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James Hyter

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Hyter's baritone embodied power of Mississippi River

By Michael Lollar Memphis Commercial Appeal

Friday, April 3, 2009

His booming voice told us it was the mighty Mississippi River that kept rolling along. Now he has done so himself.

Photo by William Moore

James Hyter, 87, whose bass-baritone rendition of "Ol' Man River" added a touch of "magic" to Sunset Symphony concerts for 21 years, died at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Methodist University Hospital after a long illness.

It was the finale to Mr. Hyter's role as one of the best known voices of Memphis. James Hyter, known for his Sunset Symphony rendition of "Ol' Man River", died Thursday night.

James Hyter, known for his Sunset Symphony rendition of "Ol' Man River", died Thursday night.

"His fame will live on. 'Ol' Man River' will be reverberating here forever," said Benjamin L. Hooks, a childhood friend who attended Booker T. Washington High School with Mr. Hyter and watched as his friend became an indelible part of Memphis history.

Mr. Hyter began one of the city's favorite traditions 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.

A former insurance salesman, Mr. Hyter often credited University of Memphis 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."

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.

"It was magic," said Martha Ellen Maxwell, a founder of the event. "People came every year just because of him."

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.

"The whole crowd would lock arms and sing with him," said Maxwell. "What could be better -- the river, Jim Hyter, the symphony and the whole diverse audience, some of them with tears streaming down their faces as they sang."

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.

"He said, 'I think I'll take my bow when he takes his bow,'" said Mr. Hyter's daughter, Beverly Hyter.

Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane said Mr. Hyter "became synonymous with Memphis in May. He was a voice of Memphis that signaled our river and our heritage."

Cynthia Ham, executive director of Memphis in May from 1987 to 1996, said Mr. Hyter helped remind the city of its identity.

"In the '60s and '70s, as a result of urban decay and white flight to the suburbs, Memphians had turned their backs on the river, literally and figuratively. I think we had almost forgotten we had this powerful river running beside us," she said. "So in the early years when Jim sang 'Ol' Man River' at the Sunset Symphony, there was this collective realization that Memphis is indeed a Mississippi River town.

"As people sang and swayed along with 'Ol' Man River,' there was truly a strong feeling of community and sense of place."

When Mr. Hyter's annual appearances ended, Maxwell helped spearhead a memorial to Mr. Hyter. With the Shelby County Historical Commission and Friends of J.A. Hyter, they put up a bronze plaque in Tom Lee Park. It stands alongside the river and near the site of the stage where Mr. Hyter had stood so many times.

The plaque reminds that Mr. Hyter was born in Athens, Ala., but moved to Memphis when he was a week old. After high school, he served three years in the Army and received a junior accounting degree from Henderson Business College. He became a marketing representative and field agent for Blue Cross/Blue Shield before retiring in 1988 to devote himself to performing and music.

He had begun singing in church choirs as an elementary school student and sang with choirs at Centenary United Methodist Church and St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Although widely known as a singer of spirituals, he also studied opera and the classics. He sang for years with the Memphis Symphony Chorus.

With the Greater Memphis Chorale, Mr. Hyter and about 40 other Memphians toured Europe in 1979 and 1980.

Beverly Hyter said her father was honored with a James A. Hyter Vocal Music Scholarship Fund set up in 1993 through Morgan Keegan & Co. for Mid-South high school graduates or college students who need financial help.

The family requests that memorials be sent to the fund (728-4600) or to St. Luke's United Methodist Church.

Mr. Hyter also leaves a sister, Eleanor Guy of Memphis.

R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home has charge. Burial will be in West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery.

Visitation from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 480 S. Highland, and 9 to 10 a.m. Thursday in Wilson Chapel at Christ United Methodist Church, 4488 Poplar.

Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Christ United Methodist Church.

-- Michael Lollar

Story from Commercial Appeal

Video Hyter Sings "Ol' Man River"