On June 30, 1995 the world lost the great talent that was Phyllis Hyman.
On the 16th Anniversary of her passing, SoulMusic.com honors her legacy with a candid conversation with our very own David Nathan. Before creating SoulMusic.com, David was a young music journalist for Blues & Soul Magazine in 1977 when he interviewed Phyllis Hyman for the first time. They were neighbors and after that initial interview they developed a friendship. David – who devoted a chapter in his 1999 book “The Soulful Divas” to her - would go on to have many conversations with Phyllis throughout the years, both on and off the record.
In an interview recorded the summer of 2010 (but never published until now) David shared some of those conversations with Darnell Meyers-Johnson, as he reflected on Hyman’s timeless catalogue of music...
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good Day everyone, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today we’re doing something a little bit different. We’re going to talk about the music of the late, great Phyllis Hyman. This year (2011) is the 16th anniversary of her passing and with me right now is someone who’s interviewed her several times throughout the years. He is a noted music historian, music journalist and a legend in his own right. He’s also the creator of SoulMusic.com. He is Mr. David Nathan. How are you David?
David Nathan: I’m great. What a lovely introduction. I don’t know about being a legend in my own right… but thank you anyway!
DMJ: Throughout the years you interviewed Phyllis lots of times so we’ll begin at the beginning: tell me about the first time you had the pleasure of interviewing her and what were your first impressions?
DN: Sure. Well, I met Phyllis for the first time in 1977 and it was on the occasion of the release of her first album for Buddah Records (called PHYLLIS HYMAN). And prior to meeting her, I had heard of her. I had never seen her ‘live.’ I just knew her name…from people mentioning her. And at that time she was performing at different clubs in New York, in particular a place called Mikell’s which was on the Upper West Side. Another place I think she also occasionally performed at was Rust Brown’s. But Mikel’s was a hangout for showbiz people, celebrities and so on… My first interview with her was really par for the course at that point. I was basically in New York as the US Editor for Blues & Soul Magazine, a British magazine. Essentially, any new releases that were R&B related, I was expected to cover. So that’s really how the interview came about. It turned out that Phyllis lived on West 55th Street at that time and I lived on West 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan. So basically, whoever set the interview up, and I can’t remember who, suggested that since we were neighbors it would make sense for us to do the interview in her apartment or my apartment. She invited me over and at the time she was married to Larry Alexander and we did the interview in her living room. My first impressions of her were that she was very nervous because she hadn’t done that many interviews. So there was nervousness, even a little shyness. At the same time, what she was most enchanted by was the fact that she was actually doing an interview with someone from Britain. I had the distinction of being her first interviewer from any international publication. I think she was excited that her name and therefore her music was going to be exposed in some way outside of the United States.
DMJ: On the first album there were several songs that remained with her throughout her career, like “I Don’t Want To Lose You” and “Loving You-Losing You”. What did you think of that very first album?
DN: The thing that immediately drew me to it, regardless of Phyllis’ voice, was the fact that she had songs by and was working in some way with Thom Bell because he was absolutely, easily one of my favorite producers/songwriters. I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of years before that and we did our first Blues & Soul interview together. And we (Thom Bell and I) created a bond. There was something about the way we related to each other; we just really, really got along well. I loved his songs. I loved his production work. So when I got the Phyllis Hyman album and saw that there were some songs, in fact the ones you mentioned, “Loving You-Losing You” and “I Don’t Want To Lose You”, which of course he recorded on The Spinners, I was like “oh yeah”.
Now you have to know that I also heard Phyllis of course, like everybody else from “Betcha By Golly Wow”, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know her voice. And again that was another Thom Bell / Linda Creed song. So I loved the album; I genuinely loved the album. It wasn’t “oh let me just go in here and be nice to the artist and tell them how fabulous it is” and all that. It was really, really a great piece of work and those two songs in particular were the ones that drew me in. And when I did interview her, I was excited about talking to her. I loved the record. I absolutely loved the record.
DMJ: It’s a testament to someone’s talent when they do a cover and you almost don’t remember the original. And that’s my opinion about The Spinners and “I Don’t Want To Lose You”. You know Phyllis’ version and you forget that The Spinners ever did it.
