The Rob Hatch-Miller directed Any Way The Wind Blows, currently making the rounds of film festivals (next screenings Feb. 20 & 21) to mucho acclaim, captures life of musical underdog and soul legend Syl Johnson.
Following the sustained period of grief over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., soul/funk singer-songwriter Syl Johnson responded with his own version of a mourning song.
“After Dr. King was killed… I didn’t want to make a militant song. My song… was asking a question,” he says.
Johnson’s downbeat “Is It Because I’m Black?” dented the charts, as did the other expressive jams he arranged and cut for Chicago’s Twinight label but mostly, his songs were soul-powered cries in the wilderness. Despite previous and future appearances on the charts and on Soul Train; a Willie Mitchell-mentored Hi Records tenure; a later, post-disco hit (“Ms. Fine Brown Frame”); and a cult following that grew among cratediggers at the dawn of the hip hop era (further fueled by the advent of the CD)—Johnson’s name and reputation as one of soul’s finest remains a fairly well-guarded secret.
Now, nearly 50 years after his solo recording debut, the documentary, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows (directed by Rob Hatch-Miller), currently making the rounds of indie film festivals, goes some way toward unravelling the mystery of why things went the way they did for one of American music’s premiere voices and most-sampled artists (were it not for his explosive track, “Different Strokes,” hip hop as it’s known would not be the same).
Johnson’s story is not your average unsung musician’s tale: Timing, as ever, was part of a long miscalculated equation that includes mismanagement and Johnson’s own quirky character traits. But as friends, family, fellow players, at least one hip hop mastermind (RZA) and an ex-wife testify, Johnson’s stalled career was not for lack of talent. His gift for delivering songs of timeless and enduring strength, with a lyrical depth, and dynamite swagger should not be open to debate. Yet for reasons unexplained, his musical abilities are challenged by novelist Jonathan Lethem, who asserts Johnson only had a “a tenth” of what his rival Al Green did.
The word “genius” in the context of Johnson’s creative spark is also argued against by different folks but facts are facts: The only things Johnson lacked in the starmaking department were promotion and a commitment from London Records (Hi’s parent company). Throughout the film, the talking heads agree that Johnson’s rare “loose” and “raw” qualities are what set him apart, contributing to his Twinight sides rising to heights of excellence. Those records, from “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” to “Dresses Too Short” had the sound that called producer Mitchell out of his Royal Recorders in Memphis toward Chicago in search of Johnson, his original choice to sing “Take Me To The River.”
In more recent years, representatives from the Numero Group label, which reissued a Grammy-nominated box set of Johnson’s music, would seemingly diminish the singer’s influence by categorizing him as part of their Eccentric Soul catalog (though enthusiastically received by collectors as well as critics—BLURT included—the series comprises mostly amateur records issued by complete unknowns). Yet keen to spread the good word, collect kudos, and sell records, the young executives and his new musical sidemen seem sincere enough; though Johnson isn’t entirely convinced, only half-joking when he says he’s “keeping an eye on them.”
Johnson’s great grandfather Wallace was a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi; according to the film, his grandfather bought the plantation and Johnson grew up with seven siblings, picking cotton and singing, inspired by listening to the birds sing. No one knows exactly how old Johnson is (one of his daughters suspects he’s considerably older than the 79 years currently assigned to him); it’s certain that in 1950, he followed his siblings and mother to Chicago. He immediately began to hang out and hold his own, playing blues guitar on the Chess Records scene, learning “discipline and how to dress” from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Junior Wells.
“To go hear Muddy Waters play? You wish you had been there and heard Muddy Waters play,” Johnson says in the film.
But singing the blues was not his desire. “We got some new shit for you, Pops,” he says, of the prevailing attitude behind 1959’s “Teardrops.” Dropping his birth name Thompson, he changed it to Johnson on a suggestion by notorious record man, Syd Nathan of the Federal label. Touring, recording, and trying to earn a living consumed him for the next few decades; the music took a turn and Johnson turned to the restaurant business for his hustle until that dried up too. As destiny would have it, with the advent of sampling, the popularity of Johnson’s records used as basic tracks and themes on rap’s greatest hits allowed him to earn a living from his music again.
Nobody knows better than Johnson what he gave to the business versus what he got from it, although his immediate family and the musicians he worked with have empathy and an understanding of what it took for him be a groundbreaking musician, as well as a man in all his dimensions—from abandoned child to father, businessman, and playa.
But it’s Wu Tang Clan’s RZA who shows the most generosity of spirit and unconditional gratitude for the price Johnson paid so others might benefit.
“It ain’t only the music that makes you valuable. It’s also something,” he says, pointing to his guts, “that you may have in here, that the other people don’t have.”
Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows screens February 20th at the Noise Pop Music Festival, 7 PM at the Roxie in San Francisco (with Johnson and filmmakers in attendance); and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula Montana on Saturday, February 20th | 12:45pm at the Top Hat and Sunday, February 21st | 7:30pm at Crystal.