Popular "Ol' Man River" singer passes away - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

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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