At the beginning of the discussion here, you said that even before you interviewed her there was all this buzz surrounding her. Describe for me what you meant. Was there chatter going on within the industry or was it within the New York scene there?
DN: It was really the New York press people that I would be around. Back in those days, it was a small group of what was called the “Black press”. And because Blues & Soul was clearly focused entirely on Black music, I was a member of that group. It was a small group, not hundreds, a handful of people in fact, maybe twenty at the most. We would always be at functions together. Back then record companies had parties for people, for new releases, showcases and these things would bring us together. My recollection is that some of my colleagues, two people [in particular] that wrote for the newspaper, The Amsterdam News, Marie Moore and Gene Gillis said, “Oh have you heard this singer Phyllis Hyman…” I think the other person who mentioned her to me was the guy who was my photographer at the time, Billy Pierce, Jr. He used to go with me on a lot of interviews and he kept in-the-know with what was going on in New York. I don’t know if any record execs may have mentioned her… Certainly because she was performing at those places I mentioned, that’s how the buzz got out anyway. So it was just buzz, when people start talking about somebody. And with “Betcha By Golly Wow” being played on the radio, her name became known to most people in New York.
DMJ: At some point you established an actual friendship with Phyllis. Was that something that started from that very first interview? Did you guys connect at that time?
DN: Yes, we absolutely did. And part of it was because we were neighbors. That just helped. And literally, what would happen was we would run into each other. It wasn’t like she was someone you could mistake for someone else! She was really tall and she did wear hats. Those hats weren’t just something you know (for the stage). I remember her wearing hats in the streets. So we would run into each other, just walking down the street sometimes. We didn’t have long conversations but we did strike up a personal rapport from that first time. And again, she was just excited that someone from another country was into her music and it started from there. I remember going over to her apartment subsequently with her and Larry, just talking about music. I took her over some cassette tapes of some songs I was writing and her critiques, she wouldn’t do them while I was sitting there. It was just a friendly interchange and then as each of her records came out, I would do interviews. The very next one was for SOMEWHERE IN MY LIFETIME. And we would just see each other at different things. She would go to functions, music industry parties and events. We developed a knowing each other from that.
[Editorial note: while preparing to add this to SoulMusic.com after the interview was completed, David recalled a reflection on his then-burgeoning relationship with Phyllis: , “There was one more little story that I don’t know that I ever shared with anyone…not sure if I even included it in “The Soulful Divas.” Since Phyllis and I had struck up a friendship, I asked her if she would be willing to come to one of my rehearsals with a band I was working with, preparing for a ‘live’ show. I had a cold that day so I wasn’t in the best of moods. Phyllis did indeed show up along with a lady named Pearl who I’d also invited – Pearl had been Nina Simone’s secretary and worked at the time with manager Sid Seidenberg who was handling B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips – and Pearl was also working with Melba Moore in some way.
Anyway, we were waiting to get the rehearsal started but the drummer was late! I was so embarrassed. I had this legit recording artist taking time to attend my rehearsal and we couldn’t start. Well, I lost my patience and we started anyway… When the drummer strolled in, I cussed him out right there and then, on the spot, loudly in front of everyone, Phyllis, Pearl and the rest of the band! It was not good. Don’t forget I had been around some divas by then and I could be one myself…I probably still can if need be! LOL Anyway, after the rehearsal – which didn’t really go well for me vocally because of the cold and me being upset with the drummer – Phyllis took me aside and said, ‘It was ok. You got some work to do on your vocals… But, David…don’t ever, ever cuss someone out like that in public! Never. You can take them aside and tell them afterwards but never in front of everyone and especially when you have guests!” I apologized and felt bad about it…. And there was a PS to the story. A few months later, me and the band were at Rust Brown’s – where Phyllis used to perform when she first got to New York – and all of a sudden, I looked up and saw…a hat! There was only one person who wore hats like that! Phyllis had no idea I would be there singing…she was there to meet up with a friend of hers just to get a drink and hang out. When I spotted her, I was a little terrified…knowing that this was her first time seeing me ‘live’ after that ’ memorable’ rehearsal. She didn’t stay for both sets but next day, we spoke and she told me she had particularly enjoyed my rendition of “Kansas City”. She was actually referring to “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” an old blues number I had learned from an Aretha Franklin album and while she got the title wrong, I felt a certain validation from having Phyllis pay me the compliment…”]
We did have our first little…difference of opinion, and I’m trying to remember the exact circumstances of it. I think I went to one of her shows and I brought somebody with me and later, the next time I saw her she said, “you need to watch some of the people that hang around with you because they’re only around you because of what you do as a music journalist.” And I was a little annoyed. I don’t know what I said in reply but it was probably something like, “that’s none of your business.” It was kind of like that. “I appreciate your giving me the benefit of your infinite wisdom but that has nothing to do with you.” I don’t know what she picked up on or whatever vibe she got from the person that made her say that.
