Phyllis Hyman Box Set


I still remember the first time I met Phyllis Hyman.  New York City, her West 55th St. apartment, oneblock away from mine on West 56th St,. between 8th and 9th Avenue, March 1977.  As was the case for much of my first few years as the resident correspondent for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” magazine, I was assigned to interview as many of the new artists who were considered ‘suitable’ for inclusion in the UK’s premier publication devoted to black music, in particular soul, R&B, some jazz and some blues and of course, the burgeoning dance/disco scene.  I had already established myself as the ‘go to’ guy for ensuring coverage in the UK and beyond by the key publicists working in the ‘black music departments’ at Columbia, Epic, Atlantic, Warner Brothers, RCA, A&M, Polydor and other major companies as well as labels like Buddah, Salsoul, Curtom, Hi and of course, Motown, Philadelphia International and Solar, among others.

I don’t recall exactly who called me to do my first interview with Phyllis, although Buddah Records – for whom she had recorded her first full LP – was a medium-sized company with an office on Broadway, in the same neighbourhood as Phyllis and I.  Sylvia Rhone, who would go on to become a major music industry executive in the decades that followed, was quite possibly the then-Buddah staffer (who I had met a few times before in conjunction with doing features on Norman Connors, Melba Moore and Michael Henderson) who called about Phyllis.  It might have been another New York publicist – the name Von Alexander springs to mind!  Be that as it may, I am conducting my interview with Phyllis not at the offices of Buddah, rather at her home.  The invitation to an artist’s home was an unusual occurrence back in the day and indicative of the kind of more personal association that I would develop with the statuesque singer in the years that followed…

With her then-husband Larry Alexander (who had produced songs on her Buddah debut along with L.A.-based producer/arranger Jerry Peters and Philly-based John Davis), Phyllis was happy to share about her arrival in New York after a few years in Miami, working with Larry as part of her own group, The P/H Factor.  As she stated, “It’s destiny or karma or whatever you want to call it but we started working straight away at Rust Brown’s Restaurant [located on Manhattan’s upper West side] – 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…”

A whole lot of things indeed, including a bevvy of celebrities and established recording artists such as George Benson, Roberta Flack, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Lamont Dozier, George Harrison, Cuba Gooding and others. Word of mouth (long before the days of the internet!) was a powerful way to gain a reputation and while I didn’t get to see Phyllis in those early days at Rust Brown’s or Mikell’s, another famed niterie, I had heard ‘the word on the street’ about her dynamic performances.  Her powerful voice, her unmistakable presence (at six-foot tall) and her sense of style all combined to make Phyllis Hyman a ‘star’ in the making. 

In our interview, Phyllis smiled as she shared about how different record companies – Atlantic, CBS, Warners – were courting her but she choose to sign with Buddah, a much smaller outfit because she had been impressed with their marketing of drummer Norman Connors’ ‘commercial breakthrough’ with the LP “You Are My Starship,” which had provided Phyllis with her first full-on recognition by the record buying public via her unforgettable interpretation of The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” written by the Philly master tunesmiths, Thom Bell and Linda Creed.

My first meeting with Phyllis was warm and friendly and I distinctly remember stepping out of her apartment with a pep in my step, feeling good about our conversation as I headed round the corner to my studio flat on West 56th.  I entitled the ‘Blues & Soul’ article, ‘This Lady’s Got Star Karma,’ riffing off her own comments about ‘destiny’ and ‘karma’ playing a role in her ascendancy into the realms of favoured singer’s singer! 

