hip-Hop was no longer seen as a fad — it had morphed into a global phenomenon that dictated popular music. Instead of resisting Hip-Hop like some of her peers, she embraced the youthful art form on what would become her first and only #1 single, “Don’t Want to Change the World.” As expected, some critics derided it as a sellout move, being especially critical of the New Jack Swing production and Phyllis herself spitting bars (!).
Hyman explained the move as one made with the intention of connecting with another aspect of her culture.
“DON’T WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD”
“I’m tired. I’m tired. Those of you that I love know who you are. May God Bless you.”
Sadly, Phyllis Hyman could not overcome her demons. Depression took a hold of her and she attempted suicide twice before finally succeeding on June 30, 1995 by swallowing pills in her Manhattan apartment. Her death came just hours before a scheduled performance that evening at the Apollo.
Two posthumous albums were released in 1995 and 1998. Her unreleased material has also found life in Hip-Hop, with Kanye West using her “In a Sentimental Mood” for “Back to Basics.”
“In a Sentimental Mood”
Kanye West ft. Common – “Back to Basics”