If the pressures of life would have had its way, Phyllis Hyman could have easily been a ‘70s Halstonette of Halston designer fame. She had class, divine beauty and dressed in the garb that elite New Yorkers socialites would have easily exalted. She almost always decorated her towering 6 foot 2-inch body with the fanciest and sophisticated fashions, easily setting her apart from her peers. But Hyman, a Philly girl blessed with the gift of song, made the choice to sing for a living. It has been almost two decades since her death, but Hyman’s music has proven to be just as popular today as it was when she was living. Younger and hipper audiences are also just as tantalized with the animated expressionism of Hyman’s theatrical pipes. How she attacked a ballad with such gut-wrenching emotion seems to be light-years past the reverberations that can be heard in urban contemporary R&B today.
At the forefront of this celebration, UK’s SoulMusic.com Records is doing everything they can to make sure her devout fan club has total access to the after party, thanks to their timely reissue of Hyman’s debut album for Arista Records.
Somewhere In My Lifetime, her first with Clive Davis’s Arista, was strategically designed to put Hyman on top and to expose her to a broader audience. It didn’t exactly include the perfect template that Davis later showcased on the younger Whitney Houston for her debut album in 1985, but it was carefully crafted with the intention to put Hyman on the runway of emerging soul divas. Once Arista bought the collapsing cash-strapped Buddah Records where Hyman labored for two album releases, Davis decided to put the brakes on the Sing a Song LP, which was lightly released in the UK. That decision was followed up with the charming idea of fixing up the set list with newer tracks and dimming the lights on the passable filler. Philly Bailey’s “Sing a Song” (not to be confused with Earth Wind & Fire’s version), “Love Is Free” and “Sweet Music” were all axed and replaced with new productions by T. Life, who had just wrapped up his career’s best on Evelyn “Champagne” King.
Most important to the retooling process besides the glowing crossover title track was its desperate need to supply Hyman with dancefloor shtick. By 1978, the fanfare for smooth Quiet Storm soul was mellowed by all the grandeur surrounding disco. Although Hyman toyed with the up-tempo four-on-the-floor format with the Thom Bell-penned “Loving You Losing You” on her debut, Hyman’s most serious foray into disco can actually be found here. With “So Strange,” Hyman plays around with a round of jazzy “do-do-do” chants on the intro before cascading around disco strobe lights. She returns to the dance floor on the funky album opener “Kiss You All Over,” which traces the string-studded Philly soul machine of the Gamble/Huff regimen. She sounds delightful on those tunes, even if they aren’t done on the level of Donna Summer magnificence. Where Hyman is best suited is when she wears her heart on her sleeve while singing about a love in despair, such as the standout ballad “Be Careful (How You Treat My Love).” The lyrics seem to unravel a weighty epiphany about her own marriage with her then-husband Larry Alexander. “My love is strong and true/I’ve given it all to you/Don’t be foolish now and throw it away,” she convincingly sings while donning the character of the Gary Glenn lyric. She continues to pour on the melancholy when she explores the depths of the Broadway classic from the show Carnival in Flanders,“Here’s That Rainy Day,” alongside a spare arrangement with Monty Alexander’s piano.
Not everything worthwhile here floats into the abyss of heartbreak. She dreams of “sweet romance” on “The Answer Is You.” The songstress works efficiently well on Skip Scarborough’s funky soul of “Living Inside Your Love.” Hyman also joins the growing chorus of tributes previously set by John Lennon and the Rolling Stones for political activist Angela Davis on her original composition “Gonna Make Changes.”
For the devout archivist, the 2013 reissue successfully restores the dropped material of the Sing a Song album as bonus tracks. They are meager offerings, but still show off Hyman’s glowing prowess. The reissue’s liner notes, handled by A. Scott Galloway, do a good job in composing a narrative that balances the trivial with first-class details. It marinates the stories of bandmates, songwriters, song partners and old friends in such a way that it travels like a trip down memory lane; sort of an extension of the short, but memorable Unsung documentary episode on Hyman’s life. It does follow the familiar protocol of throwing Arista exec Clive Davis under the bus, which seems a bit upsetting when you factor in a glorified Barry Manilow-produced title track aimed at adult contemporary formats, the timely new disco tracks and a neatly congealed song sequence. The story also exposes a bitter Hyman upset at Herbie Hancock’s imperfect performance on “Gonna Make Changes,” Davis’s hand-me-downs and also feeling like a guppy inside Davis’s fully loaded aquarium. But, all is fair in love. Hyman’s tenure with Arista, despite not reaching the high expectations others had hoped, added more luster to her star power. While Somewhere In My Lifetime often takes a disheartened backseat to its darling follow-up You Know How to Love Me, produced by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, the expanded edition from SoulMusic.com Records – now featuring the restored tracks from the out-of-print Sing a Song LP – achieves a satisfactory goal in taking home the silver medal. Highly Recommended.
By J. Matthew Cobb