DMJ: The SOMEWHERE IN MY LIFETIME album was the beginning of her relationship with Arista Records. And you said you interviewed her again around that time. Was she excited about that whole Arista beginning?
DN: No! She was there by default. She signed to Buddah, she never signed to Arista. She became an Arista artist because Arista bought Buddah. I don’t know that Phyllis Hyman would have ever been on Arista if that hadn’t happened because of the kind of person she was. There are artists who never get credited as producers because they’re not given that role officially. But they know what they’re doing in the studio. And vocalists, many I’ve met are very conscious of what they want to do with a song. So they essentially are producing themselves. And there are a myriad of examples of that. I don’t have to go any further than Aretha at Atlantic to tell you that Jerry Wexler never, that I know of, told Aretha Franklin how to sing. He [probably] didn’t say, ‘try this or try that.’ He might have offered something but the genesis of the approach to a song came from her. And with Phyllis, she knew what she wanted to do. I wasn’t there but I would very much doubt that Norman Connors, when he produced “Betcha By Golly Wow”, did anything other than give her the track. She had very definite ideas of what she wanted to do. She knew her own voice. She knew what she wanted to do with it. And one of Phyllis’ biggest gifts was her ability to interpret a lyric. That’s the essence of what people love about her. She knew how to inhabit a lyric, to live inside the lyric and to make it real for people, which is a great gift.
I think a lot of her Buddah material, she had a lot of say in how that went and what songs were chosen. And now here she is with someone who already has a reputation as a hit maker, someone who has already been responsible for reviving a couple of careers and who already has a long history in the music industry. I am referring of course to Clive Davis. He didn’t sign Phyllis Hyman. He’s not the person who discovered her. He acquired her by default too. So it was not a match made in heaven. While on the record, she would talk about, “oh I’m so happy with the album, so happy with the Barry Manilow track”, off the record, she wasn’t happy at all! She felt that she was being kind of coerced into doing things she didn’t like. I remember one song she really, really didn’t like that’s on that album, called “Kiss You All Over”.
DMJ: Yeah that was a cover of an Exile song.
DN: She hated it. She hated it. She hated it! She was like, “why am I singing this piece of___” Fill in the blank. Now she didn’t go into interviews saying that, but when we would talk off the record, she would just be like, “I don’t want to be doing this. This is a Mickey Mouse kind of song. Why am I doing it?” Because she had a sense of who she was, musically. And that wasn’t who she was. So that was an example of when Clive was like “oh I want you to do this song.” Then it became more blatant when she worked with Mtume and Reggie Lucas. Essentially, she was assigned to them because they were hot; they were hot with Stephanie Mills and Arista or Clive wanted her to have a hit.
DMJ: And that was for the YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE ME album.
