Sometimes you just have to hear the opening few bars of a song to be taken back to a moment in time and to have your memory jolted.
As I get older, I find there are some songs which instantly take me back to my youth, and to a time when the burdens of adulthood were yet to weigh me down.
One such song is "You Know How to Love Me" by Phyllis Hyman. This song got a lot of radio airplay in the UK when it was released in 1979 and was hugely popular in the dance scene at the time.
I was only 15 then, but I went to lots of youth discos and every Sunday evening I went to a roller disco - a quite wonderful concept that seems to have died a death nowadays - perhaps because teenagers aren't so keen on that kind of innocent fun anymore. This was held at my local youth club and I have vivid memories of skating around to the disco beat of Hyman's song.
I remember buying the single on both 7" and 12" vinyl and treasuring both copies for years. Hyman had another minor hit with a song called "You Sure Look Good To Me" but was by and large not heard of on this side of the pond again.
Phyllis Hyman was born in Pittsburgh in 1949. She was an exquisitely beautiful singer and actress, and she worked as a model for a while too. She moved to New York to further her career as a singer and was discovered by producer Norman Connors in 1976, and her first hit was singing on his version of Linda Creed's "Betcha By Golly Wow".
Her career was patchy however - she had signed to Clive Davis' Arista label and been told she would be turned into an international star. This sadly didn't happen and once Whitney Houston was signed she failed to be a priority act there. She suffered a further blow in 1983 when she recorded the theme song for the Bond film "Never Say Never Again" - only to have the song pulled from the soundtrack and put in the vaults following legal problems.
Hyman was also plagued by bipolar disorder and this led to further problems in her personal and professional life. She did continue to record right up until her depression finally took a lethal grip and she committed suicide with an overdose in 1995.
Hyman's work can sometimes be hard to track down - but this album which is patchily available on Amazon, offers an insight into a real talent who for reasons which to this day escape me, didn't become the huge star she deserved to be.
~~Under Her Spell~~
This compilation was released after Phyllis' Arista contract came to an end and is only a snapshot of her career but as it contains the two singles I remembered from my youth, this is the one I picked up. It offers a taster into Phyllis' voice but is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the ultimate collection.
The overall sound is pretty much of its period and much of it today would no doubt be filed under "old school" - there is very much a disco feel to much of Hyman's work, but of course this was still very popular in the late 70s and early 80s, despite the "Disco Sucks" campaign in the US. There are also slow ballads and midtempo tracks which are sultry and show off Hyman's natural sensuality perfectly.
Hyman's voice is a fairly low instrument but has a rich tone to it and she can emote beautifully with it. So you won't get the big money notes or vocal acrobatics of the like of Whitney, but there's something more soulful and sophisticated about Hyman's voice, and she is a far more intelligent vocalist too.
The album opens with "You Know How To Love Me" and if you are expecting the radio edit, you will be disappointed. This was no problem for me as I love both versions but you might have to look elsewhere if you want the short version as this one runs for seven and a half minutes.
The song was co-written and produced by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume, who also had a huge hit in 1980 with "Never Knew Love Like This Before" by Stephanie Mills. You can hear similarities between both songs - although to this day I still cannot understand how Mills had a mainstream hit with her song but Hyman did not.
The whole style of this song is disco, and uplifting disco at that. I cannot believe anyone could listen to this song and not at least find their foot tapping along. I still find it hard to resist the urge to dance along whenever I hear the song, so infectious is both the beat and Hyman's voice. The long version features excellent use of the piano and horns too in the lengthy instrumental bridge.
And what a voice - Hyman's rich, soulful voice is utterly sensual and features a rawness towards the end that is almost orgasmic.
None of the other uptempo songs are quite as infectious as this but they are still capable of showing what a wonderful singer Hyman was. "You Sure Look Good To Me" is once again very much of it's time but the trumpet playing stops it from being too cheesy, along with Hyman's voice which is fantastic on this song - she really captures the giddiness of pure lust perfectly, especially in the verses.
