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 “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.”
“James Hyter-Biography, 1997 edition,” http://www.jasirsongs.com/hyterbio.html; John Beifuss, ‘Time For Sunset of “Ol’ Man River’–Great Song, But Wrong Time and Place,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, 30 May 1997; William E. Schmidt, “What’s Doing in: Memphis,” New York Times, 8 May 1988