Loving You, Losing You: Remembering Phyllis Hyman on the 20th Anniversary of Her Death

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Posted July 1, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Forgotten R&B empress remembered on the 20th anniversary of her passing

Phyllis Hyman never rose to the place of prominence that she truly deserved. The sultry, sophisticated songstress who used echoes of Nancy Wilson and was a definite precursor to the soulfulness of Anita Baker and Toni Braxton never reached the Top 40, only coming close with the hip-hop swag of “Don’t Wanna Change the World” in 1991. That song was a number one R&B hit, and so it is written: Hyman, an adopted Philadelphian blessed with jazzy capabilities, died as a R&B star.

This week, on this day, marks the twentieth anniversary of Hyman’s unfortunate passing. On June 30, Hyman committee suicide by overdosing on a combination of sedatives in her bedroom apartment in New York City. For most of her life, Hyman kept her battle with depression and bipolar disorder away from the press. She decided enough was enough, writing in a simple letter to her family and fans that “I’m tired. Those of you that I love know who you are.” As revealed in the tvOne Unsung documentary about her life, Hyman, only 45 years of age and days away from her 46th birthday, was scheduled to perform that evening at the famed Apollo alongside the Whispers, with comedian MoNique hosting.

The R&B world is still lamenting her tragedy and feel the deep absence of that golden voice. On her deaths anniversary, a few Facebook posts lit up with beloved songs from her catalog and “missing you” mementos.

Still it wasn’t enough to trend. And that’s the painful part of her legacy. She is simply way too ignored. She was ignored by the masses then. And in her earthly silence, she is still being glanced over.
 

[LISTEN] TO PHYLLIS HYMAN | LOVING YOU, LOSING YOU

 
History reveals why Hyman was overlooked then. After making an impact on soul charts with the Thom Bell-penned, disco-tempered “Loving You, Losing You” on the Buddah label, music mogul Clive Davis bought distribution rights of the label and transplanted a few of its acts on his newly formed Arista label. In 1979, he tried to turn Hyman into a pop darling like the then-signed veteran Dionne Warwick with the release of Somewhere In My Lifetime. The title track, produced by Barry Manilow and Ron Dante, shows off a grandeur that could be described as Whitney Houston-esque adult contemporary. The move was met with hesitation from Hyman; she simply didn’t want to morph into a pop princess.

Thankfully the album bears some glorious R&B, poignant love ballads and a good mix of versatility. “Kiss You All Over” is sneaky, funk lite. “The Answer Is You” is Quiet Storm exuberance. “Gonna Make Changes,” a song she wrote all on her own, is one of her finer slow jams. But it is the Garry Glenn-penned “Be Careful (How You Treat My Love)” that ultimately steals the show and would best summarize the songwriting formula Hyman preferred. She loved a good lament, a sad song full of underdog status. And she found a refuge in this melodic gem constructed by the same guy that gave Anita Baker “Caught Up in the Rapture.”

Hyman’s follow-up You Know How to Love Me pushed her into disco. It was a new uncharted field for the soul diva. It also wasn’t exactly an adventure of paradise for Hyman personally, nevertheless she owned it. With James Mtume and Reggie Lucas behind the throttle, Hyman orbited around the perennial magic of Studio 54 on the soaring title cut and “Under Your Spell.” The album wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. Dull tracks like “This Feeling Must Be Love” and the sporadic gospel-funk of “Hold On” are scattered across its long-playing adventure. But Hyman’s magnum opus would be birthed only a few years later.

Enter 1986’s Living All Alone, a majestic contemporary R&B collection powered by Philly soul duo Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. After Hyman was released from Arista, she made her home at Philadelphia International Records. The famed Philly soul label had seen better days; by the mid-80s, all of their top-tier talent had found new homes elsewhere and EMI-Manhattan Records was now handling their distribution. With Hyman now on board, Gamble and Huff were fortunate enough to comb together some of their new and unreleased songwriting, along with a hearty supply of gifted musicians (Dexter Wansal, Casey James), arrangers (Nick Martinelli) and more of the melodrama Hyman preferred to execute.

Out comes “Old Friend,” a song released after the passing of its songwriter Linda Creed, who passed away of breast cancer. Wrapped up in  Thom Bell’s warm piano chords and rapturous synths, “Old Friend” felt like a power ballad fitting for Clive Davis’s adult pop princess Whitney Houston. The song shot to number 14 R&B, but failed to make a climb on the pop charts. Then comes the paranoiac vibes of “Living All Alone,” which blossomed as a Top 20 R&B hit. It’s haunting, full of danger, but so full of Hyman’s emotive prowess. The album also contains swinging midtempo workouts like “Ain’t You Had Enough Love” and “If You Want Me,” which possessed the same kind of East Coast swagger of the UK band Loose Ends. There’s even a memorable urban-updated cover of the Bobby Caldwell hit “What You Won’t For Love” tucked at the very end.

Although her memory rests in the winds of eternity, Hyman’s music still ministers to our soul. Whether she’s pouncing on an uptempo disco jam or a heavy-laden ballad wrenched with heartbreak, the late balladeer knows how to get our attention. And we know how to love her, even in the repass of her death.

“Those of you that I love know who you are. May God bless.” — Phyllis Hyman, June 30, 1995

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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