Like anyone else, I’m tied to the era that spawn me. This readily applies to the music I listen to, as well. My wife more than once has brought up the fact I’m stuck in a decades-ago mindset when it comes to my tastes. Fair enough. I guess I can’t argue too hard against that. Which brings up something I’ve cited before, attributed to Thomas P.M. Barnett:
“Morris Massey, an expert on conflict between generations, pioneered the argument. “what you are is where you were when,” meaning all of us reach a point in life where we discover a world larger than ourselves. At that point, we become cognizant of the morals we’ve developed across our early years, and those morals – or worldview – tend to persist across our adult years.
For most people, that fateful transition occurs in the teenage years, which explains our tendency to stick with the popular music of those years throughout adulthood.
Admit it – you stayed cool enough across your 20s, and maybe you faked it deep into your 30s, but then you woke up in your 40s and realized you absolutely hate your kids’ music!
Don’t worry. It happens to everyone.”
Ring true to you? It’ll come as no surprise I consider the 60s the wellspring of music creativity for my generation. The British Invasion being the primary influence on me during that era. Yet that’s followed closely by the R&B tunes produced in the urban centers of Detroit, Philadelphia, and even my own L.A. hometown. And as much as I’ve disparaged the next decade over at times (having survived the Me Decade), the 70s even with all its problems managed to produce some great artists and song — if you do as I and discount Disco, that is.
If the 60s were eye-opening, 1970 – 79 was my period for music exploration, at least before the cement set as Massey and Barnett apprise. As I mentioned last year, during this particular span I was in my Jazz Fusion phase and the artists in and around the genre. And another powerful and silky voiced, jazz-influenced songstress of the period registered. An artist that today, whenever I hear her, can bring me right back to that turbulent epoch as good as any time machine from that decade. The extraordinary Phyllis Hyman. She had a career that stretched into the 90s, yet it’s her energetic 1979 R&B anthem (written by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume), You Know How to Love Me, that served as a showcase for the singer. In my opinion, anyway.
A statuesque 6′ 2″, but with a distinctive voice (like her contemporary Angela Bofill), Phyllis could seductively render lyrics and song in way that left fans of her music mesmerized. And certainly wondering why she wasn’t more celebrated. Then or now. Born in Philly, raised in Pittsburgh, her professional singing career began in the mid-70s of New York City. Buddha Records released her initial albums, which drew radio attention. Unquestionably, she caught me. Later acquired by Arista when they absorbed Buddha, this song (and others) from the album of the same name became locked into the artist’s repertoire from here out.
For good reason.
Phyllis had it all, seemingly. Looks, personality, and that voice. Even adding actress to her walk of life. In ’81 she co-starred (with Gregory Hines and Judith Jamison) in the hit Broadway tribute to Duke Ellington, Sophisticated Ladies, garnering a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award for Best newcomer in the effort. If you look closely, you can also spot her in a cameo role in Spike Lee’s ’88 film, School Daze – Phyllis performed the song, “Be One“. At least overseas she attained some deserved recognition. By 1992 Ms. Hyman was voted the Number One Best Female Vocalist in the United Kingdom by Blues & Soul magazine readers, topping the likes of Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, and other talented singers.
Yet here in the U.S., true acceptance and sales popularity landed just outside of her reach. Perhaps, the material she was given by label producers was lacking — ballads like No One Can Love You More showed her talent, and melted listeners’ hearts, but were scattered in her discography. Or, she just wasn’t promoted enough. Either way, broad fame proved elusive. Whether she arrived too soon, ahead of the pop music curve coming, the wounded decade she emerged from seemed to follow the singer. Those who experienced Phyllis in person saw a beautiful performer with a voice that captivated and held an audience. They also witnessed an undeniable wit, intelligence, and emotion with her onstage.
Battles with alcohol and drugs, troubled relationships and weight gain sadly haunted this beauty.
The singer-songwriter and actress known for her R&B hits (she even did some sessions with the Four Tops) was versatile enough to play fusion and light jazz dates with the likes of Joe Sample, Ronnie Foster, and Grover Washington, Jr. Even conventional jazz sessions for the great McCoy Tyner. She left a distinct mark with those who bought her albums through those years and tracked her career. It was for that reason many of us saw as tragedy when Phyllis Hyman ended her too short life on June 30, 1995. Though she continued to record new material, and performed live, right up till then, her bouts of depression simply and sadly overwhelmed.
Still, some of us will never forget her and the songs, like this number, she brought to the time. One that still leaves an abiding smile with all her listeners. I hope you enjoy.