Within a few weeks, I had dropped off a cassette tape for Phyllis and Larry to hear of songs I’d written that I hope she might consider for future recording. Phyllis was polite if not enthused although Larry seemed more encouraging!  That said, when I asked Phyllis if she would consider checking out my rehearsal with the band I put together for my own first live show in New York, she gladly agreed.  Boy, talk about pressure!  I was acutely aware of her presence as I went through the paces on a range of cover songs I was considering for my Manhattan debut, awaiting her constructive comments. Unfortunately, the late arrival of the drummer, Shabar, didn’t exactly set the mood for the occasion: I cussed him out – in true ‘diva’ style (apparently having learned from the best!) – right in front of the rest of the band, put together by my musical director, the very talented keyboard player, Steve Hyman who – on meeting Phyllis at the rehearsal, suggested they might be ‘distant cousins’ causing as I recall, an eye roll from the lady herself! 

Once the rehearsal got going, it went ok.  Phyllis had some reflections on the songs I had chosen before she took me aside to let me know one golden rule: “David,” she said with a somewhat stern tone, “never, ever cuss out musicians in front of others. It’s unprofessional and it doesn’t matter if it’s a rehearsal, it doesn’t work!” I took the words to heart, knowing that Phyllis had perfected her own performance skills before she began her recording career and knew a thing or two about the ethics of getting the best out of those with whom one shared the stage.  She showed up unexpectedly at one of my rare performances in Manhattan, ironically at Rust Brown’s and I remember seeing ‘the hat’ (so much a part of Phyllis’ stylish attire) before I realised that she was right there in the intimate venue checking out the performance!  Talk about getting nervous!  Next day, she called to say she really enjoyed my rendition of the blues “Kansas City,” which in fact was “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” (which I had learned from listening to Aretha Franklin’s version on the 1965 LP, “Yeah!!!”).

Over the years of us both living in Manhattan back then, much happened. Since we lived in the same neighbourhood, we ran into each other a few times as well as doing more interviews for “Blues & Soul.”  Given her physical stature, it was hard to miss Ms. Hyman!  Memorable occasions include a rant after she came from a meeting at her then-record label, the language of which was, shall we say, ‘salty’! Another time, I was walking down 8th Avenue during the time Phyllis was wowing audiences with her amazing performances in “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway and she invited me to have a bite to eat at a deli in the ‘hood, telling me how challenging she found the schedule of the successful musical although clear that it was an incredible career opportunity…

There are more memories…like the time I stupidly brought a friend to an interview session when she was performing in L.A. during the time I lived there. True story, I wanted to watch the soap opera “Dynasty” and Phyllis was watching something else on the television, called up to her road manager in another room and asked if I could come to her room to see the latest instalment of the drama series.  I left my friend in the room with Phyllis and he was so enthused about meeting her that he actually sat on her bed, much to her horror.  She called through to her road manager and told me in no uncertain terms to ‘forget ‘Dynasty’ and come and get your friend!’ Needless to say, we rescheduled the interview after Phyllis called the next morning to tell me NEVER to bring anyone to an interview again!  Duly noted. (And in a delicious touch of irony, 2021, I find myself watching 'Dynasty,' the new version on Netflix, as hooked now as I was then! I wonder what Phyllis would make of that!)

2020, twenty-five years after I got the call from my friend Johnny Butler to tell me Phyllis was no longer with us, I’m now back in London, working with my SoulMusic Records’ label as a reissue producer, feeing that it is truly time to put together a project to honour the legacy of Phyllis Hyman.  I had already participated in reissuing some of her recordings and I recognized that the reverence for Phyllis, her ability to move listeners with her undeniable artistry had lost none of its shine, and that she was so deserving of continued recognition, even if the music industry at large had never accorded Phyllis her ‘props’…

And back to karma: what a joy and a true privilege to pay homage to a woman who left an indelible impression on me personally, with the 2021 release of the 9CD box set, appropriately entitled “Old Friend” after one of her most treasured recordings.  Putting it together with my longtime friend, the executrix of Phyllis’ estate, Glenda Gracia has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my personal mission to give gratitude to artists who have enriched my life and the lives of so many others…

”Star karma” it seems endures in a mysterious and timeless way…

Thank you, Phyllis. This nightbird indeed gets the love…


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