Phyllis Hyman sure looked like a Goddess of Love on the cover of her 1983 album of the same name. Now, the striking and statuesque former fashion model’s fourth and final album for Arista Records is back. It’s just been reissued by Cherry Red’s SoulMusic imprint in an expanded edition that boasts two more tracks than Reel Music’s 2010 release.
In a quest to find Hyman a degree of commercial success commensurate with her great talent, Clive Davis paired her with different producers for each one of her Arista albums. 1979’s Somewhere in My Lifetime (itself recently reissued by SoulMusic) featured productions by Larry Alexander and Skip Scarborough, T. Life, and Barry Manilow and Ron Dante. You Know How to Love Me, from later the same year, was helmed by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. 1981’s Can’t We Fall in Love Again was produced by Chuck Jackson and Norman Connors, individually and collectively. Finally, for Arista swansong Goddess of Love, Davis and Hyman turned to an obvious choice. That choice was Thom Bell, whose song “Betcha by Golly Wow” provided most people’s introduction to Hyman in 1976. She had gone on to record two more Bell songs on her eponymous solo debut for Buddah, and the two old friends collaborated on the soundtrack to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. As they began recording Goddess, Bell was riding high from the success of his co-productions with vocalist Deniece Williams. But his work would be supplemented, at Clive Davis’ behest, by three songs from Narada Michael Walden. Apparently, Davis hadn’t smelled a hit in the eight tracks produced by the Philly soul legend, only six of which made the final album cut.
Hit the jump for much more, including the track listing and order link!
And so the original album has a slightly schizophrenic feel. It begins with the rat-a-tat blast of Walden’s three dancefloor-aimed productions before ceding to Bell’s mini-symphonies. Though the album title was Goddess of Love, it could have been called Goddess of Lust, for Walden chose to emphasize the carnal side of the singer. Playing keyboards and percussion himself, he assembled an A-team of musicians to support Hyman, including future American Idol panelist Randy Jackson, former E Street Band member David Sancious on keyboards and percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E. The raucous, jungle-inspired sounds of Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Daryl Simmons’ “Riding the Tiger” opened the LP. This sleek yet campy production – with Hyman growling “If you can’t stand the heat, get off my back!” and snarling “Gonna make you my prey!” over clattering synths and beats – certainly showcased a different side of a vocalist steeped in sophisticated jazz and R&B. (And where could the song go, anyway, from the opening Tarzan yell?) Hyman’s dislike for the overtly commercial “Riding the Tiger” was no secret, however.
Walden also supplied the track for which the album was named, co-writing with Cohen and Sancious. According to the terrific and comprehensive essay by A. Scott Galloway, the producer intended Phyllis to be “beautiful and baaaad” in the song, and she succeeds fronting this slick ‘n’ sexy – and slightly dark – groove. As the “queen of the night,” she taunts, “got your heart in the palm of my hand/It’s beatin’, boy…Gonna squeeze ‘til you’re too weak to stand!” That was a long way from Duke Ellington! Though these opening two tracks are a bit excessive, Hyman sounds completely invested in the fun. The best of Walden’s cutting-edge-circa-1983 productions is the ballad “Why Did You Turn Me On.” Co-written by Walden, Corrado Rustici, and Allee Willis, Hyman was at home with this question directed at an ex-lover.
Goddess of Love then picked up with Thom Bell’s six productions. As with his albums for Deniece Williams, Bell was adapting his trademark symphonic soul to a more contemporary style circa the early eighties. Still, some things never changed. He recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios with many of the “usual suspects” from MFSB – Bobby Eli on guitar, Charles Collins on drums, Bob Babbitt on bass, Larry Washington on percussion, and Don Renaldo leading the (subtle) horns and strings.