DN: Exactly. As a singer, Barry Manilow probably directed Phyllis a little bit. And you’ll notice that they only did one song together on that SOMEWHERE IN MY LIFETIME album, the title track. And I’m sure there’s a reason why they only did one. It had to do with her not being comfortable with being directed and produced in the conventional sense of the word. Barry Manilow, as a singer, would have been more hands-on and the same was true for Mtume and Lucas because they were musicians. Norman Connors was a musician too. I don’t want to take anything away from Norman Connors but I was in the studio with Mtume and Lucas when they worked with Stephanie Mills on one occasion. It was very, very hands-on. It was like, “nope, do it again…no, do it again…no, do it again,” especially Mtume. And Phyllis didn’t take too kindly to “let’s do it again, do it again, do it again.” It wasn’t even a comfortable situation in the studio. And as I have told the story many times, in the actual recording of the song “You Know How To Love Me”, there’s a long note. I knew Mtume and Reggie so they said come to the studio and of course I knew Phyllis so she didn’t mind. So I stopped by when she was actually at the point of doing that note and it was rough because Mtume was like, “nope, I need another one, I need another one, I need another take.” And she finally just lost it and she cussed him out. She goes, “I’m going to give you one more, _____” and she used an expletive that began with “M” and it wasn’t “Mtume”! And she did it. She did the note and she did exactly what he wanted. And he said, “that’s it!”
DMJ: And is that the one that we hear on the actual record?
DN: Yup. And then she said, “right M_____” and [again] she didn’t say “Mtume”. And she said, “I’m taking a break,” and marched out. I’m sitting there like “oooh, I better not say nothing to her, leave her alone.” She came back and Mtume had put a rose on the microphone as a way of saying, “thank you” to her. Of course, then she was like butter; she just melted. And then I made my exit so I don’t know what happened after that. The point being, she made this record that was much more successful than its predecessor and then she did an interview with either myself or someone else for Blues & Soul and she made it clear that she wasn’t happy with having worked with them and she wouldn’t work with them again. And she didn’t.
DN: It wasn’t a walk in the park. Certain people, certain artists, they are willing to speak up. And some just bite the bullet and go along with the program. Phyllis wasn’t that kind of human being. That’s probably why I liked her personally, because I like people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in.
DMJ: You said that Phyllis was very much aware of what she brought to the table in terms of her talent and how she wanted to sing and what she wanted to sing, but did she have, in your opinion, a good idea of what the audience, the general public, was responding to? For example, was she ever like, “I don’t like working with these people or singing these songs but the fans seem to love it?” Did she have any feeling about that?
DN: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think she thought like that. I don’t think she ever sang many songs from that album. She did sing “You Know How to Love Me” but I don’t remember hearing her do any other song from there.
DMJ: And what was your personal opinion of the YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE ME album?
DN: I…liked it…but it’s not my favorite Phyllis Hyman album. It isn’t because of how she felt about it. I just felt it was a little, I don’t want to say cookie cutter, but I didn’t hear a lot of ‘Phyllis’ on there. I heard a lot of Mtume, Reggie Lucas. They produced it and they had a particular way that they wrote songs and they had a particular way that they did production. You probably could’ve put Stephanie Mills on those tracks just as easily as you put Phyllis on them and they would’ve sounded great too. I don’t know to what degree they were tailor made for Phyllis. They probably wrote the songs for the album but I don’t know that they had much to do with Phyllis and her personality. It didn’t feel very personal to me.
DMJ: It would be a couple of years before she would come out with another album, CAN’T WE FALL IN LOVE AGAIN. Was that something she was a little more happy with? Was that more of the sound she was trying to do?
DN: She seemed a little happier with that and parts of GODDESS OF LOVE and the reason why she seemed happier with those is because they were reuniting her with two people who had obviously made a big difference in her career up to that point, which were Norman Connors and Thom Bell. So those parts of the records that involved Norman and Thom, she was happy with. She absolutely hated “Riding The Tiger”. She really hated it.
DMJ: I knew you were going to go there.
DN: I don’t know how Narada Michael Walden got her to do it. Knowing him and having interviewed him before, knowing his personality, the only thing I can think of is he probably had to do a LOT of convincing to get her to do that because she refused to do the song on stage. She never ever performed it. And even though it was the single and Clive and all of the promotion people really like it, and these were the days when you had to have a 12” single in order to get played in clubs, they did that, she just….uuugghhh, (didn’t like it).
At that point, her relationship with Arista had deteriorated severely. I think having to do that (song) was part of what made her be like, “let me get out of here.” She was very clear in conversations with me that were not for print that she really didn’t like Clive, didn’t like his approach, she didn’t particularly like him as a person. And I have a very strong memory of running into her after she came out of a meeting with Arista and Clive, we ran into each other in the neighborhood, and I said, “are you alright?” and she said, “I just came from a meeting and I’m sick of him, who does he think he is!” She just kind of went off. She went off because she felt that she was dealing with someone who related to her like a product rather than a human being. I don’t know how those meetings went, I wasn’t there. But it was just a really bad match. I think that affected how she felt about recording.
