Remembering the art and artistry of sampled soul giant Syl Johnson
In cold hard commercial terms, Syl Johnson was always next in line. In musical terms, he was a major force to be reckoned with.
Syl was a charismatic, good-looking man who was a triple threat as a singer, producer and guitarist, with twelve hits in Billboard’s R&B Top 40 between 1967-75. Given his ubiquity on the scene during those years, you would have expected him to have that huge crossover smash that would have busted him wide open, and kept him in oldies rotation for years.
This didn’t happen (and one sensed that Syl was a little bitter about this), but his reputation didn’t stay underground for long. Starting in the eighties, when more hard soul singers started turning up on the blues circuit, Syl was one of the first to make that transition.
And from that moment until his death on February 6 at age 85, he was never out of the picture.
His biggest shot at mainstream success happened when he signed with the Memphis-based Hi label in 1971 (distributed by London). At the time, the company was riding unexpectedly high with Al Green. Another singer on the label, Ann Peebles, was following close behind with several smashes, including the crossover pop hit “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Syl came roaring out of the gate with a series of good-timey singles that should have made him Hi’s next big breakout superstar: “We Did It,” “Back For A Taste Of Your Love,” “I Want To Take You Home To See Mama,” “I Only Have Love,” and possibly the most hyperactive version of “Take Me To The River” ever heard.
Hi Records promoted the Back For A Taste Of Your Love album with a full-page ad mentioning his background on the Chicago blues scene (but incorrectly stating that this was his first album, which it wasn’t). It was hoped that he would be the next big superstar out of the Hi soul factory, but if you asked Syl, there was one thing standing in his way: Al Green, who by then was the company’s biggest seller and was intent on having it stay that way. According to Syl, London Records was getting ready for a big fall ‘74 promotion, featuring the latest albums by Syl, the Moody Blues and Gilbert O’Sullivan. At the last minute, Syl’s LP was replaced by the new Al Green. The spectre of Al Green continued to stick in his craw for decades.
Syl got his musical start on the Chicago blues scene in the fifties, which might be inevitable when your neighbor is the great Magic Sam. Born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, MS, he and his family moved to Chicago in 1950. It didn’t take long for Syl and his two brothers (Jimmy Johnson and Mac Thompson) to become immersed in the local music scene. After playing with Sam, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Billy Boy Arnold, he started recording on his own in 1959. His first big hit, “Come On, Sock It To Me” didn’t arrive until 1967. Syl had a strained high-pitched voice, and had a habit of holding notes for a long time. “Sock It To Me” closed with Syl holding a note during the fadeout, and it became a trademark of several of his hits to come.
During this time he was recording for the Twinight label, for which he recorded several singles and two albums, including Is It Because I’m Black. The title track became a hit in 1969, when racial consciousness was becoming a staple of black music. More than just an LP of hits plus filler, the album played like a fully-realized concept. Unfortunately the album didn’t sell as well as the single did (which might explain why original copies are so scarce today).
However, over the past decade, it has taken on a new life as one of the essential soul albums of the era. In the eighties, Syl admitted he didn’t perform that song much in concert, citing that only college students really liked that song; his female audience preferred ballads like “Any Way The Wind Blows,” while the new white blues audience probably wouldn’t relate to that tune at all.
However, in the 21st Century, after the song had been sampled by several artists, that tune returned to his set list with a serious vengeance. (In 2008, I deejayed a Syl Johnson show at the Hideout in Chicago, as half of the East of Edens Soul Express. When Syl sang this song, a young white hipster was so into it, he started singing the words loudly: “Lord, what’s holding me back…is it because I’m black…” At that point he turned to his right and saw me, a black man, looking straight back at him. At that point, we all started laughing.)
AUDIO: Syl Johnson Uptown Shakedown (full album)
Like most soul singers of his generation, his heyday came to a halt with the arrival of disco. His answer to the phenomenon was 1979’s Uptown Shakedown, which was his attempt to keep up with the trends in what collectors now call “modern soul.” Those shoes plainly didn’t fit – a disco Otis Redding medley clearly wasn’t the answer. The next year, after Hi went out of business, Syl went back to his blues roots, reviving his Shama label (which he had operated on and off since the sixties) and releasing Brings Out The Blues In Me. And in a great example of what the Isley Brothers would have called “giving it back,” the title track adapted the main riff from the Rolling Stones’ ”Miss You.”
