Phyllis Hyman: Ode to a Sophisticated Lady

Twenty-five years after the release of her legendary Living All Alone album, we give the late, great songstress much-deserved props.

Photo of Phyllis Hyman

If you’ve ever listened to a Phyllis Hyman song and not been rocked to your core, then clearly you have never endured the pain of a broken heart. 

With the exception of some blues singers, Hyman is arguably the most gut-wrenching, ferocious and powerful lady of heartbreak in song. Her voice channels the deepest of sorrows, surrendering to a magnificent space of soul that most artists could never dream of traveling. On June 30, 1995, seven days before her 46th birthday, Phyllis Hyman committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Aug. 15, 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of her legendary Living All Alone album. It was her comeback record and her first work on Philadelphia International Records. It reached No. 11 on the R&B charts, spawning classics like “What You Won’t Do for Love,” and the eerie title track, a metaphor for the troubled singer’s personal life.

Her 1977 version of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” was her first hit single, marking the beginning of a career that would span nearly two decades. Hyman’s self-titled debut album was released later that year, and the world was introduced to its latest R&B sensation. Signing with Arista, under the direction of Clive Davis, Hyman had other hits, such as the disco classic “You Know How to Love Me.”

Despite objections from Clive Davis, a statuesque Hyman wowed Broadway audiences in the 1981 musical Sophisticated Ladies, a tribute to Duke Ellington that earned her a Tony Award nomination. Hyman was on the verge of superstardom, but strife with Davis shifted her musical trajectory.

The mogul saw her as a crossover success and wanted a mainstream sound, which meant less soul — a formula that would later work for Whitney Houston. The songstress refused to succumb to bubble-gum pop. By 1983 Hyman had been dropped from the label, and many said that her career was finished. Houston became the next star at Arista.