DMJ: I know she wasn’t too fond of the title track either on GODDESS OF LOVE. It’s funny that she didn’t like “Riding The Tiger” because I think, and this is just my personal opinion, in terms of vocal performance, she gave that song everything that it needed, for what that song was about. For somebody who really didn’t like the song and really didn’t want to record it, the final product was really amazing. I recognize that it was fluff and that’s not what she wanted to do, but when you listen to the final product and you don’t know the back story, you’re like…wow, that’s an interesting track.
DN: The one thing that she did do, even with things she obviously didn’t care for, she brought a level of professionalism and did what she needed to do. But that doesn’t mean she liked it. In other words, you can’t tell any of that from listening to it as you correctly pointed out, but it doesn’t mean that’s not how she felt. She was not a happy camper, as they say.
DMJ: To shorten the story a little bit, that was the last album for Arista, correct?
DMJ: And then there would be a few years before she finally came out with the LIVING ALL ALONE album. When you talked to her around that time, what was her feeling about that album?
DN: She was really, really happy. She felt, with Kenny Gamble in particular, she had found someone who understood her. She was very open in saying straight out, “one of the things I love about Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff is that they’re the Black owners of a record company.” She didn’t have any concern with how that might appear in print or what people might think about it. She went intentionally on the record that that was something that made her feel very good and she was very proud of being associated with a Black owned record company. She loved it! And she didn’t make any bones about it. And she felt Kenny Gamble understood who she was as an artist and she was immensely proud of LIVING ALL ALONE as an album. She was thrilled in particular with “Old Friend” because it was a Thom Bell / Linda Creed song.
She felt that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had given her the creative freedom she was absolutely yearning for at Arista. The fact that she did “What You Won’t Do For Love” on there, that was something she did in her stage show, so Gamble/Huff were like, “fine, if that’s a song you love doing, it’s fine to do it, no problem.” It was a tremendous sense of freedom and what a relief after what she felt she had experienced before. She loved that album and was so proud of it. I remember very vividly seeing her at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles at the time of the release of that album and she’s be doing the show and they’d have this dry ice effect that would begin at the song “Living All Alone”, so she’d walk through what appeared to be smoke and the people went absolutely crazy when she starting singing. The music would begin and with the smoke, and here’s this elegant lady. She looked really great and everybody went nuts. That was one of my fondest memories of seeing Phyllis Hyman live. She was feeling really good about the music and it showed. She also asked members of the audience if they had particular things they wanted her to sing and she would sing a few lines from some of them. One song that stays in my mind that people asked her to do was “Complete Me” from the YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE ME album. Her with the audience was like a love affair.
DMJ: And there were so many good songs on LIVING ALL ALONE. For me as a listener, it did two things that I guess she wasn’t able to do at Arista: it had a mainstream feel while at the same time remaining true to she wanted to do. I guess that was the plan at Arista. Do you have any favorite songs from LIVING ALL ALONE?
DN: Oh yeah, well I have one: I love the title track! I thought it was moody and personal for her. And at that time, I could relate to it myself. I knew what she was singing about so it meant something to me too. The other song on there that I love is “You Just Don’t Know”.
DMJ: I love that too.
DN: (sings)…”you just don’t know” Ooops, sorry. (laughs)
DMJ: And I like “First Time Together”. I heard someone say it’s like a blueprint of a first date.
DN: And I like the way she did “What You Won’t Do For Love”. I really did. And “Screaming At The Moon”, I love that too. I just thought it was a great album. It was such a triumph, musically.
DMJ: Well, here’s the thing: she has this great product out, she’s very satisfied with it, she’s satisfied with the record company, she’s happy on a professional level, but then the next album doesn’t come out until five years later. Do you know why there was such a gap in time?
