Happy 25th Anniversary to Phyllis Hyman’s Prime of My Life, originally released June 11, 1991.
Phyllis Hyman was one of those ubiquitous vocalists whose legacy and artistry could be placed in two unique categories. First, she was received as a bona fide soul diva, who had enough charisma, grace, and beauty that perfectly illuminated the vulnerability and integrity behind what she sang. Touching on contemporary Black music styles of the eras from which she derived, she skillfully commanded anything she was given, with her impassioned, velvety and sultry voice.
Secondly, if one were to broadly explore her repertoire and artistic depth, she possessed the mastery and vibrancy of a classic jazz chanteuse, clearly in the vein and spirit of her defining predecessors, such as Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, and Dinah Washington. Her signature vocal improvisation was established as the basis for shaping a melody, along with her knack for developing a certain resonance in her vocal prowess that only few of her contemporaries could achieve.
Utilizing her distinguished and affecting treasure of a voice, the Philadelphia-born and Pittsburgh-raised vocalist often sang about the beauty and pain of love with so much tenderness and heartfelt intensity that you couldn’t help but feel the emotional potency in what she delivered. Like Holiday and Washington before her, Hyman was one of those rare genius vocalists that relied on her own sense of pathos, to emote the heartbreak, strife, and loneliness she experienced throughout her life. In a 1991 JET Magazine interview, Hyman lamented how she approached music, asserting “there is a deep connection between part of my loneliness with my music if you listen to some of the words in my songs. I sing about a lot of pain, which is something I know a lot about.”
Since she debuted on the music scene in 1976 upon being featured on jazz maverick Norman Connors’ You Are My Starship album, with her beautifully rendered cover of the Stylistics’ 1972 hit “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” Hyman proved to be one of the brightest and most gracious voices in quiet storm-influenced soul music of the era. It was during this time that she signed with Buddah Records as a solo artist, releasing two efforts for the label, her 1977 eponymous debut Phyllis Hyman and 1978’s Sing A Song. However, the label struggled to find the right material and promotion to propel her talents toward a mainstream audience, resulting in the label failing to make her the crossover pop artist they envisioned her to be. After Arista Records brought the rights to Buddah Records in 1978, Hyman ended up being transferred to that label.
During her five year period with Arista Records, she managed to release four moderately successful contemporary soul and jazz oriented albums—1978’s Somewhere In My Lifetime, 1979’s You Know How To Love Me, 1981’s Can’t We Fall In Love Again, and 1983’s Goddess of Love—as well as scoring moderate soul and dance hits with 1979’s seminal dance-floor stunner “You Know How To Love Me” and her 1981 collaboration with Miles Davis sideman and jazz-soul giant Michael Henderson, “Can’t We Fall in Love Again.” Even though the heights she reached in her career appeared to be substantial, Hyman was unfulfilled with the artistic directions that executives at Arista Records were orchestrating, in pushing her toward larger audiences. After all, Hyman was keen on maintaining her artistic integrity, which was seemingly problematic for label founder Clive Davis, who was the overseer of Hyman’s career during that time.
Channeling all of the hardships and challenges that she was experiencing at Arista, the daunting choice to accept a role in the Broadway production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies would become the most daring move Hyman made in her career by that point. An ambitiously luxurious production that paid homage to one of the most accomplished and influential figures in American music, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies proved to be a successful vehicle for Hyman to showcase her jazz sensibilities to a broader audience. During the production, she gracefully performed Ellington classics like “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” “Take The A-Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and most notably, her beautifully heart- wrenching interpretation of “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Her critically acclaimed performance in Sophisticated Ladies garnered a Tony Award nomination in 1981. However her battles with Arista Records reached a dismal point, when the label declined to capitalize on her newly-found mainstream popularity. Instead, they pushed her to secure another dance hit, in the vein of 1979’s “You Know How to Love Me.” While Hyman already planned to depart from the label to pursue greater artistic endeavors, Arista undesirably dropped Hyman from their roster, after the commercial disappointment of her 1983 release Goddess of Love.
In the mid-1980s, Hyman finally confided in a legendary songwriting and production team that would prove to be rewarding in honoring the totality of her artistry—Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, resulting in her signing with Philadelphia International Records. Her seventh recording and first for the PIR label, 1986’s Living All Alone, was an introspective, nine-song suite that crystallized the wondrous versatility of Hyman’s vocal artistry, while embodying her most personal and melancholic revelations on love and loneliness that she experienced during her life.
Both a personal and artistic breakthrough for Hyman, Living All Alone was one of those catalytic albums in the wave of 1980s quiet storm-oriented soul that should’ve been revered in the same ranks as other genre-defining landmarks like Anita Baker’s Rapture, Sade’s Diamond Life, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly’s We Are One, and Luther Vandross’ The Night That I Fell in Love, as Hyman typified an influential artistic approach that would soon impact several female vocalists in the modern soul landscape, during the 1990s era and beyond. Spawning two R&B hits with the title track and “Old Friend,” Living All Alone was a rousing success for Hyman as well as a career rebound for her. It essentially set the pace for her next endeavor, which would sadly mark the final statement she released during her lifetime.
