Happy 40th Anniversary to Phyllis Hyman’s Phyllis Hyman, originally released April 2, 1977.
Though hard to imagine now, there was a time when jazz and R&B music were separate mediums. The former was the province of instrumentalists and vocalists renowned for improvisation. The latter field, by 1977, was an exciting one. Motown had given way to progressive funk and the groundbreaking sound of disco. It's here where Phyllis Hyman joined a cross section of women that included Randy Crawford, Angela Bofill, Jean Carne, Roberta Flack and Brenda Russell—all of them seminal in paving the road toward the Quiet Storm radio format that redefined black music in the 1980s and beyond.
Nearly 28 years before Hyman's legend came to life on her 1977 eponymous solo effort, she was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 6, 1949. Hyman, the first of seven children, used music as an outlet for her individuality throughout her pre-teen and teen years. As Hyman entered her 20s, she ensconced herself in a series of bands, refining her craft as an exceptional live singer. Hyman's voice, a cross between full-bodied passion and interpretive nuance, lent itself to performance superbly.
By then married to her first husband Larry Alexander, Hyman graduated from front woman to supper club headliner in early 1976. Her regular showcases at the popular New York City venues such as Rust Brown's or Mikell's were wildly popular. The statuesque vocalist cast an easy spell over patrons each night, her song repertoire drawing from standards to whatever contemporary chart hit struck her fancy.
It was at one of these shows that Hyman met composer/arranger/drummer Norman Connors. The meeting led them to collaborate on his seventh LP, You Are My Starship (1976). The record produced two singles with Hyman providing vocals: “We Both Need Each Other” (with Michael Henderson) and “Betcha By Golly Wow.” The former bestowed Hyman with a Top 30 R&B hit in America, but her cover of The Stylistics’ classic created sustainable buzz. As such, Buddah Records, also home to Connors, bought out the chanteuse's initial Desert Moon Records contract to bring this fresh talent into their stable.
Almost instantly, work began on Phyllis Hyman and as the record took shape, it was apparent that the effortless energy and stylistic duality Hyman belied in live performance had to be captured on wax. Both material and production came from a wealth of places including the legendary Thom Bell, the beloved Linda Creed, the revered Onaje Gumbs, and the aforementioned Alexander. Some of the additional production and lyrical contributions came from a host of other up-and-coming to established session men and songwriters—John Davis, Jerry Peters, Clarence Carter and Buddy Scott to name just a few.
Phyllis Hyman introduced itself to listeners on April 2, 1977. The nine-track collection was fairly cohesive in its execution of mainstream soul and relaxed jazz tones. Nowhere was this more evident than on “No One Can Love You More,” the album's second and final single (US R&B #58). The song was gorgeously fluid in its usage of vocal harmonies, handsome bass rhythms, flecked percussion and brass. All of it was held aloft by Hyman, whose voice yielded both defiance and heartbreak in equal measure, her deft ability as a lyrical interpreter quite clear. But, the song's blend of the already discussed jazz and R&B vibes was still gaining traction. The song didn't find a large market commercially. The fate of the vibrant, filmic lead-off single “Loving You, Losing You” fared better (US R&B #32). An “uptempo ballad,” its rushing orchestral arrangement managed to stay true to Hyman's vision of musicianship and emotion first and brought her modest chart returns.
The remainder of Phyllis Hyman cut itself between sensual, but brooding ballads (“I Don't Want to Lose You,” “Was Yesterday Such a Long Time Ago”) and politely groovy midtempo offerings (“Night Bird Gets the Love,” “Beautiful Man of Mine”). The record missed the Billboard Hot 100 altogether, but logged a respectable showing on the Billboard R&B Hot 100 (#49).
Hyman continued to promote her self-titled album in concert throughout 1977, but had started tasking away on her sophomore set. Hyman had completed Sing a Song by 1978 and readied it for release, but Buddah Records found itself acquired by Arista Records in a recent deal headed by the ultimate svengali, Clive Davis. Sing a Song was deemed “uncommercial,” scrapped and released as the retooled Somewhere in My Lifetime (1978). Despite this difficult turn of events, Hyman made the best of it. She went on to record seven more albums between Arista and PIR Records from 1979 to 1995. Tragically, Phyllis Hyman took her own life on June 30, 1995—her constant struggle with mental illness had reached a heartrending crux.
Despite the dark twist at the end of her story, Hyman remains influential. As a record, Phyllis Hyman is remembered as one of the inaugural turning points in marrying R&B and jazz music idioms flawlessly. Hyman's music keeps her memory vividly alive in the minds, and hearts, of all those that hear her.