DN: I think there were issues with the record company. I don’t know that they were Phyllis issues, as much as they were issues with the record company itself being able to continue. Gamble and Huff were going through a lot of changes with the label and I think it was more from a business standpoint. I don’t think it was because she didn’t want to go in the studio. The set up wasn’t working really well at that point for Gamble and Huff so they waited until it was all sorted out before putting out another record. I don’t think it had much to do with Phyllis as an artist but unfortunately it did have an effect, which is whatever she was dealing with in her personal life, it probably compounded it.
Some people live for years without recording. They’ll make records every now and again and they don’t care. They have enough of a career where they can just work all the time and making a record is incidental. They’ll make one when they feel like it, if they feel like it. And then there are some people whom making a record is essential, particularly in that time period we’re talking about, the 80’s and early 90’s. It really was important to have product out. Unlike today where everyone can do their own thing, back then you were totally at the mercy of a record company putting a record out. And of course, what that meant was, if you had a new record out, you could get out there and work. You could go to a promoter or go to clubs and say,’I have a new record out’ and that would be a basis for them booking you. Now Phyllis had been fortunate in that she built up enough of a name that she could continue to work, so she wasn’t without any work. But making a record does make a difference. For someone like her, I’m sure that period of time without a record out was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of contact with her at that point because I moved to L.A. and she wasn’t there that often so we didn’t run into each other that often. I don’t know that we saw each other for years, not for any negative reason , just that we were in different places.
DMJ: Eventually, THE PRIME OF MY LIFE album did come out. Do you remember if you had any interviews with her for that album?
DN: Yeah. Absolutely I did. For that record, I was hired to be the bio writer because of my relationship with her and with Gamble and Huff. I interviewed her for the bio and for Blues & Soul and I believe for Billboard. She was elated to be back with a record, of course. She and I didn’t agree about “Don’t Wanna Change The World”. I don’t know that I told her I didn’t like it but it was pretty obvious. And she was out there promoting it and it did well.
DMJ: Did she like “Don’t Wanna Change The World”?
DN: She liked it when it became her first number one record. I don’t know that she loved it, but she loved the fact that she had a number one record for the first time in her life. DMJ: I’m asking because it seemed aligned to those other kind of fluff songs that she despised in the past. And at least on that song, she was doing a little bit of the same thing.
DN: I think she recognized that she’d been away from recording for a while, she didn’t have anything on the radio except old music and I think she was gratified that people embraced it and that they went all out to push it. Whether she actually liked the song itself, I don’t know. I do remember having a conversation with her in which I let her know that I liked other things on the album better and she was a little defensive and said, “well I need to get out there and that song is helping me get out there.” So I was like, “ok, I got it, I understand.” But there are so many other great songs on there that to me, “Don’t Wanna Change The World” is like the worst thing on there to be honest with you. There are some things on there I loved. As most Phyllis Hyman fans, I loved “Meet Me On The Moon”. That’s a great song.
DMJ: My feeling about that particular song, and I hope I can find the words to explain it, is I think only Phyllis Hyman could have made that song work. I think that song is one anyone could easily screw up because of the lyric. When I try to imagine other singers’ voices on that song, I don’t get a good feeling. I think because Phyllis brought so much of her own sense of passion and her own internal sense of romance and yearning to that song, it was so much more than the song. The song itself, the words to me are kind of like..eh, ok. But you add in that performance and now this is a masterpiece.
DN: It’s a great performance. And I did see her do it live as part of her show at a theater in Los Angeles called The Wiltern and Will Downing was the special guest opening for her. She did “Meet Me On The Moon” and it was one of the high points of the evening. She sang several songs from that album but apparently she hadn’t learned them completely and so she had someone come out with a music stand with the lyrics on it and she would sing the song looking at the lyrics. And instead of leaving the thing there, the person would take it off stage and bring it back again for another new song.
DMJ: And it became really obvious.
DN: Well, yeah!!
DMJ: I heard about some of those shows actually.
DN: Personally, I was a little appalled by it. That’s unprofessional. You should learn the songs; these are your recordings. I’ve only seen one other person do that and that was Diana Ross and for the same reason.
