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.

Indisputably, the most haunting track was the agonizing “Old Friend,” a cry to a distant lover. Hyman ached with striking vulnerability: “I won’t let foolish pride get in the way/I’ll take you back whatever price I pay/Old friend/It’s so nice to feel you hold me once again.”

Fans had the pleasure of only one more album from Hyman before she died, 1991’s Prime of My Life, which included her biggest hit, “Don’t Wanna Change the World,” and a song she co-wrote, the tragic “Living in Confusion.”

Phyllis Hyman was a haunted soul. She battled drugs and alcohol, weight gain, bipolar disorder and loneliness. Her recordings weren’t mere songs; they were her stories. Regardless of her demons, this was a woman who wanted to be loved. Hyman once said, “Each time I had ever fallen in love, it became a real sickness for me.” Her work was a tattoo of her pain, proving that love doesn’t rescue everyone.

I vividly remember the day Hyman died. I was driving through North Philadelphia with two of my best friends. On the radio, we heard that Hyman committed suicide. It happened right before a show at the Apollo Theater. We were stunned, and her hometown of Philadelphia would mourn her for days.

As we tried to make sense of the loss, one of my friends quietly asked, “She was beautiful, talented, rich and famous. If Phyllis Hyman can’t get love right, then where does that leave the rest of us?” We didn’t have an answer. “Meet Me on the Moon” played in the backdrop of our solemn drive home.

In late 1995, Philadelphia International Records would posthumously release the eerie I Refuse to Be Lonely, with the ominous title track resonating like a premonition: “I can’t hold you/Like I want to/Can’t hold you to the promises you make/You won’t be here tonight/Or any other night … baby I refuse to be lonely.” Phyllis Hyman didn’t sing love songs, but she sang about love.

This goes out to you, sophisticated lady. I hope love has found you on the other side. 

Clay Cane is New York-based journalist. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter.