Phyllis Hyman: The Sadness Behind The Soul

Phyllis Hyman: The Sadness Behind The Soul

Renowned writer and author Jeff Vasishta shares his reflections on meeting one of soul music’s true legends, the late and great Phyllis Hyman…

When I finally got to meet the statuesque and sultry R&B singer, Phyllis Hyman I had no idea quite what a revelation the day would be. At school I’d often gazed longingly at her album covers, mesmerized by her sheer beauty. A former leading diva at music mogul Clive Davis’ Arista Records and Broadway Star of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies”, when we met she had long since been eclipsed by younger artists. However, she was still a favorite of the London based magazine for which I wrote and when she won a readers poll in 1993 I was tasked with the job of interviewing her over the phone. The interview turned personal as I asked her about her romantic life.

“I don’t have a boyfriend right now but the electricity bills are paid, if you know what I mean?” she said with a throaty laugh. I didn’t get her cryptic clue.
“A vibrator, Jeff” she spelled out, leaving me speechless. We continued to talk, the usual formality between a journalist and interviewee long since dispensed. I informed her that was due to be New York the following month and she suggested that I call her and we meet for lunch. “My treat,” she said.

I’d seen Phyllis in concert many times before our interview and knew that she no longer resembled her glamorous former self but the teenager in me was elated at the prospect of meeting a singer he’d once idolized. After such a revealing interview I hoped that perhaps we could become good friends. I imagined an expensive Manhattan restaurant where we’d talk late into the afternoon, she regaling me with show-biz anecdotes, touching my hand occasionally.

I called soon after I’d checked in to my New York hotel.
“Who?” came the response after I’d said my name.
“Jeff, the journalist. I interviewed you a few weeks ago,” I repeated disbelievingly. She seemed to have completely forgotten who I was. We’d spoken for over an hour. She’d confided some of her most personal feelings. She told be about her distress when her close friend, songwriter Linda Creed died of cancer shortly after penning one of her signature songs, “Old Friend”. She spoke of her ex-husband and of course her love life. I hung up the hotel phone, convinced that she may have mistaken me for someone else. I called her manager, Glenda who listened to me with, I felt, a sense of resignation. A few minutes later Glenda, called back and told me to head over to Phyllis’ midtown apartment.

I met the singer downstairs in the lobby. At 6ft 2” in flats she wasn’t easy to miss. Instead of inviting me up she suggested I walk with her while she ran some errands. We strolled along Broadway to Times Square. I attempted to start a conversation but it was as if I wasn’t there. She hardly responded. It wasn’t long before she was spotted as she left the bank where she’d deposited a check.

“Oh my God! Phyllis Hyman,” the fan, a black woman in a business pant suit gushed. “I know you hear this all the time but I adore your music,” she went on. Other people slowed their strides, aware that someone famous was in their midst but not exactly sure who. “Girl, it’s Phyllis Hyman, the best singer ever!” the woman exclaimed to a passer by. Hyman seemed bothered by the adulation and responded with the merest of acknowledgements, trying to brush her admirer off. I couldn’t help but think that Phyllis could have been warmer, said a thank-you and engaged her in a little conversation. When we left she turned to me and said, “She needs to check herself, running up on me like that.” By now I also got the feeling that Phyllis didn’t want me around her either. She’d barely said a word. But it wasn’t her aloofness that struck me on that cloudy Spring afternoon. It was that she seemed so out of it. Stoned, high, vacant. Something wasn’t right. The only time she seemed interested in anything around her was when she spotted jazz drummer Max Roach on the street. She introduced herself. Roach was polite but didn’t seem to know who she was. Then, bizarrely as we passed someone handing out flyers for a strip club with pictures of nude women, Phyllis took some, looked at them and put them in her pocket.

I followed meekly behind her as we approached her apartment building. I felt like I was wearing a pair of too tight jeans on a scorching day at the beach. I wanted to get away from her so I could relax. But what could I say? We rode the elevator in silence to her apartment. It was small and messy with old style parquet floors. Phyllis went straight to the fridge taking out a gallon bottle of Coke, taking slugs without a glass. She then sat down on a bench in front of a wall of photos of her in her scintillating ’70’s and ’80’s prime, all disco gloss, legs, lips and hair. The contrast couldn’t have been more marked. She was swaying on the seat, overweight, slurring her words, her ample chest threatening to spill out. I didn’t know where to look.

“So I’m supposed to get you somethin’ eat something right?” she said, finally acknowledging me.
“Oh no, that’s ok. I ate something earlier,” I bluffed.
“Skinny people always say that,” she said. She stood up, went to a draw and took out a Chinese take out menu and handed it over. “You wanna order?” Earlier I imagined we’d be at a dimly lit five star restaurant. Now I was given a menu with $5 chicken and broccoli to eat alone.
“No that’s ok. I’m really not hungry,” I said.
“Ok. Well I can’t really chat. I’ve got my personal trainer coming over soon,” she said unconvincingly.
I stood up, relieved to have been given an excuse to get out of there. As I walked down the corridor I didn’t feel upset for myself. Just saddened. It was evident that Phyllis Hyman was a desperately unhappy person.

I was living full time in New York a couple of years later when on June 30th 1995 I turned on WBLS to hear the news that she’d committed suicide, an overdose of sleeping pills. It wasn’t her first attempt. I couldn’t say I was that surprised. An excellent biography was published about her 2007, “Strength Of A Woman,” detailing her ongoing battle with drugs, alcohol and her bipolar disorder. It shocked so many people in the music industry because suicides amid black entertainers were so rare. Donny Hathaway, who battled depression and schizophrenia, was the other notable casualty.

Mental illness in black entertainment circles is hardly discussed. In a merciless industry, the ravages of racism, dysfunctional families, corrupt, abusive business practices left many icons clinically depressed and near destitute, hitting the self destruct button hard. It’s often overlooked how many black entertainers die young. It seems like a whole generation has gone prematurely. And now, of course Prince, perhaps the most shocking of all. Scrolling through my iPhone these days can take a toll. Instantly I remember dozens of interviews with so many great artists, some of whom became friends, that are no longer here.

Whenever I hear “You Know How To Love Me” playing on the radio I often think back to my afternoon with Phyllis Hyman and wonder why there has to be so much sadness behind the soul.

HALL OF FAME Nominations now open

HALL OF FAME Nominations now open

We’re pleased to announce the latest round of voting for nominees for induction into The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame is now open.  It’s free to vote, no registration required.  Poll ends September 30!

Just click the link!

 

 

 

'The Prince Of Sophisticated Soul'

‘The Prince Of Sophisticated Soul’

The Will Downing 2016 SoulMusic.com Interview

Phone interview recorded July 25, 2016

The ‘Prince Of Sophisticated Soul,’ Mr. Will Downing has created a catalogue of great albums for close to thirty years. His latest release is certainly among his best ever: “Black Pearls” pays tribute to some of the legendary female singers who have been in some way a part of the New Yorker’s personal and musical journey including Phyllis Hyman, Deniece Williams, Brenda Russell, Chaka Khan, Jean Carne, Cherrelle, Angela Winbush, The Emotions, Randy Crawford and The Jones Girls.  It’s a brilliant tour-de-force set, receiving much deserved acclaim and response from music lovers who have come to know and love Will’s distinctive soulful sound.  David Nathan catches up with the ever-genial music man to talk about the album’s genesis and more…

 

 

Check out links to WILL DOWNING at SOULMUSIC.COM – Interviews, Features and more…

Motown Spotlight - August 2016

Motown Spotlight – August 2016

various381skinphonic-press-release

As I was thinking about this month’s Motown musings, news arrived of an exciting – let’s not be coy here, it’s a wonderfully incredible – release courtesy of Kent Records at the end of September. “The Rita Wright Years 1967 – 1970”, a fourteen track compilation, some of which were previously recorded, with the remainder taken from a pair of recently found tapes which she recorded during 1970 in Los Angeles. No, I haven’t heard it yet, but the sheer historical value of this pending release is staggering because, for one thing, it will fill in blank spaces in Syreeta’s early career. Among the unissued material like “Love’s Gone Bad”, “I Want To Go Back There Again”, “Can’t Stop”, “You” and “Save The Country”, there’s the version of “Love Child” which has been kicking around on YouTube for ages now.

