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Obituary: Phyllis Hyman

Given the right breaks, Phyllis Hyman's soulful voice might have reached as many millions as Whitney Houston's, Patti Labelle's or Gladys Knight's have. Instead, Hyman had to settle for a cult following on the R&B and jazz scenes, though she did shine on Broadway in the early Eighties.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1950, Phyllis Hyman was the eldest of seven children. She grew up in Philadelphia listening to a wide range of music from James Brown to Nina Simone via Karen Carpenter and Minnie Ripperton.

Hyman sang first with a local choir and won a scholarship to develop her natural ability while also studying to become a legal secretary. In 1971, she turned professional, performing first with cover bands like the New Direction and the Hondo Beat. Three years later, she had a cameo role in the Bob Fosse film Lenny (with Dustin Hoffman playing the American comedian Lenny Bruce) and then formed her own group, the Phyllis Hyman Factor, which made an instant impression on the New York jazz scene.

Having won plaudits from the likes of Stevie Wonder, George Benson and Roberta Flack, Hyman came to the attention of the jazz drummer Norman Connors, who had something of a reputation for discovering female vocalists (he had already unearthed Jean Carne, whose "Don't Let It Go To Your Head" was recently revived by the British group Brand New Heavies). In 1976, Hyman's sultry rendition of The Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" proved a favourite on the black urban radio stations in the United States. When Connors produced Love Will Find a Way, an R&B crossover album for his former boss the saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, Phyllis Hyman shone through.

She then signed to the New-York-based Buddha record label and cut several fine tracks which became staple fare on an emerging radio format, the "quiet storm" - soul ballads played late into the night. Listening to Hyman's performances on songs like "Loving You, Losing You" and "No One Can Love You More", it is easy to understand why Clive Davis should have bought her contract out and brought her to Arista. There, Hyman found herself working with the likes of Barry Manilow, James Mtume and Reggie Lucas who fashioned the classy "You Know How To Love Me", one of the undisputed soul anthems of the Eighties.

At this point, Hyman should have gone on to greater things: in 1983 she did work with the producer Narada Michael Walden on an album called Goddess of Love. However, Hyman's career lost momentum. She never wrote much of her own material ("Gonna Make Changes" and "The Sunshine in My Life" being notable exceptions) and relied on collaborators and producers to spur her on to even more emotional performances.

Fortunately, Hyman had found other outlets. In between singing commercial jingles, she landed a part on Broadway in the Duke Ellington musical Sophisticated Ladies in 1981. She stayed with the show for two and a half years and her interpretations of standards like "It Don't Mean A Thing" and "In a Sentimental Mood" earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical and a Theatre World Award for Most Promising New Talent in 1981. In between shows, Hyman collaborated with, among others, the pianist McCoy Tyner, Joe Sample from the Crusaders and the soul supremos the Four Tops. She also played a fashion model in the movie Too Scared To Scream and recorded the title song with Charles Aznavour. She appeared in Spike Lee's School Daze and The Doorman in the late Eighties.

In 1987, Hyman seemed again to be on the verge of a breakthrough after working with the legendary Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on the excellent Living All Alone album. The singer finally made her first visit to the UK in the same year and garnered rave reviews for a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, in London, but interviews with her revealed darker forces at work.

By then long divorced from the songwriter Larry Alexander, Hyman, behind the diva exterior, was a tormented soul. Her imposing stature (she was more than six feet tall) prevented her from appearing as vulnerable as her material and true self were. A dedicated campaigner against housing discrimination in the United States, she was also painfully aware of the lowly status black singers enjoyed with leading record companies.

When she should have been soaring like the gifted songbird she was, Phyllis Hyman became another soul singer, loved by the public (four years ago, the readers of Blues and Soul voted her best female vocalist) yet discarded by a record business that already didn't know what to do with Shannon, Vesta Williams, Terri Wells, Joyce Simms and the late Sharon Redd.

Phyllis Hyman committed suicide a few days before her 45th birthday, a few hours before she was due to appear at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. A posthumous single, "I Refuse To Be Lonely Again", with an album to follow, will be released in the United States in September.

Pierre Perrone

Phyllis Hyman, singer, songwriter, actress: born Pittsburgh 6 July 1950; married Larry Alexander (marriage dissolved); died New York City 30 June 1995.