I miss you so, Phyllis Hyman

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

January 22, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

DEAR PHYLLIS, I knew you'd understand. So when the last goodbye was definitely gone and that overwhelming what-do-I-do-now feeling swept through me like fever, I turned to you. Pieces of my heart lay all over the place. But before I could muster the energy to gather them, I did what I usually do in times of distress, in hours of bewilderment: I clicked the stereo on and scanned the shelf.

Since a romance had just died, I reached for one of your albums. There in the darkness, alone and confused, I let you weep for me. I was too stunned, too angry to cry myself. (Not that I was scared to, understand? I'm sensitive like you used to be. Besides, I've never bought into that real-men-don't-cry stuff.)

Anyway, I lay on the floor in front of my speakers, your voice misting down on me. I knew you'd be the perfect company, knew you'd have the words to comfort me. And I knew you'd articulate the pain.

Who do you think you are /

Who do you wanna be / You're the only one that really knows ...

You've done this for years, Phyllis. Being the oh-so-deep (read: extra melodramatic) guy I was in high school, I played your records after my first taste of love turned sour. Guess some things never change.

No one could love you more than I do / And no one could need you more than I doooo ...

But after an hour or two with you, I always get up. I put the sad songs away; I move on. Too bad that on June 30, 1995, your pain had become too much to bear. So you swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and closed those sad, seductive eyes for the last time. Goodbye, loneliness. So long, bipolar disorder. Phyllis Hyman -- supreme jazz-soul stylist, actress, model, the "goddess of love" -- became a memory. Like Billie Holiday, your spirit was worn and tired at age 44.

Well, I miss you. Everybody who loved that voice, that presence of yours, feels the same. Nobody around here today does it quite like you: medicate the wounds of the soul, fill the galaxies with beautiful, tortured melodies. And you know these tinny-voiced, jive chick singers still don't have a clue about how to interpret, dig into a lyric and make it their own. So many of 'em just scream and wail, thinking they're doing something so grand and outstanding.

You knew better.

And it's great that BMG got around to releasing this new anthology of your work: The Ultimate Phyllis Hyman, hitting stores on Tuesday. We could have used two discs, but the company did a good job of collecting 17 of your prime cuts on one CD. It serves as an ideal primer for those who want to know what real, full-bodied singing is all about: the sophistication, the class, the power.

This compilation goes back to 1976 when you went into the studio with Norman Connors and waxed that breath-snatching take of "Betcha By Golly Wow." Four years before, Thom Bell and the Stylistics made decadent ear candy out of the song. But you brought the melancholia to the surface, turned the tune inside out. And Norman echoed your sorrow with a sympathetic, jazz-kissed arrangement.

Most of the fan favorites are on The Ultimate Phyllis Hyman: "Meet Me on the Moon," "Living in Confusion," "Somewhere in My Lifetime." I could have used "The Night Bird Gets the Love" from your 1977 self-titled debut and your sweet take on yet another Stylistics' gem, "Hurry Up This Way Again." But, hey, we got what we got. And it's still a fabulous summation of your nearly 20-year recording career.

I don't know why you couldn't see it, Phyllis, but you were like no other. Really, you had it all: the look, the pipes, the natural diva flava. At 6-foot-1 (and taller than that in those spike heels you loved so much), you were hard to overlook when you floated into a room, "dressed to the bricks," as Cab Calloway used to say. Those towering hats, shoulder-dusting earrings, flamboyant colors -- you couldn't be denied. And the makeup was always together. You had the good sense to play up your eyes, those kiss-me-now lips.

You know, critics say that you never really reached your potential. Even Nancy Wilson, your idol who wrote the liner notes to your 1995 posthumously issued hit album I Refuse to Be Lonely, wondered what you could have done to the songs of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Well, you would have infused the lyrics with passion, soul and intelligence -- like you did even the most rote material Clive Davis made you record during your time at Arista Records in the 1980s.

But you pushed on the best way you could despite your illness -- touring the world, singing on the Tonight Show. For those of us on the outside looking in, it seemed as if all was well. I mean, we knew you could be erratic and fall deeply into depression every now and then. But, somehow, in some fierce way, we knew you would exorcise those old ghosts and rise out of your private darkness assured, anew and wise. It never happened, though.

Today, nearly a decade after you swallowed the pills in your Manhattan apartment, we remember you. We sigh over the glamorous photos; we luxuriate in the rich beauty of your voice and marvel at its strength.

We just wish you could have seen what we loved so much.

Thanks for always being there anyway,

Rashod

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