Renowned writer and author Jeff Vasishta shares his reflections on meeting one of soul music’s true legends, the late and great Phyllis Hyman…
When I finally got to meet the statuesque and sultry R&B singer, Phyllis Hyman I had no idea quite what a revelation the day would be. At school I’d often gazed longingly at her album covers, mesmerized by her sheer beauty. A former leading diva at music mogul Clive Davis’ Arista Records and Broadway Star of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies”, when we met she had long since been eclipsed by younger artists. However, she was still a favorite of the London based magazine for which I wrote and when she won a readers poll in 1993 I was tasked with the job of interviewing her over the phone. The interview turned personal as I asked her about her romantic life.
“I don’t have a boyfriend right now but the electricity bills are paid, if you know what I mean?” she said with a throaty laugh. I didn’t get her cryptic clue.
“A vibrator, Jeff” she spelled out, leaving me speechless. We continued to talk, the usual formality between a journalist and interviewee long since dispensed. I informed her that was due to be New York the following month and she suggested that I call her and we meet for lunch. “My treat,” she said.
I’d seen Phyllis in concert many times before our interview and knew that she no longer resembled her glamorous former self but the teenager in me was elated at the prospect of meeting a singer he’d once idolized. After such a revealing interview I hoped that perhaps we could become good friends. I imagined an expensive Manhattan restaurant where we’d talk late into the afternoon, she regaling me with show-biz anecdotes, touching my hand occasionally.
I called soon after I’d checked in to my New York hotel.
“Who?” came the response after I’d said my name.
“Jeff, the journalist. I interviewed you a few weeks ago,” I repeated disbelievingly. She seemed to have completely forgotten who I was. We’d spoken for over an hour. She’d confided some of her most personal feelings. She told be about her distress when her close friend, songwriter Linda Creed died of cancer shortly after penning one of her signature songs, “Old Friend”. She spoke of her ex-husband and of course her love life. I hung up the hotel phone, convinced that she may have mistaken me for someone else. I called her manager, Glenda who listened to me with, I felt, a sense of resignation. A few minutes later Glenda, called back and told me to head over to Phyllis’ midtown apartment.
I met the singer downstairs in the lobby. At 6ft 2” in flats she wasn’t easy to miss. Instead of inviting me up she suggested I walk with her while she ran some errands. We strolled along Broadway to Times Square. I attempted to start a conversation but it was as if I wasn’t there. She hardly responded. It wasn’t long before she was spotted as she left the bank where she’d deposited a check.
“Oh my God! Phyllis Hyman,” the fan, a black woman in a business pant suit gushed. “I know you hear this all the time but I adore your music,” she went on. Other people slowed their strides, aware that someone famous was in their midst but not exactly sure who. “Girl, it’s Phyllis Hyman, the best singer ever!” the woman exclaimed to a passer by. Hyman seemed bothered by the adulation and responded with the merest of acknowledgements, trying to brush her admirer off. I couldn’t help but think that Phyllis could have been warmer, said a thank-you and engaged her in a little conversation. When we left she turned to me and said, “She needs to check herself, running up on me like that.” By now I also got the feeling that Phyllis didn’t want me around her either. She’d barely said a word. But it wasn’t her aloofness that struck me on that cloudy Spring afternoon. It was that she seemed so out of it. Stoned, high, vacant. Something wasn’t right. The only time she seemed interested in anything around her was when she spotted jazz drummer Max Roach on the street. She introduced herself. Roach was polite but didn’t seem to know who she was. Then, bizarrely as we passed someone handing out flyers for a strip club with pictures of nude women, Phyllis took some, looked at them and put them in her pocket.
I followed meekly behind her as we approached her apartment building. I felt like I was wearing a pair of too tight jeans on a scorching day at the beach. I wanted to get away from her so I could relax. But what could I say? We rode the elevator in silence to her apartment. It was small and messy with old style parquet floors. Phyllis went straight to the fridge taking out a gallon bottle of Coke, taking slugs without a glass. She then sat down on a bench in front of a wall of photos of her in her scintillating ’70’s and ’80’s prime, all disco gloss, legs, lips and hair. The contrast couldn’t have been more marked. She was swaying on the seat, overweight, slurring her words, her ample chest threatening to spill out. I didn’t know where to look.
“So I’m supposed to get you somethin’ eat something right?” she said, finally acknowledging me.
“Oh no, that’s ok. I ate something earlier,” I bluffed.
“Skinny people always say that,” she said. She stood up, went to a draw and took out a Chinese take out menu and handed it over. “You wanna order?” Earlier I imagined we’d be at a dimly lit five star restaurant. Now I was given a menu with $5 chicken and broccoli to eat alone.
“No that’s ok. I’m really not hungry,” I said.
“Ok. Well I can’t really chat. I’ve got my personal trainer coming over soon,” she said unconvincingly.
I stood up, relieved to have been given an excuse to get out of there. As I walked down the corridor I didn’t feel upset for myself. Just saddened. It was evident that Phyllis Hyman was a desperately unhappy person.
I was living full time in New York a couple of years later when on June 30th 1995 I turned on WBLS to hear the news that she’d committed suicide, an overdose of cheap ambien sleeping pills. It wasn’t her first attempt. I couldn’t say I was that surprised. An excellent biography was published about her 2007, “Strength Of A Woman,” detailing her ongoing battle with drugs, alcohol and her bipolar disorder. It shocked so many people in the music industry because suicides amid black entertainers were so rare. Donny Hathaway, who battled depression and schizophrenia, was the other notable casualty.
Mental illness in black entertainment circles is hardly discussed. In a merciless industry, the ravages of racism, dysfunctional families, corrupt, abusive business practices left many icons clinically depressed and near destitute, hitting the self destruct button hard. It’s often overlooked how many black entertainers die young. It seems like a whole generation has gone prematurely. And now, of course Prince, perhaps the most shocking of all. Scrolling through my iPhone these days can take a toll. Instantly I remember dozens of interviews with so many great artists, some of whom became friends, that are no longer here.
Whenever I hear “You Know How To Love Me” playing on the radio I often think back to my afternoon with Phyllis Hyman and wonder why there has to be so much sadness behind the soul.