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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

James A Hyter

James Hyter is “Ol Man River” to hundreds of thousands of Memphians who heard him perform for the Memphis in May Sunset Symphony. Mr. Hyter reflected Memphis, whether he was performing in Memphis or in Europe when he was a featured soloist of the Greater Memphis Chorale. The location of the marker is Riverside Park.


James Hyter (1922- 2009)

From 1978 to 1997, the annual Memphis in May Festival culminated with vocalist James Hyter’s performance at the Sunset Symphony. Each year, audiences sang along with Hyter’s rendition of the show tune “Ol’ Man River” and repeatedly called for encores. Although Hyter altered the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” to eliminate some of its more racist components, he was sometimes criticized for his willingness as a black vocalist to popularize a song that many viewed as degrading to African Americans. Hyter viewed his performance quite differently, though. He explained, “It’s the one time you can see black and white come together and join hands.” With his deep, bass-baritone voice, Hyter entertained Memphians for many years and became an inimitable local icon. In fact, he personified the song so fully that fans began to refer to Hyter himself as “Ol’ Man River.”
A Memphian since infancy, James Hyter has been involved in the local music scene throughout his life. As a young man, Hyter sang at Centenary United Methodist Church and Booker T. Washington High School. Hyter first performed the song that would make him famous in the 1968 Memphis State University production of Showboat. After working for Blue Cross/Blue Shield as a marketing representative for twenty years, Hyter retired in 1988 and devoted increased time to his music career. In 1991, Hyter began singing regularly at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.
James Hyter also performed with the Santa Fe Opera, Kansas City Lyric Theatre, Houston Symphony, and the Jackson, Mississippi, Symphony Orchestra Pops. With the Greater Memphis Chorale, Hyter completed three European tours. Additionally, Hyter performed at the Liberty Bowl, the American Bar Association State Convention, and the National Square Dance Association, among many other places. In Tennessee, the City of Jackson awarded Hyter the Key to the City, and he performed multiple times in Union City’s “A Mid-Summer Musical Extravaganza.” At the 1996 Memphis in May Festival, Mr. Hyter accompanied former Vice-President Al Gore to light the Olympic flame. In addition to music, Hyter made his acting debut with a small role in Frances Ford Coppola’s cinematic adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Rainmaker.
Hyter received a variety of awards that recognized his talent and community involvement. Mayor Richard Hackett named Hyter an “Outstanding Ambassador for Memphis,” and Mayor William Morris officially declared “James A. Hyter Day.” At the state level, Governor Ned McWherter gave him Tennessee’s Outstanding Achievement Award. The Memphis alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Beta also recognized Hyter for his “Outstanding Contributions to Black Performing Arts.” Finally, since 1993, the James A. Hyter Vocal Music Scholarship Fund has served the Memphis community.
After twenty years, in 1997, Mr. Hyter retired from his Sunset Symphony performance. New York Times columnist William E. Schmidt articulated Hyter’s profound community significance when he described Hyter’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” as “a moment of such emotional resonance that Mr. Hyter once had to perform six encores before the audience, overwrought by it all, would allow him to leave the stage.” Fans can enjoy Hyter’s music on his CD, “Musically Yours, James A. Hyter.”
Mr. Hyter was born February 2, 1922 and attended Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis TN. A former insurance salesman, Mr. Hyter often credited Memphis State University speech and drama director Keith Kennedy for casting him in the 1960s as Joe the dockhand in a production of "Show Boat." One of the musical's most memorable numbers was Joe's show-stopping "Ol' Man River."

Mr. Hyter began one of the city's favorite traditions singing "Ol' Man River" in 1978, the second year of the Memphis in May International Festival's Sunset Symphony. It was in collaboration with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and immediately captured the public's imagination. Written by Jerome Kern as a song of discontent and despair, it would become an upbeat celebration of the Mississippi when Mr. Hyter was asked to perform it as part of the 1978 Sunset Symphony.

In Tom Lee Park with the river and the setting sun as backdrop, the event was part of a prelude to the symphony's rousing fireworks finish with the roar of cannon-fire punctuating the "1812 Overture." But it was during Mr. Hyter's performances that the crowd cheered the loudest.
"You take the high notes and I'll take the low notes," he told the crowd, asking them to join him. Part of the tradition was encore after encore -- as many as 10 one night.

Mr. Hyter continued the tradition through two symphony directors, Vincent de Frank and Alan Balter, until 1998. 

Balter, a close friend, had been diagnosed with cancer, and Mr. Hyter chose to quit the annual tradition at that point.

Mr. Hyter died April 2, 2009 at Methodist Hospital in Memphis. He was 87 years old.

