MYTH MAKER Syl Johnson

The soul legend ain’t
stopping anytime soon.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

There are those who believe Syl Johnson’s reputation isn’t
commensurate with his musical accomplishments. And fortunately for the
74-year-old Chicago blues and soul singer/guitarist/producer-whose
fascinatingly long career includes the R&B hits “Different Strokes,” “Come
On Sock It to Me,”  “Concrete
Reservation,” “Dresses Too Short,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” and the original hit
version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”-one of his true believers is the
Chicago-based archivist record label Numero Group.

 

In October, Numero released a combination
four-disc/six-LP boxed set called Syl
Johnson: The Complete Mythology,
focusing on his solo career from 1959-1977
(excluding his already well-documented work for Willie Mitchell’s high-profile,
Memphis-based Hi label in the early 1970s, where he first recorded “River”).
Four years in the making, it includes 81 tracks from the Federal, Cha-Cha,
Tmp-Ting, Special Agent, Zachron and especially Chicago’s Twilight/Twinight
labels, where his hits like “Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” have gone
on to be sampled by a who’s-who of contemporary rap and hip-hop. The set also
contains a 52-page booklet, scholarly notes on his recording sessions, and
facsimiles of his two Twinight LPs, Dresses
Too Short
and Is It Because I’m
Black?

 

Johnson, by the way, is still very active touring and
producing. But he took some time recently to talk on the phone about his
musical roots. Born in Holly Springs, Miss., as Sylvester Thompson, he moved to
Chicago where he and his two equally musical brothers started carving out
careers in the lively 1950s blues scene. He worked with the likes of Elmore
James, Billy Boy Arnold, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed.

 

“There was this [Chicago]
label Veejay, and I was there there making a session with Jimmy Reed,” Johnson
recalls. “He used to be a drunk and we’d wait on him to get his whiskey and
stuff and we’d be sitting round the studio. I was showing how I could sing, and
somehow Vivian Carter [the label co-owner] heard me and said to her brother to
get this young boy to sing. He told me to write a song, put it on a dub and
bring it.”

 

And Johnson, still known as Sylvester Thompson, did that.
Except, as he was walking down the city’s fabled blues-music center, South
Michigan Avenue, with it he saw another record company-a branch of
Cincinnati-based King Records, a black-music giant of the day. “And there was a
guy there named Ralph Bass and I gave him my dub-it was song called
‘Teardrops’. And he wouldn’t let me go. He said, ‘We’re King Records, a big
company; we have James Brown.'”

 

So he recorded it properly for King subsidiary Federal, and
then went on to record other sides for the company. While nothing became a hit,
the King experience was notable because the label’s president, Sydney Nathan,
ordered his name changed on the records. “He said, ‘Sylvester Thompson sounds
like a governor or something.’ So he changed it. He said that will be a stage
name-like B.B. King or Satchmo. So Syl Johnson it was.”

 

All these years later, Johnson has but one regret. “I
thought it should have been Sly,” he jokes.

 

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