He remained a fairly steady fixture on the blues scene since then, which was amped up by a revival of classic resurgence of soul music in the 2000s. With “soul nights” popping up at several alt-rock venues, this gave veterans like Bettye LaVette, Howard Tate and Renaldo Domino a new audience, in addition to newer bands like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
In Syl’s case, a Chicago reissue label called Numero started re-releasing several gems from the Twinight Records catalog. As the biggest seller in the Twinight stable, it was inevitable that Syl would eventually get the treatment, and Numero went all out with a lavish box set. In 2009, Numero even staged a Twinight Records soul revue at Park West, a major concert venue. Syl was among the acts playing to a full house.
From here on in, Syl rode out his last decade in style as a respected Elder Statesman of Chicago Music, similar to Buddy Guy or Mavis Staples. (I even DJed at a couple of his Chicago gigs, as half of the East Of Edens Soul Express crew.) Even had an interesting documentary about his life, Any Way The Wind Blows, which included a poignant scene where he revisits the old Royal Studios, where so many classic Hi sides were waxed (nothing about that studio changed, according to Syl).
In 2014, as part of CIMMFest (a multi-day Chicago film festival devoted to music), one afternoon featured a live interview with legendary Stax Records musician Booker T. Jones. During the Q&A session, Syl merrily made his presence known: “Hey, Booker T! Where’s the MGs?” Later, at a showing of the Take Me To The River (a documentary about classic soul musicians), my then-girlfriend and I sat next to Syl and a mutual friend Edward Keyes. We were seated in that order, and even two seats away, I could hear Syl making funny, catty remarks about the artists in the movie, many of which he’d known or met. It was the best kind of “commentary track” you could have, live and in person.
The downside of this newfound fame was Syl not being paid by rappers. According to one source, 414 hip-hop songs sampled beats from his classic records. 330 of those came solely from “Different Strokes,” which had an open breakbeat to die for (plus a then-unknown Minnie Riperton laughing on top of it).
As well he should have been, Syl was not happy having his music appropriated without proper financial compensation. To his dying day, he and his legal team went after some huge names in the business. The man was not shy about venting his anger – when he played Chicago’s Old Town School Of Folk Music in 2010, at one point he started ranting on those who didn’t pay him. He ticked off the names, one by one.
At one point, when he was trying to think of some more, somebody hollered “Wu-Tang Clan!” from the audience, who were another act who sampled his work. Syl shot back: “Wu-Tang Clan? Oh, no, they cool like a motherfucker!,” to general laughter. In other words, they PAID him.
AUDIO: Syl Johnson “Different Strokes”
Others did not. It got so bad that he re-recorded one of his well-known hits as “Is It Because I’m Black 2006.” Was this an indictment of the African-American struggle in the 21st century? No, it was an indictment of the Syl Johnson struggle around the same time. RIght there in the lyrics, with no metaphors to hide behind, he came after Michael Jackson and KRS-One, Cypress Hill and others, demanding: “Gimme my money! I want to get paid!” (Wu-Tang Clan “treated me like a man,” so they were spared his wrath.)
One of my most enduring memories of this period was using the computer room one morning in a Memphis hotel. Seated behind me, waiting their respective turns, was my friend Noah Schaffer…and Syl. All three of us were in town for the Ponderosa Stomp, the famed roots music festival where Syl was appearing. The stories were flying fast and furious; Noah and I had as much fun rapping with Syl as we did watching the show.
Tragically, Syl passed away a week after his brother Jimmy Johnson, a well-known bluesman. A third brother, Mac Thompson (who also adopted the “Johnson” surname), played bass with Magic Sam; he died in 1991. Taken together, this is one hell of a blues dynasty. Barrence Whitfield, a rockin’ soul shouter with a string of albums to his credit, says: “For both brothers to pass away, the same month of our celebration of black history, is a reminder of what our place is in music.
To know and to remember what we have brought to the history of black music in this world we should never forget who we are and where we came from.”
The Thompson/Johnson family contributed to this history.
AUDIO: Syl Johnson “Is It Because I’m Black?”
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