Phyllis Hyman - The Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story (Book Review)

Phyllis Hyman
Strength_of_a_Woman.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Finally.

That's the one word that can best describe the feeling after reading Jason A. Michael's superb biography, Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story .  Not much has been said or written about this legendary "Goddess of Love" since her transition in 1995.  Standing at six feet, Phyllis Linda Hyman could dazzle with her beauty and mesmerize with her voice. 

It was with Norman Connors that Phyllis made her major label debut in 1976 that planted the seed for the Philadelphia-bred chanteuse to make her mark on the music world.  Slowly but surely Phyllis was becoming a force to be reckoned with as hits like "You Know How to Love Me," "Living Inside Your Love," and "Under Your Spell" inched their way up the charts.  Unfortunately, she felt Clive Davis and the powers-that-be at Arista Records were not putting the same effort into her album sales as they did for her labelmate, Angela Bofill.  Although she could pull in an audience, the records were not flying off the shelves and as a result, a disgruntled Phyllis let it be known how unhappy she was at the label.  It didn't help that her combination of substance abuse and mental health issues were getting the best of her and would eventually lead to her leaving the label just as Davis began grooming an emerging young singer from New Jersey by the name of Whitney Houston.

Despite a failed marriage, weight gain, insecurities, and missed opportunities (she was slated to play Shug Avery in The Color Purple), Phyllis found a fresh start at Kenneth Gamble's Philadelphia International Records, the legendary label that was once home to the Jacksons, MFSB, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Three Degrees.  Her 1986 project, Living All Alone, produced the classics "Old Friend" and "You Just Don't Know" but stopped short at 465,000 albums sold, thus robbing Phyllis of something she long desired: a gold record.  With her mental health deteriorating at a steady decline and facing a mountain of financial difficulties (she was in debt to Arista Records), Phyllis would not release another album until 1991's Prime of My Life which finally awarded Phyllis her first number one hit with "Don't Wanna Change the World." 

But that would be the beginning of the end for Phyllis Hyman.

Erratic behavior mixed with substance abuse led to no-shows and botched concert appearances.  Her weight gain became so uncontrollable that her self-esteem was at an all-time low.  She often spoke about her suicidal thoughts as well as expressed how unhappy she was with life in general.  She was adored by fans from around the world and those within her inner circle tried in vain to show her how much she was loved and appreciated but it wasn't enough.  Life had become unbearable and on June 30, 1995, Phyllis Hyman took her own life.  She was a few days shy of her 46th birthday.

There have been numerous greatest hits packages with extensive liner notes released since her passing, all touching briefly about Phyllis' contributions to the world of music.  However, Michael takes the reader into the heart and mind of Phyllis and sheds light on the issues that plagued her throughout her life, such as growing up in a household with a mother who dealt with her own mental health issues.  Not since Timothy White's splendid biography about Bob Marley - Catch a Fire - has an author delved so deep into the psyche of an artist that you can literally feel their joys and pains, trials and tribulations.  Michael is exceptional at writing a book that details Phyllis' tragic downfall without passing judgment as to why she chose to make the decisions that she did.

For fans of Phyllis Hyman, Strength of a Woman will tell the story that to many has been long overdue.  Those who are unfamiliar with the legacy that is Phyllis, it will be an introduction into the life of an extraordinary entertainer.  Author Jason A. Michael has managed to write a biography that is sure to be a conversation piece for many years to come.  Don't be surprised if this book is one day made into an exceptional film.  Highly recommended.

Christopher Whaley