Popular "Ol' Man River" singer passes away

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - A Mid-South legend has died.
James Hyter became known to many Memphians through 21 years of singing "Ol' Man River" during the annual Sunset Symphony.
His involvement with the song began in 1968 with his portrayal of Joe in the musical Showboat production at Memphis State University.
Hyter took the stage for at the Sunset Symphony for the last time in 1998.  He was 87 years old.

Archer Malmo provided the following information:
Born: Feb. 2, 1922 in Athens, Ala.
Died:   April 2, 2009, after an illness of several months
Family: Wife - the late Flora Hyter (were married 47 years)
Daughter - Beverly Hyter-Ngah (Gideon)
Sister - Eleanor Guy
Niece - Phyllis Nichols
Great nephew - Joel Nichols.
James Hyter moved to Memphis with family members when he was a week old, and lived in Memphis the remainder of his life.  He was graduated from Booker T Washington High School, served three years in the Army, and received a junior accounting degree at Henderson Business College.
He was a marketing representative and field agent for Blue Cross/Blue Shield before retiring in 1988 at age 66 to devote full time to his performing/music career as a distinguished bass-baritone. For more than 19 years he had been a faithful member of St. Luke United Methodist Church, though his earlier spiritual affiliation had been at Centenary United Methodist Church.
Hyter became a Mid-South legend during 21 years of singing "Ol' Man River" during the annual Sunset Symphony which was under the late maestro Alan Balter that concluded Memphis in May activities. His involvement with the song began in 1968 with his portrayal of Joe in the musical Showboat production at Memphis State University.
Although always connected with that song, his distinguished musical career included more wide-spread performances and recognition, including three European tours as a soloist with the Greater Memphis Choral and numerous performances with various regional and national symphonies, including the Memphis Symphony.
For more than three decades, Ol'Man River has given his music, his heart and his life to serving the Memphis community and with the newly established James A. Hyter Vocal Music Scholarship Fund (contact 901-728-4600), the Memphis community can honor the living legacy of Hyter. The idea for the scholarship originated when Elizabeth Neilsen, a legal secretary for Morgan Keegan, heard Hyter perform in 1993. She immediately enlisted her corporation's support to publicly honor Hyter's contributions to the Memphis community. By contributing to the scholarship fund, individuals and organizations can help provide educational opportunities to benefit needy, vocally-talented high school graduates or college student in the Mid-South area.
A selection of his music, including "Ol' Man River," is available on his solo CD, Musically Yours, James A. Hyter.
Among awards he received:
* Citizen of the Year by the Memphis and Shelby County Optimist "Respect the Law" Committee (1989)
* Historical plaque in his honor at Tom Lee Park, erected by the Shelby County Historical Commission and friends.
* Memphis Symphony League Hebe Award Winner for service to the arts (1988).
* W. C. Handy Heritage Award honoring Authentic Beale Street Musicians (2004)
* Downtown Memphis Civitan Club Award for promotion of the city and the Mississippi River.
* Host Award from the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (1988)
* Arkansas Traveler Award (presented by then governor Bill Clinton).
* Tennessee Outstanding Achievement Award (presented by then governor Ned McWherter)
* Memphis Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Beta for Outstanding Contributions to Black Performing Arts (1986)
* Omni Award by the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (1989) and is in the Omni Awards Hall of Fame.
* Memphis Living Legend Award from New Sardis Baptist Church (2008)
Among community service involvement:
* Board member of Opera Memphis for 13 years.
* Board member of the Memphis Orchestral Society for more than 20 years.
* Lambuth College President's Advisory Council for 4 years.
* United Way's Budget Panel for 15 years.
* Eight years on the Pension Board of the United Methodist Church Memphis Conference.
* Eight-year term on the Trustee Board of Methodist Health Systems.
* Began a Christmas tradition of entertaining cancer patients at the downtown Methodist and Baptist hospitals with holiday music (mid-1980s)
Among his frequent quotes:
"Many find joy at their journey's end. I find joy during the journey . . . I will sing for as long as I am able and as long as it means something to the community."
"You take the high notes and I'll take the low notes," when asking for audience to sing along during "Ol' Man River."
Regarding his singing of "Ol' Man River":
"If people don't start wiping their eyes, if I don't see the handkerchiefs come out, then I haven't sold the song."
Memorials, arrangements:
The family requests that memorials be sent to the James A. Hyter Vocal Music Scholarship Fund (901-728-4600) and St. Luke United Methodist Church.
Arrangements are incomplete at this time. R. S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home is in charge. Burial will be in West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery, Memphis.
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