Illustration for article titled Phyllis Hyman: Ode to a Sophisticated Lady

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.


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.

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