July 6, 1949 - June 30, 1995
Phyllis was born in Philadelphia, PA and grew up in St. Clair Village, the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. After leaving Pittsburgh, her music training started with a scholarship to a music school. On graduation, she performed on a national tour with the group New Direction in 1971. After the group disbanded, she joined All The People and worked with another local group, The Hondo Beat. At this time, she appeared in the film "Lenny" (1974). She also did a two-year stint leading a band called Phyllis Hyman and the P/H Factor. Phyllis was discovered in 1975 by internationally known pop artist and music industry veteran Sid Maurer, and former Epic Records promoter Fred Frank, and signed to their Road Show Records/Desert Moon imprint.
Phyllis moved to New York City to work on her career. She did background vocals on Jon Lucien's "Premonition" and worked in clubs. It was during one of these performances that she was spotted by Norman Connors, who offered her a spot as a vocalist on his album, "You Are My Starship" (1976). The duo scored on the R&B charts with a remake of The Stylistics' classic "Betcha by Golly Wow". Phyllis sang with Pharaoh Sanders & the Fatback Band while working on her first solo album, "Phyllis Hyman" (1977), which was released on the Buddah Records label.
When Arista Records bought Buddah, she was transferred to that label. Her first album for Arista, "Somewhere In My Lifetime" was released in 1978. The title track was produced by another famous artist on the Arista label, Barry Manilow. Her follow up album, "You Know How To Love Me", made the R&B Top 20 and also performed well on the club/dance charts.
In the late 1970s, Phyllis married her manager Larry Alexander (who is the brother of Jamaican pianist and melodic player Monty Alexander), but their personal and professional associations ended in divorce. Larry introduced Phyllis to cocaine which led to a life-long dependency and spent a lot of her money during the years. The relationship was tumultuous, to say the least.
Phyllis had her first solo Top Ten hit in 1981 with "Can't We Fall In Love Again", a duet with Michael Henderson. The song was recorded while she was performing in the Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies", a tribute to Duke Ellington. She performed in the role for almost two years, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical and winning a Theatre World Award for Best Newcomer.
The continued problems between Phyllis and Arista Records caused a pause in her recording career. She used the time to appear on movie soundtracks, television commercials, and guest vocal appearances, working with Chuck Mangione, The Whispers, and The Four Tops. Phyllis provided vocals for three tracks on jazz pianist McCoy Tyner's "Looking Out" (1982). She toured often and did a college lecture tour.
In 1983, Phyllis recorded the song "Never Say Never Again" as the title song for the James Bond movie of the same name, written by Stephen Forsyth and Jim Ryan. However, Warner Brothers informed Forsyth that Michel Legrand, who wrote the score for the film, had threatened to sue them, claiming he contractually had the rights to the title song. An alternate title song composed by Legrand was eventually used for the film and performed by singer Lani Hall, formerly of Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66.
Finally free from Arista Records in 1985, Phyllis released the album "Living All Alone" on Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International label the following year, capitalizing on the torch songs "Old Friend", "You Just Don't Know", "Screaming At The Moon", and the melancholy title track. Shortly afterwards, she appeared in the films School Daze and The Kill Reflex. She would also continue to lend her voice to albums for other artists and musicians like Grover Washington, Jr. and Lonnie Liston Smith, while at the same time doing international tours.
Again, on Philadelphia International Records, Phyllis released her next album called "Prime Of My Life" in 1991. It was the biggest album of her career. It included her first number one R&B hit as well as her first Billboard Top 100 hit, "Don't Wanna Change The World". The album provided two more Top Ten R&B singles, "Living In Confusion" and "When You Get Right Down To It". Just over a year later, she appeared one last time on a Norman Connors album, singing the title song, "Remember Who You Are", which became a minor R&B hit. "Prime Of My Life" eventually sold 454,000 copies. The album and debut single were both RIAA certified Gold in 1992.
On the afternoon of June 30, 1995, Phyllis committed suicide by overdosing on pentobarbital and secobarbital in her New York City apartment. She was found just a few hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo Theatre. She left behind a suicide note that simply read, "I'm tired. I'm tired. Those of you that I love know who you are. May God bless you." She was 45 years old. A memorial service was held at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan, NY. The following month would have been her 46th birthday.
Phyllis actually recorded her last album, "I Refuse To Be Lonely", on Philadelphia International Records prior to her death and it was an in-depth journey into her personal life. The album was finally released posthumorously in November 1995, five months after her death. Although the project had an overdrawn gestation, to combat the delay in its commercial release, she had begun performing the tracks, "This Too Shall Pass" and "I Refuse To Be Lonely" in concert. The delay in the album's release adversely affected her both emotionally and financially and the delay was said to be cited over "cost negotiations." Both the title track and the single, "I'm Truly Yours", became minor R&B hits.
Three years after her death, another posthumorus album of unreleased material came forth. The songs were pulled together from various recording sessions that took place from the mid-1980s into the early 1990s. The album was called "Forever With You" (1998) and contained love songs, torch songs, bittersweet ballads, smooth jazz offerings, and uptempo tracks, most of which showcased her usual interpretation of heartbreak and strife. Phyllis was quoted as saying that the songs were about "relationships gone bad". Much of the material on the album was initially intended for her "Living All Alone" (1985) release. The song "Funny How Love Goes" contains a posthumous "duet" featuring vocalist Damon Williams. Half of Phyllis's vocals were re-recorded with both singers alternating vocals and providing Williams with exposure.
In December 2003, Expansion Records, in association with Michael A. Grimaldi's The Other Artists' Entertainment (Canada), released the compilation album entitled "In Between The Heartaches: The Soul Of A Diva". This album contained more previously unreleased demos that Phyllis recorded during the 1980s. Included are the McCoy Tyner tracks, which remain Phyllis's most critically acclaimed recordings. Many anecdotes outlining his personal relationship with Phyllis, along with rare and insightful information about the songs, was included by Grimaldi, a personal and professional friend of the songstress. In September 2007, an authorized biography was released. The book entitled "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story" is written by Jason A. Michael, in cooperation with the Estate of Phyllis Hyman.
In 2008, an original version of the James Bond theme "Never Say Never Again" that wasn't used in the film due to contractual issues, was released by the track's co-writer Stephen Forsythe. He explained that the legendary Phyllis Hyman was his first choice to sing the song and working with her was one of the highlights of his musical career. He personally auditioned and sang the song to her while she was having breakfast in her manager’s office. After agreeing to sing the song, she arrived at the studio and, without any rehearsal and only having heard the song sung once at the breakfast audition, sang the song in one perfect take. The year before she died, Phyllis called Forsythe late one night and told him that she felt "Never Say Never Again" was her best effort and favorite recording.
* This will always be one of my favorite songs by Phyllis Hyman.