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The Private Struggles of a  Genius

 

By Mark Anthony Neal

 

When Nikki Giovanni wrote "A Poem for Aretha" it was as much a cautionary tale as a celebration of Aretha Franklin's groundbreaking talents. She wrote it during what was arguably the height of Franklin's popularity — a moment that established her as the most popular black female entertainer ever.

 

And it was that immense popularity that most concerned Giovanni, as she wondered aloud whether or not Franklin would ultimately visit the same fate as so many other black women entertainers before her.

 

Names like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Esther Phillips (who was no doubt dying a slow death when Giovanni's poem was first published) are more than footnotes to black musical genius; they are constant reminders of the travails and dangers that black women face in an industry that seemingly cares little for them and has always seemed to place more value in their sexuality than their talent.

 

One can only wonder if Phyllis Hyman had ever read Giovanni's poem before she took her own life in June of 1995. Though Hyman never achieved the popular success Franklin did, she still stands as a diva among divas.

Living All Alone gave audiences a small glimpse of the feelings of loneliness and depression that had begun to engulf her. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Pittsburgh, as a teen Hyman didn't think herself much a singer. As she told Jacquelyn Powell in a 1981 profile, "I didn't know I could sing… Not like Nancy Wilson, or Dionne Warwick." But pianist Dick Morgan thought different, and after hearing Hyman sing at local clubs in Pittsburgh in the early '70s, asked her to tour with his band.

 

It was while Hyman was doing regular gigs in New York City at Rust Brown's and Mikell's in 1975 that bandleader and producer Norman Connors first heard her. A year later he tapped her to sing the lead in his version of the Stylistics' classic "Betcha by, Golly Wow." Nearly 30 years after its release, it remains one of Hyman's most memorable performances.

Hyman initially signed as a solo artist with Buddah Records, which had difficulty finding the right material to make her the crossover star they wanted her to be. Though Hyman would have minor success singing mainstream R&B and disco, as witnessed on tracks like "You Know How to Love Me" (1979) and "Can't We Fall in Love Again," recorded with former Miles Davis sideman Michael Henderson in 1981 (the duo was first paired together on Connor's "You Are My Starship" in 1976), she was more at home within the jazz and pop-jazz idioms.

 

Though she didn't sell many records during her two-album stint at Buddah, Phyllis Hyman (1977) and Somewhere in My Lifetime (1978) remain a testament to her link to some of the great torch singers, such as Nancy Wilson and Abbey Lincoln. Hyman was eventually given the chance to fully shine within the jazz tradition when she accepted a role in the Broadway production Sophisticated Ladies, a revue of Duke Ellington's music in which she sang Ellington classics such as "Prelude to A Kiss," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and a stirring, heart-wrenching rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood."

Hyman received a Tony Award nomination in 1981 for her work in Sophisticated Ladies but Arista, her label at the time, failed to capitalize on her new found mainstream popularity, instead trying to re-capture the dance-floor magic of "You Know How to Love Me," her first "hit" for the label.

 

The awful "Riding the Tiger" from her 1983 recording Goddess of Love is an example of these efforts, though the song did help introduce Hyman's music to gay audiences, who reportedly embraced the song as a favorite at drag performances in the mid-'80s. Hyman would finally find a label receptive to her unique talents in Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International Records (PIR).

Living All Alone (1987) powerfully captured the full range of Hyman's vocal gifts, but it also gave her audiences a small glimpse of the feelings of loneliness and depression that had begun to engulf her. As her friend and manager Glenda Gracia told writer Esther Iverem, Hyman was "uncovering the riddles of stuff in her life…sometimes when you start that process, the demons that you confront may have more for you than you might have thought you would find."

 

Part of the process for Hyman was dealing with very real feelings of loss after the death of her friend, songwriter Linda Creed, the long-time writing partner of Thom Bell (the duo penned "Betcha By Golly Wow" among other classics). Creed's "Old Friend," which appears on Living All Alone, was one of the last songs she wrote before her death.

Four years later Hyman returned with Prime of My Life (1991), which proved to be the most mature recording of her career as well as the last released during her lifetime. Tracks like "Meet Me on The Moon" and "When I Give My Love (This Time)" exhibit what producer Barry Eastmond refers to as "Phyllisisms." The record also contained her only chart-topping R&B hit, "Don't Wanna Change the World," which ironically was a throwback to her dance-diva days, complete with her first rap performance.

 

Though the title of the album suggested that the then 42-year-old Hyman was at peace with her life and career, "Living in Confusion," a track she co-wrote with Kenneth Gamble and Terry Burrus, suggested a deeper darker reality. In the song's chorus Hyman sang, "seems like I'm always going through changes/Living in confusion…" Things took an even darker turn when Hyman's mother and grandmother died within a month of each other in 1993.

Hyman was working on what would be her last recording, ironically titled I Refuse to Be Lonely when she chose to take her own life on June 30, 1995, leaving behind a note that stated simply "I'm tired. I'm tired."

 

When I Refuse to Be Lonely was released in November of 1995, it became one of Hyman's fastest selling recordings. According to Esther Iverem, so much of the recording was supposed to be about how Hyman "claws back from the brink, back from the place where she fought depression, loneliness, alcoholism, obesity and a consuming anger at lesser voices enjoying more commercial success."

Hyman's depression is telling in that the male-centered recording industry has rarely dealt with how gender impacts how artists are perceived, or with the way various artists choose to deal with the pressures of celebrity and the constant need to please fans, producers and A&R folk.

 

Women artists are also forced to conform to some perceived notion of beauty. More than six feet tall, Hyman also battled her weight, often ballooning close to 300 pounds. Though folks remember Dinah Washington dying of a drug overdose, few remember that she overdosed on diet pills — an addiction directly related to her feelings that her body wasn't the right size.

 

More often than not, women in the industry who struggle with these issues are described as "difficult," as was the case with Hyman, or even Mary J. Blige during earlier moments in her career. While these women may indeed have been "difficult," folks in the industry rarely ask why, or more specifically, how their experiences in a decidedly patriarchal and often sexist industry may have informed their personalities.

And it's not just women in the entertainment industry. As Iverem wrote in a 1996 Essence Magazine feature on Hyman's death, her passing "offers a particularly poignant example of the private struggles that many talented, intelligent black women face."

 

Many women face this reality with a resolve that suggests that such darkness is in fact inevitable. In her book If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holliday scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin reflects on an interview Mary J. Blige did with Dream Hampton in 1997, where the "Queen of Hip Hop Soul" responds to the invocation of Billie Holiday with the quip "Dead. Like Phyllis Hyman. Dead." According to Griffin, for a young woman like Blige, the lives of Hyman and Holiday are only a reminder of "Death. Pain. Sadness."

In the end we are only left with the music of Phyllis Hyman. Though the recently released Ultimate Phyllis Hyman is a good introduction to her music, fans might want to instead take a look at The Legacy of Phyllis Hyman, which was released in 1996.

 

For those desiring to hear Hyman at her most exquisite, it might be worth the effort to track down a copy of Pharaoh Sanders's obscure Love Will Find a Way (1978), on which Hyman sings the gems "As You Are" and "Love is Here." As Roberta Flack told mourners at a memorial service for Hyman, "God is a spirit, music is spiritual so every time you hear Phyllis sing she lives."

 

Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies.

 

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