Phyllis Hyman: This Lady's Got Star Karma
March 1977, In person interview conducted by David Nathan in New York City at Phyllis Hyman's apartment on W. 55th St.
“This lady’s got star karma…The buzz about Phyllis Hyman started amongst the superstar elite. It hasn’t taken long for the word to get around…”
The proverbial word is out! Whenever you hear that buzz amongst entertainers and industry folk about a ‘new discovery’ and wherever you go, the same name keeps cropping up in the conversation, then you know it’s about to happen to someone. That someone, in this instance, happens to be the lovely Ms Phyllis Hyman.
Phyllis was subject of those ‘word of mouth’ recommendations from all and sundry as a result of her success via her work with Norman Connors – it was her vocals on the old Stylistics’ hit, “Betcha By Golly Wow” that help catapult the “You Are My Starship” album into the best sellers in the States for Mr. Connors – and it was the combination of Phyllis and Michael Henderson on “We Both Need Each Other” which gave the album another boost when it was released as a single during 1976.
In addition, Phyllis enjoyed her own success with a single, “Baby (I’m Gonna Love You)” released last year on the Desert Moon label – which made some progress on the US R&B listings. That was all in the preparation of the acceptance she’s getting right now for her own debut album on Buddah Records which is taking off all across the country, highlighted by the beautiful “Loving You – Losing You” from the pen of none other than Thom Bell.
I tracked the busy lady down in her midtown Manhattan apartment – she actually lives one block away from this writer: “I’ve been singing since I was a young girl,” the charming lady relates. “You know, singing in church, in colleges. I’m from Pittsburgh and when I decided it was time to make my career seriously, I realized that there wasn’t exactly a surplus of work in my hometown!”
When the opportunity presented for Phyllis to go down to Miami, Florida, she took it “and spent about three years there, working in and around town. In 1975, in fact, I put my own group together and we decided it was time to make a move. So we packed our thing and moved to New York.”
With husband Larry Alexander (a talented gentleman in his own right – having worked with both B.T. Express and Brass Construction and now one half of Tornader, currently making a lot of sales noise on Polydor) managing and directing Ms. Hyman’s career with her. Phyllis soon found herself working.
“It’s destiny or karma or whatever you want to call it but we started working straight away at Rust Brown’s Restaurant – doing contemporary material, originals, album cuts that no one knew! I guess we were there for about one and a half months and a whole lot of things came out of it. Norman (Connors) stopped by and checked me out and asked me work with him. The result, of course, was the three tracks on the ‘Starship’ album plus I went on the road with Norman for a short time, which gave me exposure to a lot of major markets. We’re feeling the impact of that now – people are aware of me from having seen me perform with Norman and it’s really helped my album a great deal.”
In addition to Mr. Connors, a whole host of other people dropped by to check Phyllis out.”Ashford and Simpson, Al Jarreau, George Harrison, Lamont Dozler, George Benson, Cuba Gooding – it was just fantastic and so unexpected!”
With so many people spreading the word Phyllis had no problem getting a follow-up gig at Mikell’s, a favourite ‘hangout’ place for entertainers. “Whilst we were there, all the record companies came down – CBS, Atlantic, Warners – everyone. But we didn’t make a decision on the spot.”
At that point, Phyllis was already signed with Desert Moon Productions had had one single out on Private Stock. ”But it did nothing at all. Those sessions were produced by George Kerr and when came to record again, the company let us choose the material so we did dome of Larry’s tunes including ‘Baby’. The record was released around the end of April last year and year end by August, it was starting to break in a few markets.” It was paving the way for Phyllis current chart success with Buddah.
Phyllis states, “We decided to go with Buddah Records because we liked what we saw in terms of the promotion that the company was doing with Norman, amongst other things. So they bought my contract from Desert Moon and when I came off the road, we started working on the album. It was [executive] Lewis Merenstein who suggested that we use three sets of producers because we wanted to show as many different sides of me as possible. I’d already cut four songs with Larry towards the end of last year and the company dug what were doing. Included in there was ‘The Night Bird Gets The Love’ – which is a pretty unique example of racial harmony – it was written by a Muslim and a Jew!”
The balance of the album was divided into tracks cut in Philly with John Davis and in Los Angeles with Jerry Peters. Says Phyllis, “It was really heavy – because there was such good vibes between everyone. There was no one pulling rank on anyone and you know. I was kinda nervous and excited at the same time because this was my first solo album and I wanted it to be good. It really turned out to be extensions of what Larry and I had been planning for four years and I learned a great deal from the whole experience. Everybody had the freedom they needed to be creative and that in itself was just beautiful. I wanted the album to project what I want to say to the public – and I think it does just that.
“The Thom Bell song came via Jerry Peters – he played it to us when we first went to L.A. and Lewis fell for it straight away and said that’s the one”, I listened to it again and we did it. It’s a beautiful song, really. Then ‘I Don’t Wanna Lose You’ was John Davis’ suggestion – he felt that the song [previously recorded by The Spinners] could use a strong interpretation. ‘No One Could Love You More’ was sent by Skip Scarborough, the guy who’s written for Earth, Wind & Fire and L.T.D. So all around, we had some very strong material to work with.”
Phyllis says that making the album and the aftermath – going to the radio station, record stores and so on, promoting it – has opened up her eyes to a whole new dimension in terms of her career: “I‘ve always subscribed to the belief that your public is the most important thing of all. Going to stores and so on has opened that up to me even more, what with so many records out there. You realise when people pick up your album it’s really something – they have so much to choose from, that it’s an honour. It just reinforces my belief that you don’t take public for granted.”
By the same token, Phyllis is very aware of how the public can project an image onto an entertainer which may not be accurate: “Entertainers are human beings too, susceptible to everything that everyone has to deal with. I‘ve always tried to just be myself, stay regular, because I can’t deal with that whole ego thing. Plus, through the years I’ve learned that that there are things happening in peoples lives beside their careers. In other words it’s dangerous to allow your whole life to revolve around that. You’ve got to be able to do other things besides singing, entertaining, whatever. To me, making records is a bonus, and a blessing and I’m truly grateful for that opportunity. And I’m realistic enough to know that nothing is guaranteed. What you must do is put all the warmth and energy you can into it – if it works out fine. But you must make that effort if you want anything back in return.”
Certainly, Phyllis’s opinions reflect a lady whose head is very much ‘on straight’, as they say. She intends to apply that obvious common sense to her future plans: “Yes, we’ll be going out on tour but it’s not going to be one of those nine months, no break tours! I’d prefer to do selected dates at selected places. I guess small concert halls would be my best vehicles for live performances. And then there’s television, which is a very important medium. I want to get to do all these TV talk shows and so on.”
Certainly, the young lady would be an excellent candidate for one – because she has that important gift of cohesiveness – unlike many other entertainers whose appearances on such shows are just embarrassing because they simply don’t know how to communicate away from music. “I guess I have been a good P.R. person ever since I was at college!” Phyllis laughs.
She concludes; “I want to put back into everything what I’ve taken out. And I really can’t complain about the way the world is treating me right now – it’s been good to me and I want to continue to do my very best for everyone.”