Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

My dear, sister Phyllis.

You were tall, statuesque. The system saw you as a model. Some of them were even so crass as to consider you a fine cut of meat, tailor made for mass consumption.

I interviewed you once. Was struck by how relaxed you were. No label handlers. No rushing through the conversation like you would rather be somewhere else. We talked about your younger days. I remember you relaying that you had been a member of the Congress of African People working in community programs.

You did a couple of tracks with Norman Connors, a jazz drummer who achieved momentary popularity producing singers who crossed over. That didn’t last.

I never thought of you as a pop singer, although that was your profession. Had a starring role in a Broadway musical of Duke Ellington music plus recordings on major labels. Was even in School Daze, a Spike Lee joint. Plus modeling and advertising gigs. But none of that totally defined you.

Your voice and enchanting physical appearance carried you all around the world, including a major stint at the Blue Note club in Japan.

What I really dug is that as a vocalist you made two jazz recordings. One with Pharaoh Sanders, when his label tried to push him toward pop, and the other with pianist McCoy Tyler. Both Pharaoh and McCoy had working relationships with John Coltrane. Neither of their recordings featuring you, Phyllis, made much noise outside of hardcore jazz circles. Those albums found you singing full out, sounding much stronger and saying much more than the prevailing pop music of that period.

The public sees the bright lights, the glamor, the twirls in high society. We seldom fathom how hard, lonely and depressing such fame can be.

Yes, you were a fabulous singer as well as a fashion icon, but all of that didn’t make your life bearable. Who really knows the heart of another? What we can do well may not be what we really love. What we deeply need.

After our interview, when I saw your performance, at one point you took your shoes off and just sang like we were in a cousin’s living room. You conversed with the audience treating us as you would a reunion with old friends.

And then you were gone.

If you had lived in this new millennium, there might be a discussion about your mental health and how we could have, should have done more to save you. But back then, well, we just woke up one day in the summer of 1995 (a little before your 46th birthday). The hipper radio stations said you had committed suicide. But most of us kept the circumstances of your demise on the down low.

That past is long ago, buried behind us, however, decades later, your voice continues to resonate within me.

I will never forget you. Remember.




One Comment

  1. Alonzo Byrd #
    March 2, 2022

    A nice tribute to an especially nice woman. Like you, I interviewed her one time as well. It was backstage in 1977? at the Mississippi River Festival at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, right outside St. Louis. She opened for Roy Ayres.

    She would be among the first of many I interviewed as a j-school student, including George Benson, Minnie Ripperton, Gil Scott Heron, Eleanor Smeal (NOW), and Stokely Carmichael before he became Kwame Toure’. What a learning lab.

    Phyllis Hyman, beautiful and statuesque, had a little fun with my young ass. “Oh, a reporter,” she said. “You gonna ask me my breast size.” We laughed. I don’t remember much after that, but the young lady with me, who was from New Jersey but was in St Louis for the NAACP National Convention (where I photographed Alex Haley) took it all in; she actually knew who Phyllis Hyman was; I didn’t.

    It was one of those Maya Angelou moments because I can’t recall what was said, other than you know what, but I know how she made me feel: amazed.

    One other point to the story: while in L A attending Sidney Miller’s Black Radio Exclusive for Johnny Lambs’Lime Light entertainment magazine and walking the dinner ballroom, BOOM, there’s Phyllis Hyman sitting at a table with her husband. She caught my eye and I caught hers and together we blurt, “hey we know each other, don’t we?” We laughed, I snapped a photo, and a pleasurable, lifetime memory was made — for me. 🙂

    May she rest in peace.

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