"...I made my opportunities, but I never got the breaks I should have gotten. I was a jack-of-all-trades. More soul than Marvin, more funk than James. If I’d gone pop, you’d be talkin’ about me, not them. I rate right at the top, though I’ve been underrated all my life..."
...Syl Johnson is that person. a true legend beyond reckoning, but always there is that downside that he can't have attributed that status in popular circles since he didn't get big in any way and was surfed away with the likes of James Brown, Al Green, Otis, Curtis et al, all getting that recognition, all the No.1 - hits all the accolades, Hall of Fame inductions and the tributes that many amateurs will go on and create and forge on the general circuit. The thing with Syl was that he was there - but never grasped the opportunity to get that extra mile, for whatever reason that was what was fated to be. Syl was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1936 as Sylvester Thompson. to the sounds of the blues around the area, to the sounds of Robert Johnson laments of the devils of life, he began singing with the likes of Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf his style was definitely inspired from where his stamping ground would be. Syl recorded his first single on the King Records imprint Federal, home of luminaries like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, hell even James Brown had a stint with The Flames on Federal. He was later signed to the legendary Twinights record label based in Chicago where he became a successful singer songwriter/producer until the demise of the label which was caused by his departure to Hi Records with the chance to work with the legendary Willie Mitchell he then started producing hits with We Did It(Hi-1972), Back for a Taste of Your Love(Hi-1973 ) and Take Me to the River(Hi-1975) which reached No.7 in the R,n'B Charts - The highest position that Syl would ever get to in the charts. Soon the all the hype of being on Hi turned very sour, seemed that having the opportunity for more success would evade him when artists like Al Green would have more importance on the label than him demeaning him commercially and artistically ,and the fact that Willie Mitchell used in-house material at Hi instead of getting want Syl wanted was another factor in his end. Syl started his own label after he left Hi called Shama where he released Ms.Fine Brown Frame in 1982 (which was also a hit single for Syl on the Shama/Boardwalk imprint). Syl left music for good and went into business creating fast food fish restaurants and only performing in clubs part-time. His time unexpectedly came when in 1992 he found out that one of his songs on Twinight - Different Strokes was used by various rappers and sampled by the likes of MC Hammer, Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Kool G Rap amongest others...it just seemed that more and more of the songs that Syl had in his back catalogue where getting sampled all the time, countless number. because of this Syl returned to the music industry in 1994 and recorded an album on Delmark records called Back In The Game. with permission a year later Syl used the Twinights label to put out a album with his daughter Syleena Johnson called This Time Together by Father and Daughter, and then a few more records followed thus. Syl seemed to have got near and near in his career but like they would say in lay mans terms he was 'fucked over', the waste and the the detritus upon him by what where very blood thirsty people in the industry put him down, he had the talent and the voice and was well versed in the art of song and production getting a number of Twinights artists to the charts is a great example The Notations and the great falsetto Renato Domino. What Syl did give the world is the great bluesy gut busting soul/funk that many of today's hip-hop could use and sample and easily lay there own breaks on to and the fact that millions of people can enjoy what he did with re-issues and great examples unknown works like this awesome Numero compilation available which lays down the law on the mans best years as a accomplished singer/songwriter and producer. so much for the self proclaimed "most sampled artists in R'n'B history".
My Syl Johnson Top 5
Syl Johnson - Different Strokes (Twilight-1967)
Undeniably one of the most used and sampled songs during the 90's hip-hop scene going from De La Soul using it on Magic Number all the way to Comptons Most Wanted and this goes long, including Wu-Tang, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson, jeez you can pick 'em up with both hands and there will still be a few more artists sampling this...It's an absolute classic.
Syl Johnson - Is It Because I'm Black(Twinight-1969)
A classic gut wrenching and emotional tune that just send shivers to the spine, a deep heart felt message that can be interpreted as it is all in other forms which also reflects modern society. This again was a popular song to be sampled by the likes of Wu-Tang on Hollow Bones and Cypress Hill on Lock Down(Interlude). My favorite of Syl's by a long shot!
Syl Johnson - Come On Sock It To Me(Twilight-1967)
This is the one that started it off for Syl at Twinight!, an absolutely high, good feel soul tune that would later become a northern soul classic and a collectors item in many circles and fetches for a lot of money nowadays on the original Twinights label.
Syl Johnson - Do You Know What Love Is (Special Agent-1967)
Well Syls stuff on Hi is popular and the fact that people are finding out about the Twinights label back catalog is great but he also a released a tune the same year that he joined the Twinight label but on Special Agent and this can easily be one of my favorites as well.
Syl Johnson - We Did It (Hi-1972)
After he left Twinight and joined the Memphis outfit at Hi Records he produced some brilliant stuff for them including this great track produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell in 1972. again a great uplifting tune with the legendary in-house Hi records backing band putting in some power and soul into this. This track was later also sang by Loleatta Holloway.
And for some live stuff, i just thought i dig this one up of Syl performing the Little Junior Parker hit which got him a hit!
Syl Johnson - Take Me To The River (Hi-1975)