Back in the days before iPods, portable CD players, and my first Walkman, I fell asleep on the backseat of my parents’ car listening to Papa Smurf’s Mellow Moods, a radio show spinning classic R&B from the ‘70s and ‘80s, on the drive home from my grandma’s house every Sunday night. Although I was only 10 or 11 when we stopped making the weekly trip, those nights of being lulled to sleep by Kool and the Gang, Teena Marie, and Phyllis Hyman are so ingrained in my mind that I can’t hear “Summer Madness” or “Old Friend” without wanting to hit the road at night. While all artists Papa Smurf played on his Sunday night set hold a special place in my heart, Phyllis Hyman’s combination of elegance and sass has kept her high on my list of personal style icons.
Phyllis Hyman began her career in the early ‘70s touring with New Direction. By the end of the decade, after years of working the club circuit in New York and covering the classic “Betcha by, Golly Wow” by the Stylistics, Hyman was well on her way to becoming a diva amongst divas. Her hits “Can’t We Fall in Love Again” and “You Know How to Love Me,” earned her moderate success on the R&B and disco charts while she continued to establish herself in the jazz/ pop-jazz genres. It wasn’t until she received a Tony nomination in 1981 for her stint in the Broadway production Sophisticated Ladies, a revue of Duke Ellington’s music, did Hyman begin to garner the mainstream recognition that she deserved.
In 1987, after singing with Philadelphia International Records, Hyman released one of her most well received albums, Living All Alone, that not only highlighted the singers powerful vocal range but also gave fans a glimpse at the feelings of depression that would eventually claim her life. Four years later, in 1991, she released Prime of My Life, Hyman’s last album to be released during her lifetime. On June 30, 1995, a 45 year old Phyllis Hyman was found dead in her New York apartment hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo Theater with a note that read, “ I’m tired of singing. I’m tired of living. Those of you that I love know who you are. May God bless you.” The following November her album I Refuse to Be Lonely was released.
Despite her tragic end, no doubt caused from the stresses of losing both her mother and grandmother in 1993 and the continued pressures to conform to the entertainment industry’s narrow standards of beauty, this statuesque stunner’s class, grace, and poise were beyond compare. Like all disco and R&B divas during her day, Hyman rocked ‘70s and 80’s over the top style like nobody’s business. From dresses dripping bling to cleavage baring frocks, it’s beyond baffling that so many of her songs dealt with loneliness and loss when she should have been beating dudes off with a stick. Her signature ornate style was not complete without a super hot hat. Whether it was wide brimmed and floppy or one of those Nefertiti style toppers that were beloved by both Phyllis Hyman and Queen Latifah in the ‘90s, her headgear was royal wedding worthy.
If you have never been caught up in the rapture of this larger than life songstress, I strongly suggest you check out these videos or rent School Daze, where she makes a cameo singing Be One.
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