During our many conversations, Syreeta told me her version was never seriously considered for single release, and this was also backed up a few years ago by one-time UK Motown product manager, Gordon Frewin, despite the singer’s fans begging to purchase it. Syreeta recorded many demo songs for Motown’s A-list acts and “Love Child” was one of them, providing as she did guide vocals for lead singers. That’s the real purpose behind demo versions, apart from there (then) being a Union requirement that an artist has to be at the microphone when a band track was laid down. Syreeta, who died too soon in July 2004 after a battle against cancer was a loyal Motown artist, enjoyed her life with the company and the artists, and never once spoke out against either. She once told me “I learned all the way up and now have experience in a little bit of the business side because I used to sit in on Mr Gordy’s meetings sometimes and learned how to manoeuvre things.” It was only when Motown was sold that she was told she didn’t fit into the company’s new image. “..I fought for my own identity and freedom for a number of years so I don’t want to be anywhere where they’re going to put me in clothes that are slit from my toes up to my neck, and where I’m not wearing underclothes because it’s fashionable. That’s not me”. Oh lor, this planned short mention has gone on a bit, so my apologies to those who’ve nodded off.

You’ll never guess what I’m playing while I tap away at the keyboard. “Big Motown Hits & Hard-To-Find Classics Vol 2” but check this out. It’s on cassette!! Yup, and, apart from the occasional click, plays like it did in 1986. No sleeve notes of course, but track listing is pretty wonderful with Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone” kicking off. Eddie Holland’s “Jamie”, The Supremes/Four Tops’ “River Deep, Mountain High”, Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, Tammi Terrell’s “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” and R Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” following on side one. Get up, walked to the player and turn cassette over. First track is Shorty Long’s “Function At The Junction”, with The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Sayin’ Something”, Isley Brothers’ “I Guess I’ll Always Love You”, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me”, Rare Earth’s “Born To Wander” following. Leaving Billy Preston/Syreeta’s “With You I’m Born Again” as the closing track. Enjoying every second!

News has also reached me that legendary Motown press man, Al Abrams will be inducted posthumously into the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Music Hall Of Fame. The ceremony took place on 21 August at the Ford Performing Arts Theatre, Dearborn, Michigan. (I must have driven pass this when in Detroit a couple of years ago without realising it – doh!). You may not know, but also this year Al was the recipient of a Detroit Music Award for his special achievement within the music industry, and inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizen Hall Of Fame as a transplanted Michigan Wolverine for his international contribution to music. It goes without saying, of course, that for Al to be inducted into this year’s Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame is an honour indeed when bearing in mind other notables included Smokey Robinson, Prince, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes and the like. He would have been really chuffed and humbled for sure, and so very sad he couldn’t receive it in person. Al’s widow Nancy accepted the award on his behalf. Bet she was beside herself too during what could only have been an extremely emotional ceremony.

Talking of Smokey, he’s branched out again, following his food range marketed by SPGL Foods Inc, back in 2006 or thereabouts. With the logo “the soul is in the bowl”, the dishes were inspired by the food he discovered while on the road. Apparently, food is one of Smokey’s life passions, and was never far from his mind as he sought out the famous and the lesser-known chefs throughout America. Subsequently, each of the four dishes that went on sale had its own special story. So, marketed under the banner “Smokey Robinson Food”, he offered Down Home Pot Roast, Seafood Gumbo, Chicken & Chicken Sausage, and Smokey’s Red Beans & Rice. How successful this venture was I don’t know, but they’re no longer available. Anyway, I’ve digressed because this new venture, where advertising proclaims he is the personification of the mantra “black don’t crack” (a phrase, by the way, Martha Reeves imparted to me years ago and I’ve always remembered it), has been launched Skinphonic, a company born when Smokey and his wife Frances were disappointed in the quality of skincare products available. It appears they sought out the help of some of America’s top skincare formulators to find a solution, whereupon a team of interested parties took up the challenge and after over two years of research developed a product the couple tested and later approved. Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle were instilled into him as a child, Smokey told journalists, which has led to him pursing his love of music by touring at the age of 76 years. “I used to run marathons” he told Nicole Evatt of The Associated Press. “Do things that I thought were going to be beneficial for me at this time in my life. When I got to this point in my life I didn’t realise how beneficial it was going to be because I feel great.” As well as practising yoga for 35 years plus, Smokey has also been a vegetarian for longer. “I’m only going to get this one body so I want to be healthy as long as possible.”

