Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy 60th Birthday to the Late Phyllis Hyman

Had Phyllis Hyman been alive today she would have turned 60 years old, July 6, 2009. Her life was cut short by a myriad of complex issues that we can only speculate about and that were probably even unclear to Phyllis herself. I have been a true Phyllis Hyman fan for over 20 years. Throughout this piece I will refer to Phyllis Hyman as simply, PH. Her sultry contralto voice has ushered me through break ups and feelings of being head over heels in love. Songs such as Living All Alone, Old Friend and my all time favorite, You Just Don't Know.

I always felt a connection to Phyllis, we share the same zodiac sign, Cancer. Yes, sweet but very complex and extremely sensitive. Through the literary genius of biographer, Jason A. Michael, who I feel has written the definitive and what may come to be the only biography written about PH, combined with countless hours of reviewing interviews, I have come to believe we share much more. Like Phyllis, I have a weakness for the cafe' au late, pretty boys with facial hair and dreamy eyes. We shared the tendency to speak our minds and live out our convictions even when it might be to our own personal detriment. We stand steadfast to our perceived truths. We also shared the often painful experience of seemingly not quite getting it right with intimate relationships. Our inability to compromise or settle and more important, our fears often being at the "heart" of the matter.

On a more deeper and personal level, we both shared the dark demons of clinical depression. Phyllis was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I thank the Universe, family and friends and my unwavering commitment to living in a new way, for the fact that I have not had a clinical episode in 20 years. However, I still take one day at a time.

As a side bar I'd like to note that there is no medical test to determine a chemical imbalance in the brain. The diagnosis is based
solely on a series of behavior traits outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM): unlike the tests we have for diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. As a result of bad brain chemistry gone a muck, there are large numbers of people going around under and over medicated. Now before anyone starts to slam me, I am in no way suggesting that if you are taking medication and it is working for you that you stop. However, I am saying that in my opinion, we are not born with faulty brain chemistry and that there needs to be more emphasis given to the environmental factors that contribute to depression and other mental illnesses.
Please excuse me while I step down from my soapbox, clearly I digressed.

PH and I also shared an intuitive quality that is characteristic of many born under the sign of Cancer. We tend to feel the pain of others and to take that pain very personally, often to our own detriment. PH experienced several loses: her grandmother, then mom and a personal friend within the span of a few months. In addition, she was keenly aware and troubled by the plight of the world in general and the black community in particular. She also had serious financial problems, many due to her own poor judgment and addiction. The IRS was one of her debtors. Despite the focus on PH being an uncontrollable diva, she was at her core a very giving and compassionate person.

As most of PH's loyal fans know, she took her life on June 30, 1995, 6 days before her 46
th birthday. Many have speculated as to the reason for her suicide; anywhere from mental illness, substance abuse, not receiving her just due in the music industry, failed intimate relationships, weight gain, the list goes on. Best guess says it was all this and more. Many question why didn't Phyllis get help, why didn't she take medication, why didn't her friends and family intervene. The challenges PH faced were extremely complex and intricately linked. Not only was there the possibility of losing her creative muse by taking mind numbing medications, she also was the breadwinner for a staff of people. Though I don't know this to be fact, I doubt if Phyllis had a nice health insurance plan that afforded her the luxury of an extensive stay in rehab. Please note that according to her biography, she was in short-term rehab several times. The time off from the road and the financial resources to get the help she needed just weren't there. PH saw suicide as the only way out and that it was her choice to make. In her suicide note, she simply said, "I'm tired".

Author and journalist, Jill Nelson recently offered a commentary regarding the untimely death of musical genius Michael Jackson and his possible drug addiction/lethal overdose. She states: "When you are in pain, excruciating pain(emotional or physical) drugs are your friends. Sometimes the only ones you have. I honestly believe human beings DO have a finite limit on the amount of pain they can withstand at any given moment or period of time, and no other person can tell another what their limit is, should be or how long that pain should be endured" (

Those who knew PH personally and those of us who came to know her through her music still mourn the lost of one of the great vocal divas of the twentieth century. While she may not have experienced the records sales, she joins the ranks of great vocal divas such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Minnie Ripperton. Thanks to the TV One series Unsung: The Phyllis Hyman Story, a new generation of music lovers haven been introduced to the musical genius of PH.

While I applaud the effort, I personally felt that Unsung failed to capture PH in all her diversity. Instead,
TV One and the Hyman Estate, it would appear opted to focus on her emotional pathologies, rather than the kind, complex and yes emotionally troubled individual she was. Absent was the mention of her strong social, racial and gender consciousness and her belief in black economic empowerment. The fact that PH gave her time, star status and resources for HIV/AIDS activism and for the rights of women and the GLBT community. For those interested in a more holistic view of who PH was, please purchase Jason A. Michael's biography, Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story.

As we celebrate the birthday and musical legacy of Phyllis Linda Hyman, we can best honor her life and her untimely death by being vigilant in maintaining our physical and emotional well being and reaching out to those around us who may be crying out. Be a true friend, don't wait until your sister or brother friend burst into flames before you notice they are in trouble. Remember to take time out of each day to rejuvenate your spirit. Be it prayer, meditation, exercise, whatever works for you. Lastly, remember the body temple is one perfect unit connected to both the inner and outer cosmos. Be careful how you treat your mind, body and spirit. Love yourself and that love will radiate to others. Glenda Gracia, Phyllis' manager and sister friend stated that it was not that Phyllis didn't know that she was loved, it was Phyllis' inability to love herself. Gracia goes on to say that if you cannot love yourself unconditionally then you will not be able to fully give or receive love. (Paraphrased from Strength of a Woman).

Phyllis Linda Hyman on this your 60th birthday we honor your musical legacy and your life serves as a blue print for how to live and how not to live. May the readers of this posting see it as a declaration of the will to survive in spite of our circumstances.