This is the beginning of a new mini-series, dedicated to afrobellas who we’ve lost along the way.
So many of our celebrities have had tragic lives. So many of them have struggled to shoulder the weight of fame and come up against an industry that doesn’t seem designed to truly support and celebrate black artists. Some of these women have had rough childhoods, and many of them have battled substance abuse and depression. All of them are remarkably talented, and their legacies should never be forgotten.
Phyllis Hyman was an undeniable showstopper.
She was six feet tall, jaw droppingly gorgeous, with glowing caramel colored skin and a passion for fashion. And her voice was like warm butter.
As Jean Carne says in this article on Black America Web,
â€œIf you close your eyes and listen to her voice, you would think of chinchilla and mink and diamond and pearls. She had a gorgeous tonal quality.â€
Her late-Seventies hits like “Somewhere in my Lifetime” and You Know How to Love Me are among the era’s most perfect tracks, in my opinion.
She earned the nickname The Sophisticated Lady after her electrifying performance in Broadway’s electrifying tribute to Duke Ellington, Sophisticated Ladies. Watch Phyllis rip through “It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing if you want to learn a thing or two about stage presence.
Remember when BET was totally off the cuff and real? Check out this completely random clip of Phyllis Hyman delivering a bouquet of roses to Patti LaBelle, mid-interview with Donnie Simpson on the old-skool Video Soul set (complete with elevator, mind you). Phyllis came across as a sweet, self-effacing diva with an effortlessly enormous voice.
Listen to her range on this frustratingly truncated BET memorial video. Phyllis brought the quiet storm without even trying on this awards show duet version of Superwoman with Melba Moore. (I always loved Karyn White’s version of that song, BTW. Oh, the video is so Eighties. I love it!).
She had a signature style, and was known for wearing ornate, flowing garments and chandelier earrings. Nobody rocked a hat like Phyllis Hyman did — check out her signature headwear here on this 1992 clip from the Arsenio Hall Show. “When You Get Right Down To It” is one of my favorite songs of hers, and it’s from the tragically titled album Prime of My Life.
In this interview in 1991, she seemed so optimistic. Phyllis Hyman’s life took a tragic turn in 1993, when she lost her mother and grandmother within the span of a month.
She released her final album, I Refuse to Be Lonely, in 1995. I have never heard any of it, but I imagine it’s pretty dark stuff. All of the song titles reveal her pain. “Waiting for the Last Tear to Fall.” “This Too Shall Pass.” “Back to Paradise.” “Give Me One Good Reason to Stay.” By this point she was dealing with bipolar disorder, depression, alcoholism, and financial strife.
Hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo and six days before her 46th birthday, Phyllis Hyman took her own life. By way of explanation, she left behind an enigmatic note. “I’m tired. I’m tired. Those of you that I love know who you are. May God bless you.”
Here she is, crooning “In a Sentimental Mood.”
She was simply larger than life. Your fans miss you. Phyllis.
If you’ve never been swept away by Phyllis Hyman, I highly recommend Ultimate Phyllis Hyman, a best-of album that features her hits from 1977 to 1995.