Touring these days is, of course, hectic, tiring and often draining, physically and mentally. It also includes lots of rest, he further explained to Nicole Evatt. “Someone will be like ‘OK Smokey, where’s the party?’ I just had a party for two-and-a-half hours. I was onstage, that was the party for me.” Once off stage, he invariably headed for his hotel room, to watch television until he fell asleep. No partying for this guy! Anyway, Mr and Mrs Robinson have launched two products: the twice daily cleanser “My Girl” at nearly $30 for the ladies, and “Get Ready – Cause Here I Come” for the gents. This comprises the twice daily cleanser, AM Hydration and PM Treatment Complex (whatever that means) at around $90. I can’t actually believe I’m writing this but, hey ho, that’s Smokey for you! Back to the music…

It can’t have escaped your notice that there’s another Motown-related law suit simmering away that involves Ed Sheeran, echoing the recent one where Marvin Gaye’s estate successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their “Blurred Lines” runaway hit. It was alleged the song borrowed some of Marvin’s “Got To Give It Up” (and other influences from Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways”) although the couple insisted they didn’t deliberately infringe any of the material. In a lot of cases where this happens, the cases are either settled out of court or dropped entirely, with no case to answer. However, this time Marvin’s estate wouldn’t back down, and once a Californian judge decreed he found the songs similar enough, the trial got underway. It’s interesting to know that as Marvin’s estate doesn’t own his music rights, only that of the sheet music, the jury only heard a stripped-down version of the questionable piece, but it was obviously sufficient to pass judgement that a $7.4 million pay out was in order. In the court documents, Robin Thicke said Pharrell Williams had written almost every part of the song, and that, at the time, he (Robin) was high on alcohol and the pain killer Vicodin. And – here’s a thing – the single earned them $16.7 million, with $5.7 million to Thicke, $5.2 million to Pharrell, leaving $704,774 to other relevant companies. I don’t know whether they paid the amount the judge decreed, because I can find no reference to it across the internet.

Anyway, is this then what’s in store for our Mr Ed Sheeran who has been sued by the estate of Ed Townsend, co-writer of “Let’s Get It On” in a court action that indicates he lifted fundamental elements from the composition, in his “Thinking Out Loud” single. Part of the suit included: “The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic compositions of ‘Thinking’ are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of ‘Let’s’. The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinking’.” Ed Townsend’s family who filed the complaint in the Southern District of New York’s federal court, have requested the suit goes to trial. This will be the second time this year Ed Sheeran has been involved in a court action like this. Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard sued him for $20 million claiming his song “Photograph” lifted major elements from their composition “Amazing”, recorded and released by Matt Cardle. Oh dear, all I can say is – watch this space.

And finally, I’m ending on a very sad note because quite out of the blue I received an email from my pal Larry Kimpel, GVR Records boss, which began – “I regret to be the bearer of bad news, but I have just received word that our mutual friend and colleague, Jimmy Levine has passed on. He apparently had been secretly battling pancreatic cancer.” To say I was devastated was an understatement. I shall so miss the dear, sweet, lovely man, with a heart of gold and, who, among other things, introduced me to Anna Gordy. Next month, I’d like to add my comments to his memory. Meantime, Jimmy, have a safe journey into your next life. And on behalf of David, Michael and myself, our heartfelt condolences go to Jimmy’s family, friends and fans across the world. He was quite a guy!

Soul Talkin': David Nathan interviews Junior, Leee John and Noel McKoy, three members of The British Collective

Soul Talkin’: David Nathan interviews Junior, Leee John and Noel McKoy, three members of The British Collective

At the August 25, 2016 packed media launch at The Library in Covent Garde for the upcoming milestone album by five British black music pioneers – Don-E, Junior, Leee John, Noel McKoy and Omar – released appropriately under the name The British Collective, SoulMusic.com founder and historian David Nathan interviews three of the members of this team of super-talented artists in their own right.  With a long history of knowing both Junior and Leee, our exclusive SoulMusic.com video – courtesy UK SoulMusic.com partner Paul Mason of Event Photo – captures some priceless moments and gives insight into the makings of “Vol. 1, The Renaissance Begins” a musically historic recording…

