"Ol' Man River" is Living Legend on Memphis Riverfront

James Hyter has become physically invisible to us, but his voice is very much alive in our memory of his incomparable rendition of "Ol' Man River" at Sunset Symphonies 1979-1998. Countless Memphians, and former Memphians, came to the riverfront to hear him sing, not in an enclosed concert hall but outdoors, regardless of the weather, in the open space of Tom Lee Park alongside the Mississippi River he sang about. It's probably true that he upstaged Bach's Brandenburg Concerto and fireworks.

Click to twice on the video below to hear his performance in 1998.

Click below to read the tribute to him from the Commercial Appeal.

Chorus of praise at rites for "Ol' Man River" icon James Hyter
By Cindy Wolff (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Memphis Symphony Quartet was lovely.

The combined voices of two choirs and a chorus were mighty.

Even a soloist gave a taste of a syrupy, rich bass baritone voice
that left the crowd wowed.

But it wasn't until the end, after all the fine words had been said
about James Hyter, that the crowd of several hundred at his funeral
Thursday got what they wanted.

As his casket was taken down the aisle at Christ United Methodist
Church, a recording of Mr. Hyter's distinctive voice belted out the
song everyone's ears ached to hear one more time: "Ol' Man River."

The man who made the song from the musical "Show Boat" an anthem to
end the Memphis in May International Festival died April 2 at age 87.

For 21 years, he patiently sang up to 10 encores of "Ol' Man River"
before the fireworks ended the Memphis in May celebration Downtown.

Images of him on the stage with the Mississippi River as a backdrop
flashed on a screen above his silver casket during a visitation prior
to the service. Mr. Hyter was dressed in his signature white tuxedo
with red tie and cummerbund and a red rose on his left lapel.

Visitors spent an hour filing past the casket. Some stopped to kiss
his forehead or touch his hands folded at his waist. His daughter,
Beverly Hyter-Ngah, said her father lost his song 15 months ago.
That's when Flora, his beloved wife of 47 years, died.

"They were inseparable," said Hyter-Ngah. "I know I was blessed to
have parents that were this special. He was ready to go be with her."

She said Mr. Hyter would usually begin to sing "Ol' Man River" around
the house a few weeks before the Memphis in May Sunset Symphony, just
to make sure he wasn't rusty.

"Mom always watched 'The Young and the Restless,' so she always
begged him not to sing during her soap opera," she said.

His friends praised him as kind, gentle and sweet. He usually called
everyone "buddy, buddy."

Mr. Hyter was lauded during the service by Memphis Mayor Willie
Herenton, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen,
D-Memphis, as an icon for the city who reminded everyone that this is
a river town.

Former Memphis in May director Cynthia Ham said Mr. Hyter's rendition
came during an era when Memphis seemed to forget about the
Mississippi River. Growth was out east and people weren't coming
Downtown as much.

"That song on the banks of the river with the symphony unified us,"
Ham said.

Mr. Hyter's friends talked about the thrill they'd get when he would
call and sing "Happy Birthday to You" to them.

When he stopped driving at night, his friend, Larry Kaler, used to
give Mr. Hyter rides.

"Whenever I left, the last thing he told me was to call and let the
phone ring once so he knew I made it home all right," Kaler said. "It
was nice to know that someone was worried to see if this old man made
it home."

Mr. Hyter grew up in Memphis and began singing in choirs in
elementary school.

He rarely turned down a chance to sing. People always wanted to hear
his rich voice.

Even in his final days, he'd give the nurses a thrill at the
hospital, especially if they did something that caused him pain, said

"He'd drop down to that low C, and they'd love it," said his only child.

He finally quit singing "Ol' Man River" at the Sunset Symphony when
Memphis Symphony conductor Alan Balter became ill and retired in 1998.

"It was a good time for him to let it end," said his daughter.

-- Cindy Wolff: 529-2378