Clay Cane is a New York City-based writer who is recognized for his contributions in journalism. Clay is a regular contributor for various print and online publications such as The Advocate and BET.com. He is the author of the highly anticipated novel Ball-Shaped World, which is a fictionalized account of the black and Latino ballroom scene. Also, he is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com and a member of New York Film Critics Online. He can be reached at claycane@gmail.com.


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    Monday, July 09, 2007

    Nine days ago marked the twelve years ago that Phyllis Hyman passed away. Three days ago, on July 6th, was Phyllis Hyman’s birthday, she would’ve been 58 years-old.

    I fell in love with Phyllis Hyman the summer of 1995. Of course it was gay men who forced me to listen to her. They sat me down and played classics like “Meet Me on the Moon” and “Living in Confusion” — immediately I was mesmerized. Hyman had a certain ache in her voice that tapped right into that part of your soul you didn’t visit too often. I remember an old friend explaining the voice of Phyllis, “This is what you call soul, Clay. Her voice is heavy, but she understands it. She knows where she can go with it, she takes her time with each note. This is a soul singer.”

    At that time the Mary J. Blige My Life album was a huge success so everyone in my generation thought Mary was the peak of soul — fools we were. My Life is an excellent ‘90’s R&B album, but it isn’t soul. I actually remember seeing Phyllis Hyman on BET's Video Soul, blasting Mary J. Blige and some of the other R&B singers of the era. Phyllis had no problem speaking her mind as she went on a diatribe how none of these girls really knew how to sing.

    But I digress...these gay men made it a point for me to sit down, shut-up and listen to Phyllis Hyman, Nina Simone, Ruth Brown and so many others. It was a rites of passage of sorts. You have to know your soul music. You have to be able to know how to feel others in order to survive…it makes you a better judge of character, gives you compassion, makes you more progressive and “if you can’t feel Phyllis Hyman then you just have no soul.” I am eternally grateful to have been introduced to the music of Phyllis Hyman, which has completely affected the way I appreciate vocals.

    Phyllis Hyman’s troubles started early in life. Born in Philadelpha in 1949 and raised in Pittsburgh, Hyman allegedly suffered sexual abuse (this hasn't been confirmed). In addition, her mother was manic depressive. She would retreat in music.

    Hyman’s attitude and determination was definitely the driving force that made her a star. By all accounts Hyman was a no holds barred type of lady. At a striking six feet, Hyman would always rock high heels and later in life her signature were the tall, bejeweled hats. One time in a backstage interview a journalist quizzed if her name was fake, saying it was a “strange” name for a performer. Miss Phyllis shot back, "But you remember it though, don't you, honey?"

    By 1977, Hyman released her self-titled debut album. She also reached Broadway in the 1981 musical Sophisticated Ladies, a tribute to Duke Ellington, which would earn her a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award. During this time span Hyman achieved her first top ten hit with "Can't We Fall In Love Again", a duet with Michael Henderson.

    Hyman dedicated a large part of her life to fighting AIDS before it was popular. She joined in several benefit shows and according to http://www.divasthesite.com/, "visted hospices in and around New York. Many patients requested Phyllis' presence, which left the singer feeling inadequate and perplexed as to their reasons for wanting to see her as opposed to a family member or friends."


    Hyman gained great success throughout her career, but, she, like many black female soul singers of the ‘80’s would suffer from the viciousness of the music industry. Artists like Stephanie Mills, Jennifer Holliday, Regina Belle and defintely Phyllis would all be phazed out of the music industry by the mid-1990s…funny how all of these artists are know for “diva” attitudes and being hard to work with, especially Phyllis. I wonder if anyone is taking into considertaion the bloodiness of the music industry? This “diva” attitude was probably their attempt to take control of their career.

    Hyman would suffer with a drug and alcohol problem, weight gain, being a causality of the music industry and bipolar disorder. In addition, her mother died in 1993 — Hyman’s heart was heavy.

    I vividly remember driving through North Philadelphia with two of my best friends. I was in the back seat when we heard on the radio that Phyllis Hyman committed suicide on June 30th, right before a show at the Apollo. “Meet Me on the Moon” played. I had just been introduced to her weeks ago. My friends were in shock and it was the talk of Philadelphia for days. She would posthumously release the eerie “I Refuse To Be Lonely” with the title track sounding like a premonition as she sang, “I can't hold you / Like I want to / Can't hold you to the promises you make / You won't be here tonight / Or any other night… baby I refuse to be lonely.”

    Now, twelve-years later, it seems people have forgotten the legendary Phyllis Hyman. It doesn’t even feel like her legacy lives because, as I mentioned in previous posts, the black female voice is missing from popular music — even within the black community. Nonetheless, Phyllis Hyman was an incredible force. So, this one is to you Sophisticated Lady!

    I know this isn’t a Beyonce post so if you sped read through most of the post — make sure you at least check out the clip below of my favorite Phyllis Hyman performance of all time, "Old Friend".






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    Posted by Clay :: 12:00 AM :: 32 comments

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