 

 

 

Soul Talkin : Up close and personal with Candi Staton

Soul Talkin : Up close and personal with Candi Staton

The first-ever SoulMusic.com live video interview! The legendary, award-winning CANDI STATON in an up-close-and-personal interview with SoulMusic.com founder DAVID NATHAN in London, summer 2016. Video courtesy Paul Mason, Video Event Productions

Al McKay 2016 SoulMusic Interview

Al McKay 2016 SoulMusic Interview

Phone interview conducted July 15, 2016

Perhaps best known for his pionering work with legendary supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire, guitarist/producer/songwriter and all-round multi-talented music man Al McKay launched his All Stars when EW&F began a hiatus in the ’80s. Since that time, the group has literally toured the world. Back in the studio, Al and the band are recording a new album with the lead-off single, “Heed The Message” reminiscent of the uplifting music that Al created with EW&F from 1973-1981.

In this interview with David Nathan, he talks about his work as a producer, the band and the late Maurice White (with whom he wrote a number of timeless classics),…

Listen to David’s interview with Al McKay

Listen to Heed The Message on SoundCloud

CLICK HERE FOR THE AL McKAY PAGE 

Latest Reissue Reviews

Latest Reissue Reviews

curtis371 nancy1347

The latest reissue reviews from Sharon Davis….

CURTIS HAIRSTON: CURTIS HAIRSTON EXPANDED EDITION (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
What a wonderful breath of fresh air this re-issue of the 1986 album has turned out to be. A year prior to its original release, Curtis hit the UK top twenty with “I Want You (All Tonight)” which he followed with “I Want Your Loving (Just A Little Bit)” and this CD’s first track “Chillin’ Out”. There’s no fuss or frills here, just honest, well rounded sounds with infectious melodies and choruses. Largely aimed at dancers – check out “The Morning After” or “Let Me Change Your Mind” for starters. The fact that this gifted singer/composer was taken from us at the young age of thirty-four years, left us bereft of what could have been. And it’s this statement alone that makes us treasure this one and only long player recorded as a soloist, having been in the membership of The BB & Q Band. A handful of remixed, extended bonus tracks offer a harder, forceful flavour, particularly on the before mentioned “The Morning After”. Four tracks here were composed by ex-Labelle Nona Hendryx about whom he credited as being a huge influence on him, while I detect there’s a little Rick James influence here also. Although not totally relevant to this review, I’d like to include the following because when his mother recalled her son’s singing debut at three years old, she said “My father had asked Curtis to get up in church and sing. He walked up there, reached up and grabbed the mike like it belonged to him.” That first move was the change his life and as he grew in years, Curtis developed a vocal style akin to Peabo Bryson and Luther Vandross to carve a distinguished career and name for himself in the dance world. Albeit a tragically short one.

Rating 9

NANCY WILSON: JUST FOR NOW/LUSH FOR LIFE (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)

Sheer elegance from one of the world’s most celebrated of stylists. And what a total joy it is from start to finish. On the first CD, Ms Wilson aims for adult pop with versions of “Winchester Cathedral”, “Born Free” and “Alfie” among others, before changing course to inject a soulful slant into Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. Several of the songs are associated with Frank Sinatra simply because Billy May was his regular working associate, and was responsible for the bulk of the tracks here. Emotional ballads like “If He Walked Into My Life” bring out the tender, almost desolate side of the singer. So much so, that it’s hard not to be drowned in her torment. Then there’s the second album “Lush Life”, a more engaging, crisper and meatier side to her talent, where she so succinctly fuses adult mainstream with jazz, although this isn’t, to be honest, as spontaneously attractive as the first. A little blues filters in with “River Shallow” , while Ms Wilson treats “Sunny” to a lazy melody. Yet, a direct stab at the heart dispels any thoughts of complacency when she delivers tracks like “(I Stayed) Too Long At The Fair”. The fact that this wonderful singer/stylist, or whatever category you wish to place her, can so effortlessly switch musical track, simply highlights once again her innate talent given to a few. Her voice soars and dips, pleads and teases, and, of course, can reduce us mere listeners to tears in the blink of a note, is testimony to the genius that is Nancy Wilson, the consummate artist.

Rating: 9