"Under Your Spell" has a little more funk beat to it with prominent guitar and basslines adding to the beat and with a less sensual vocal from Hyman. The vocals are still rich and uplifting, especially the harmonies on the backing vocals which are tight and effective and just pitched right in the mix to allow Hyman to shine.
"Tonight You and Me" is an altogether better dance track from Hyman - her voice is incredibly sensual on this once again and the overall sound is almost Latino in style with frenetic drumbeats adding to the danceability factor. This is probably the best dancefloor song on the album after "You Know How to Love Me" and a remix could easily bring this bang up to date.
Hyman's voice is probably easier to appreciate on some of the slower tracks as this enables the listener to hear how good she is at interpreting a song and how her ability to add simple nuances to her voice as she sang certain words gave her the ability to truly touch the listener.
On "Your Move, My Heart", a midtempo track which is unremarkable but for Hyman's singing, she is able to draw you in with her voice which veers from smooth to deeply raw almost from one word to the next.
Hyman sings in a subtle jazz style on "Somewhere in my Lifetime", which is a smooth track with lush strings and delicate flute on the backing. There is something utterly effortless and believable about her voice on this song which manages to showcase the power of her vocals too.
The smooth jazz style is also evident on "The Answer is You", a piano based number which is a little on the bland side, but saved by Hyman's voice. Adding to the slow, sultry ballads is "Gonna Make Changes", which is pleasant enough but once again is very much a late night song, saved by the rich vocals of Hyman.
Hyman teams up with Michael Henderson for "Can't We Fall in Love Again" and this is the best ballad on the album - Henderson is more than capable of keeping up with Hyman and their voices compliment one another beautifully as both lament the changes in a relationship. This is smooth late night soul at its very best.
The highlight of the album for me however is Hyman's stab at "Betcha By Golly Wow" - it's a song I have heard performed by many different artists but in my opinion Hyman is the one artist to have nailed it. From the moment the saxophone introduces the song you are in for a veritable treat. The song is originally credited to Norman Connors but it's a combination of Connors' skills as an arranger and producer and Hyman's uplifting and expressive voice which makes this so good.
This song has more of a jazz arrangement and the end of it allows Hyman to jam a little as she sings along with an outstanding saxophone backing and the quality of Connors' drumming deserves a mention too.
As an introduction to the voice of Phyllis Hyman this is an accessible and enjoyable album. It enables the listener to appreciate her ability to sing soulful ballads, disco and jazz and be excellent at every style.
The quality of the songs is variable, with only four real standout tracks and the rest only really worth listening to because of Hyman's ability to add interest to the blandest of ballads with her vocal ability.
Listening to these songs today, some of which were recorded well over 30 years ago, one is left wondering why someone as gifted as Phyllis Hyman was overlooked in her lifetime and now, fifteen years since her death, is forgotten by so many.
I would urge you to check out her music if you can and while I probably would only recommend this album to her biggest fans, I would certainly say that some of the songs are worth downloading before moving on to some of the work she recorded after she left Arista and went to other labels who offered her the chance to work on less mainstream songs which had more artistic merit.
Her voice was so good that she had the rare knack of being able to connect with a listener on a deeply emotional level, meaning that even if the song wasn't the best, it meant there was always something to interest you in her vocals.
That, to me, is the true meaning of soul.
You Know How to Love Me
Under Your Spell
Somewhere in My Lifetime
You Sure Look Good to Me
Can't We Fall in Love Again
Betcha by Golly, Wow
Tonight You and Me
Your Move, My Heart
Answer Is You
Gonna Make Changes
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 You Know How to Love Me
2 Under Your Spell
3 Somewhere in My Lifetime
4 You Sure Look Good to Me
5 Can't We Fall in Love Again
6 Betcha by Golly, Wow
7 Tonight You and Me
8 Your Move, My Heart
9 Answer Is You
10 Gonna Make Changes