Although Clive Davis may have been correct that there wasn’t a hit single to be found in Bell’s productions – certainly nothing was as instantly irresistible as Bell’s arrangement of “Gonna Take a Miracle” for Deniece Williams – Bell’s opening and closing tracks were strong. He opened his “mini-set” for Goddess of Love with the tension-packed “Your Move, My Heart” written by the team of George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam. The track marries prominent synthesizers to Bell’s traditional orchestral sound, but the tightly-arranged backing vocals (by Bell, Joseph B. Jefferson and Debbie Henry) are pure Bell, as is the roiling rhythm track anchored by dramatic tympani and tom-toms. It’s a variation on the signature style that the producer/arranger used to give an edge to his productions as far back as The Delfonics, but with a modern twist. Naturally, Hyman is confident and commanding with her vocal. Bell co-wrote the album’s final song, “Just Twenty-Five Miles to Anywhere,” with Joseph B. Jefferson. The shortest and most sparsely-arranged track on the album, it’s a piano-driven and starkly beautiful story of a place where “there is no pain, and no sorrows/Every day is filled with joy for every girl and every boy.” It’s all too easy to observe that Hyman never found that peace-filled place, but she sublimely fills the brief song with passion.
Jefferson penned the perky “We Should Be Lovers” with his usual partners Sherman Marshall and Charles Simmons. (The trio was responsible for many Spinners favorites including “Smile, We Have Each Other,” “Sadie,” and “Games People Play.”) Jefferson and Bell also co-wrote the romantic “Just Me and You,” while Merrill, Rubicam and guitarist Bill Neale offered up the sweet but slight “Falling Star.” The positive sentiments of Preston Glass and Alan Glass’ “Let Somebody Love You” shine, as sensually sung by Hyman. One can hear more than a hint of Bell’s lush productions for Johnny Mathis in this song. A tinkling marimba introduction is a distinct touch, and although strings and horns do still adorn the track, the synthesizers take the role Bell might previously have assigned to, say, a flugelhorn. The result is less timeless than Bell’s classic 1970s productions, but he and Hyman still made considerable magic together. The producer-composer-arranger recognized and served Hyman’s great range and versatility, and they would reunite for a final time when Philadelphia International later signed Hyman.
The previous CD issue of Goddess of Love, on Reel Music, included the nearly 9-minute “Dance Version” of “Riding the Tiger.” SoulMusic bests that edition by retaining it and also adding both sides of the “Riding the Tiger” 45, with the single edit on the A-side and an instrumental on the flip. The song hit No. 30 R&B, but alas, didn’t successfully cross over onto the pop chart. These are all certainly welcome bonuses, but it’s too bad that the two Thom Bell-produced outtakes cut from the LP by Clive Davis weren’t reinstated. “I’m Not Asking You to Stay” has appeared on a couple of Hyman’s posthumous releases – including the expanded edition of Can’t We Fall in Love Again – but “Is This Love, Must Be Love” has never surfaced. “I’m Not Asking You to Stay” deserves its place with the balance of Bell’s productions, and if it exists in completed form, “Is It Love” (salvaged from The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, where it was performed by the unlikely Philly soul star Loretta Lynn (!) with Frankie Bleu) would have truly been the crowning achievement of this reissue of Goddess of Love.
A. Scott Galloway, who also annotated Reel Music’s reissue, has adapted his essay for this 2013 edition, and updated it with fresh quotes from George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam. The writers tantalizingly reveal that they reunited with Thom Bell to write songs for Whitney Houston’s Just Whitney album, but “we were writing for her old voice [and] her voice by then was not able to handle the range.” Talk about a might-have-been! Galloway’s essay also includes reflections from Narada Michael Walden, Preston Glass, Thom Bell and Joseph Jefferson. Reel’s disc boasts stronger graphic design (and has the spiffy original Arista label on the CD itself!) but the new SoulMusic edition is the one to own.
Once again, producer David Nathan and remastering engineer Alan Wilson have done a stellar job reminding listeners of the timeless voice of the late Phyllis Hyman. Goddess of Love is available now at the link below; watch this space for details on the label’s next project for the singer, a compendium of her early work at Buddah Records entitled, appropriately enough, The Buddah Years!
- Riding the Tiger
- Goddess of Love
- Why Did You Turn Me On
- Your Move, My Heart
- Let Somebody Love You
- Falling Star
- We Should Be Lovers
- Just Me and You
- Just Twenty-Five Miles to Anywhere
- Riding the Tiger (Dance Version) (Arista 12” single AD1-9041, 1983)
- Riding the Tiger (Instrumental Version) (Arista single AS 1-9023, 1983)
- Riding the Tiger (Single Version) (Arista single AS 1-9023, 1983)