Happy 35th Anniversary to Phyllis Hyman’s sixth studio album Goddess of Love, originally released May 9, 1983. (Editor’s note: select sources cite various official release dates for the album, including May 9, 1983.)
When Phyllis Hyman signed with Buddah Records, each party had the mutual understanding—and goal—to work together in getting her music into the marketplace. Phyllis Hyman (1977) got the ball rolling and though its commercial receipts were limited, her eponymous debut established Hyman as a promising new voice in R&B.
The acquisition of Buddah Records by Arista Records, as overseen by music industry mover and shaker Clive Davis, upended Hyman's sense of security. The ensuing relationship between the vocalist and the label head was lively at best and adversarial at worst. With an eye always on the bottom line, Davis resented Hyman's refusal to follow any of his directives. Hyman, who placed a premium on her creative integrity, saw Davis attempting to strip her of her musical identity. In the midst of this conflict, Hyman recorded four albums for Arista—Somewhere In My Lifetime (1978), You Know How to Love Me (1979), Can't We Fall in Love Again? (1981) and Goddess of Love (1983). While there were several hit singles accounted for, as complete packages they did not yield any long term commercial gains for Hyman.
The underlying cause was that she was breaking ground in forming an alliance between R&B and jazz, a union that came to be known far and wide as the “Quiet Storm” movement. And so, the content of her Arista output was sometimes ahead of the curve artistically, but, on occasion, it erred in favor of chart shrewdness. All of this came to a head on Hyman's fourth and final product from her Arista Records tenure, Goddess of Love.
The individual leading the charge to sculpt the mass of Goddess of Love happened to be one of Hyman's heroes who came to her rescue: producer/arranger/composer Thom Bell. One of the defining architects of the Philadelphia soul thrust of the 1970s, he visited that “Philly touch” to charters for The Delfonics, The Stylistics, The Spinners, Dionne Warwick, Deniece Williams and many more. His coterie of songwriters, courtesy of his own Bellboy Productions stable, got busy scripting for Hyman and were joined by Bell himself who co-wrote on at least two of the songs submitted for the songbird’s consideration. Thrilled with what came her way, Hyman came to life as the long player got further underway.
Bell knew how to navigate the changing currents of contemporary sound and retain a sense of timelessness typified only in the finest music, genres aside. Fluidly, he sketched tracks that took up the radio friendly R&B balladry of the period (“We Should Be Lovers,” “Falling Star”), but left room for the broader, improvisational sides such as “Just Twenty Five Miles to Anywhere” or “Let Somebody Love You.” The latter piece merged light, but vivid island and jazz rhythms that kept the song's melody keyed into a melancholic frequency that Hyman could enter. As a result, “Let Somebody Love You” features one of her most impeccable vocals.
Out of the nine selections from the finalized form of Goddess of Love, Bell helmed six. His work accomplished the almost impossible goal of fitting Hyman in only the best aural threads that could dually serve her own tastes and those of the mainstream public.
The other three tunes rounding out the set came courtesy of Narada Michael Walden. A former member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Walden had struck out alone to cut several platters of his own and spin sonic gold for others. Notably, he had tasked over material for Angela Bofill, Hyman's label mate who had been more agreeable with being made over by Davis. Though Bell had done an album's worth of music for Hyman, Davis stepped into review it and decreed that a “hit” was still needed. Davis shelved three of Bell's compositions, leaving behind six from him, and forced an incensed Hyman to record three of Walden's penned and produced works, “Riding the Tiger,” “Goddess of Love,” and “Why Did You Turn Me On?”
“Why Did You Turn Me On?” had appeared on one of Walden's own solo albums and its reserved pace complemented the Bell pieces already in the can. Had Walden and Hyman been able to co-create naturally versus being coerced into collaboration, who knows what they could have come up with together? But with Davis' hawkish hand guiding the Walden sessions, he pushed Hyman harshly into the gauche, post-disco black dance exercises of the other two commissions. They came off transitory and unsure, splintering an otherwise sturdy tracklisting. Shortly thereafter, Davis capped the studio proceedings for Goddess of Love.
Released in the late spring of 1983, just a few months shy of Hyman's 34th birthday, Goddess of Love met with modest reviews and sagging sales. “Riding the Tiger” was unwisely elected as the album's first (and only) single, a song that Hyman later feverishly denounced. Hyman's contract ended upon Goddess of Love's unveiling and Davis turned his attention to a new face at Arista, a young Whitney Houston. She was a formidable voice who was also far more malleable to Davis' will than Hyman had ever been. Hyman was not without a home long, however, as the Philadelphia International Records family welcomed her with open arms in 1986. She recorded there until her untimely passing in 1995.
When discussions about Phyllis Hyman's canon turn to her Arista residency, You Know How to Love Me is tagged as the notable LP of the batch. But Goddess of Love has much to share and time has not sapped the energy of the stronger sides of an album that saw an artist rise up to create something beautiful despite the undesirable professional conditions plaguing her at the time.