DMJ: I went to see Anita Baker around the time of the COMPOSITIONS album. I don’t know if she will see this but please forgive me. The concert itself was good, she was in good voice but she screwed up many of the words to many of the songs. And my little section of the audience was like, “wow, she doesn’t even know her own songs.” So you’re right, it can have that unprofessional feel.
DN: I suppose in order to avoid that, you put the music stand there but it’s like, “couldn’t you have just spent some time learning the songs after you recorded them?” But anyway, that particular song, “Meet Me On The Moon”, stands out for me as one that people enjoyed.
DMJ: “Living In Confusion” got a lot of airplay. It still does today.
DN: I think she said that song meant a lot to her because it really reflected how she felt sometimes. I think she talked a little bit about it, not much.
DMJ: I know she talked about “Walk Away”. She recorded it shortly after a break-up and she took all of that into the studio. She did talk about that on the record. You’ve had this long standing relationship with Phyllis. You’ve shared highs and lows and opinions and differences, so with all of this knowledge you have about who she was as a talent and as a person, do you have an idea of what you think her favorite album was?
DN: I don’t know if we’ve ever had that particular discussion. But if I had to guess, I would probably say it was LIVING ALL ALONE. Although, she really, really liked THE PRIME OF MY LIFE. She was very proud of it. She had started to write songs [like “Living In Confusion”] and she was very proud that she was doing that. That was part of the very last interview session we had, her talking about how important that was for her. She started contributing to her own music, as a writer. So I would say it’s a toss-up between THE PRIME OF MY LIFE and LIVING ALL ALONE.
DMJ: My favorite is LIVING ALL ALONE. I remember doing a review of that album. I don’t remember what I said but all these years later when you listen to that, the songs still sound fresh. Most of the material sounds like something that could come out today. And she’s done lots of timeless songs that don’t get a lot of recognition. It’s always astounding when an artist can contribute so many timeless pieces. Normally, you listen to a lot of artists, you like their old music but it still sounds dated. You can hear that 90’s period or that 80’s sound. It’s rare that you find an artist who you can listen to their music at any point in time and it still sounds fresh and new. So what is your favorite Phyllis Hyman album?
DN: It’s a toss up between that and the first Buddah album, PHYLLIS HYMAN. I’m hard pressed to say which one. It probably is the first one. “Loving You-Losing You”, I love “No One Can Love You More”, I love “I Don’t Want to Lose You”, “Deliver The Love”, “Night Bird Gets The Love”, I mean I love those songs. So only because there are more songs on there that I really love, I would have to say that’s my favorite. Closely followed by LIVING ALL ALONE.
DMJ: As we wrap up our conversation, let me ask you this for the new generation of fans who may be discovering Phyllis’ music for the first time or maybe even reading this and wondering, “who is Phyllis Hyman”, how would you best describe what Phyllis has done musically?
DN: It’s a little bit of a tough call but I guess I would say the real artistry of Phyllis Hyman for me was her ability to do two things. First, she was able to bring a certain kind of jazz sensibility to much of her work, which is obvious in her phrasing. As important, she was someone who knew how to fuse certain things, like pop, R&B and jazz in a palatable way that could appeal to a wide audience. Some people who may have listened to jazz or have inhabited that world to some degree are not able to use that to reach a wide audience. But Phyllis used what she knew from years of singing standards before she ever recorded, to develop her own style. Her art was her ability to fuse different flavors of pop, jazz and R&B into her work.
And then secondly and probably more importantly, she was for me and others who listen to her music today, someone who really knew about lyrical interpretation. She knew how to invest herself into a lyric so that it became believable, that she owned it and that it left an impression. You can still listen to any of the songs we mentioned (and hear that). Another song that was one of my favorites from her Arista years is “Just Another Face In The Crowd”. I love that song. I love how she sings it. It sounds real to me. I don’t remember ever talking to her about the song particularly, but I just love the song. So she had that ability. And it’s a gift everybody doesn’t have. There are some great singers in the world who have great voices and we marvel at their range and what they do technically, but to be able to interpret a lyric is a whole other ball of wax. And Phyllis was someone who really understood the importance of interpretation.
DMJ: I think that’s a good way to end here. I appreciate your taking the time to talk about your friend and it’s always good to talk to you. So thank you.
DN: Why, thank you.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.