Phyllis Hyman is not a household name to most pop music fans. However, she was a staple of most soul music fans’ record collections for almost two decades, racking up 16 Top 40 R&B hits. Able to move between danceable tunes and torch songs with ease, she was able to transfer her musical talents to the big screen (she appeared in several films, including Spike Lee’s ”School Daze”) and stage (earning a Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway show ”Sophisticated Ladies”).
1986’s Living All Alone was her first album on Philadelphia International Records after a long tenure with Arista. Probably feeling like that label suffered from a glut of female soul singers (in addition to Hyman, the label’s roster also included Angela Bofill, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston), the Philly International arrangement was more than a convenient label hookup-it brought her home (the singer was born in Philly), and it united her with the most sympathetic writing and production of her career. Kenny Gamble and Thom Bell wrote many of the songs on the album, however the haunting title track is one of several songs that feels so personal, no one would fault you if you thought the song was written by Hyman herself.
To some, “Living All Alone” may seem like fairly typical quiet storm mid-Eighties fare, but Hyman interprets the song with incredible passion. You get completely lost in her delivery and feel her loneliness and despair.
Phyllis was not putting on an act when it came to these emotions. During the latter part of her career, she battled an increasing multitude of demons-loneliness, dissatisfaction with the trajectory of her career, alcoholism and mental illness. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid-Eighties at a time when things like depression weren’t discussed with as much frequency as they are now, I’m sure Phyllis felt stigmatized. Those battles led her to take her own life in June 1995, a week before her 46th birthday. She’d been scheduled to perform a show at the Apollo Theater with The Whispers on the night she passed.
I scheduled this piece this week not only to bring you good music (indeed, Phyllis Hyman was a genius singer and interpreter, and ”Living All Alone” is one of her best songs), but because this has been designated as National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Visit The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website to donate to the cause or just read up on risk factors and how to prevent tragedies like the death of this phenomenal artist.