It took Hyman five years to complete her final studio release, 1991’s Prime of My Life, representing the longest gap between albums in her career. While several of her critics often accused her of being difficult to work with—a criticism that Hyman later confessed to be true—she still poured herself into her work. During this period, she made several notable guest appearances on soundtracks and albums from artists in the jazz realm. She also scored a notable appearance in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, performing the bluesy “Be One.” In completing Prime of My Life, Hyman enlisted a similar cast of collaborators that worked on her previous Living All Alone. This time, revered R&B and pop producer Nick Martinelli had a more prominent role in producing and writing several of the album’s compositions, while Gamble & Huff served as the executive producers for the project.
Expounding on the themes of loss, loneliness, and romance that defined her landmark 1986 release Living All Alone, Prime of My Life was a considerably more autobiographical and philosophical chronicle on life and love, greatly based on Hyman’s own experiences at the time. It was known among several in Hyman’s circle of family and friends that she suffered from severe bouts of depression, substance abuse, and a never-ending cycle of problematic relationships, which would all engulf her for the remainder of her life. Recorded during an era where mechanized and jumpy rhythms filled the airwaves, with a blend of youthfulness and glossiness, Prime of My Life sounded impressively modern, yet authentically organic. Hyman and her production team stuck to a completely mature musical approach, merging smooth R&B aesthetics from the past and present with rich and lush jazz overtones, which Hyman had been profoundly adept at doing for the past two decades of her career before.
Where Living All Alone presented a myriad of emotions, centering on the longing for romance and its circumstances, Prime of My Life presented similar virtues, with a deeper, albeit mature, insight on how they were affecting Hyman’s life. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the album is its own title, which suggests that Hyman finally came to happier terms in her life. However, with repeated listens to the album, there’s something deeper at hand, and happiness is not one of them. There’s some inspired optimism sprinkled in some of the sentiments, but the tortured and dark tales of Hyman’s life are present for the greater part of the work. The alarming tension between finding redemption after love has gone astray and wallowing in the pitfalls of agony, longing and searching for true love reaches a fever pitch.
From the very first song, “When You Get Right Down To It,” we are immediately drawn into Hyman’s world of unfulfilled love, where she asserts the feelings and emotions of a woman in utter pain, looking for a greater sense of love. Written by Martinelli and Reginald Hines, the song plays as an inspirational ode to turning away from miserable love to find happiness. With Hyman never missing a beat in her vocal performance, the composition retains a saucy mid-tempo groove, atop atmospheric modern jazz touches. The triumphant “I Found Love” suitably follows, with Hyman powerfully extoling the actual joy of finding true love, after experiencing the pitfalls of it before.
The celebratory “Don’t Wanna Change the World” is possibly the most unorthodox production Hyman had ever involved herself with in her career. With its healthy mix of exuberant dance rhythms, which largely recalled Hyman’s dance glory of her earlier career, and New Jack Swing and house elements, the song became the biggest hit of Hyman’s career. After the life-affirming title track, the album transitions into darker and moodier territory, where Hyman looks at love from mostly downcast perspectives.
Perhaps two of the album’s most definitive and confessional moments—“When I Give My Love (This Time)” and “Living In Confusion”—could have been lifted directly from the pages of Hyman’s own diary, as they reflect a woman’s intense aspirations for finding genuine love that can last a lifetime. Both seven-minutes apiece in length, both feature Hyman’s strong conviction, integrity, and pain, all of which she pours into these spacey and melancholic compositions, making them stark and realistic portraits of her tortured soul. The brooding “I Can’t Take It Anymore” and her tasteful cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk Away” echo similar sentiments of abandoning tragic love, in favor of exploring positive pursuits of life.
The beautiful solace and sentimentality explored in “Meet Me on the Moon” may be a hard listen for some, as it plays like a farewell for Hyman. As heart-wrenching and downright emotional as it is, the composition’s overt jazz influence provides a certain edge to Hyman’s arresting and passionate vocal performance throughout the song. Equally sad is the album’s concluding track “Whatever Happened to Our Love,” where Hyman laments on the whereabouts of promising love in a previous lifetime.
As triumphant and tragic as it stands, Prime of My Life was an emotional curtain call that captured the exhilarating joys and painful lows of Hyman’s life. With one listen to this rewarding gem, you feel every intense revelation she emotes, through her passionate wails, cries, and belting. In the same distance, you also empathize with the painful journey illustrated in the vivid lyricism of the album’s ten compositions. An undeniable success for her, the album charted at #10 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart and #117 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, eventually garnering a RIAA gold certification.
While Hyman tragically took her own life on June 30, 1995, the full scope of her musical legacy continues to be treasured for generations to come. Twenty-five years after its release, Prime of My Life remains one of the brightest portraits of her genius artistry, unveiling her masterful use of pathos to create beauty out of chaos.