“I'm tired. I'm tired. Those of you that I love, know who you are. May God bless you.” Those were Phyllis Hyman’s final words, written in a simple note before she took her own life on June 30, 1995.
After seemingly regaining control of her struggle with bipolar disorder, Hyman was finding herself with her final work, I Refuse to Be Lonely. Her triumphs were cut short, however, when she overdosed on a cocktail of pills just one week shy of her 46th birthday.
Regardless of her short life, Hyman showcased enough of her immense talents to be ranked among the greats, perhaps not during her lifetime but certainly beyond. This is a look back on eight of her most impressive works.
1. “Betcha by Golly, Wow” (with Norman Connors)
Long before Prince made his version of the song a radio hit in 1996, Hyman recorded her own take on Connie Stevens’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow.” She teamed with musician Norman Connors for the remake, which appeared on his You Are My Starship album.
Hyman’s voice took center stage on “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” and it inspired several singers. In fact, Regina Belle said she changed her approach to singing after hearing Hyman’s rendition.
2. “Somewhere in My Lifetime”
Whitney Houston rose to fame in the 1980s as Clive Davis’ greatest musical discovery. Yet Hyman was one of the first true divas on Arista, and she released her debut offering for that label, Somewhere in My Lifetime, in 1979.
The album’s title track failed to make an impression on the Billboard Hot 100, despite her powerful performance and production by Barry Manilow. On the other hand, it became her first top 20 hit on the R&B chart, where it climbed to No. 12.
3. “You Know How to Love Me”
Hyman scored her first cross-genre hit with “You Know How to Love Me” in 1979. The disco-flavored song showcased a different side of artistry as she belted and cooed along with the pace of the up-tempo tune. It was a bubbly departure from the ballads that first got her noticed on R&B radio.
4. “In a Sentimental Mood”
If there is a cult classic among Hyman’s many recordings, it is “In a Sentimental Mood.” While Hyman was performing as a headliner in Sophisticated Ladies, the Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington, her rendition of the song was a highlight of the show.
What made Hyman’s singing of “In a Sentimental Mood” so special was her delivery of different interpretations of the tune every night, versions that varied in subtle, interesting ways. In the performance linked above, she changed the climactic high notes to sombre runs to capture the mood (no pun intended) of the moment.
5. “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”
For most singers, standing alongside Roberta Flack, Cissy Houston, Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle would probably be frightening. But not if they had Hyman’s talent and personality.
While Wonder showed off his vocal runs and LaBelle belted at the very top of her range, Hyman focused on her phrasing and the message in “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” It was such a shame Diana Ross was not present to participate in the fun.
6. “Hit the Road/Daddy”
Eubie Blake was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, so when the 1983 show Eubie Blake: A Century of Music was being planned to celebrate his legacy, it was important to enlist performers who could do his work justice.
Naturally, Hyman was selected to participate, and she thrilled the audience with renditions of “Hit the Road” and “Daddy.” The songs were clearly dissimilar, and Hyman flexed her skills as she switched with ease from the persona of scorned diva to that of desperate lover.
7. “Living All Alone”
If there was ever any doubt that Hyman was a musical star, “Living All Alone” should be presented as a testament to her talent. Released in 1986 from an album of the same name, the song was probably her most thrilling performance on record, specifically because of what she did on the bridge.
Hyman whistled—but not the high notes commonly associated with Minnie Riperton or Mariah Carey. Instead, she put her lips together and whistled in the traditional sense as if to signal that her emotions were just too raw to put into words.
8. “Don’t Wanna Change the World”
The biggest hit of Hyman’s career came near the end of her life. “Don’t Wanna Change the World” took her to the top of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for the first and only time and positioned her as a star on the rise from the commercial slump she experienced in the late 1980s.
The title of the song’s corresponding album was Prime of My Life. The unfortunate irony was that Hyman would never enjoy such a great time again. She died just four years later.
Trent Jones is an editorial fellow at The Root. He also produces a daily video commentary called #Trents2Cents. Follow him on Twitter.