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Syl Johnson: Soulful Like Marvin, Funky Like James

Unlike Marvin Gaye or James Brown, Johnson never had massive success, in spite of a prolific career. A new box set, Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology, compiles more than 80 recordings from the late 1950s through early 1970s.

By Oliver Wang/NPR Music


November 10, 2010

Chicago R&B singer Syl Johnson once described himself as "more soul than Marvin, more funk than James." However, unlike Marvin Gaye or James Brown, Johnson never enjoyed massive success, in spite of a prolific career spanning three decades and hundreds of recordings. A new box set, Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology, compiles more than 80 of them from the late 1950s through early 1970s.

Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson, but he used to tell folks he changed his name to honor the man he said was his real father, blues legend Robert Johnson. This wasn't true ? a record label renamed him ? but when you first hear the emotional intensity of Johnson's quavering tenor, it's easy enough to believe the fiction.

Johnson was born in Mississippi, but his family joined the postwar Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, ending up in Chicago. It was there that Johnson began playing guitar behind blues artists such as Elmore James and Jimmy Reed before beginning his solo career in the late '50s. But in his first eight years in the business, none of Johnson's nearly two dozen songs managed to hit, and by the mid-1960s, he had taken a day job driving trucks for UPS. Then, one day in 1967, he heard one of his songs on the radio and quickly tossed out the brown uniform.

Funk's True Calling

Syl Johnson found his true calling in funk's burgeoning influence. "Come On, Sock It to Me" was soon followed by an even bigger hit, "Different Strokes." Both singles fueled the new imprint Johnson helped co-found, Twilight Records.

Twilight was renamed Twinight, and Johnson was the label's biggest asset as an artist, songwriter and producer. In 1969, his mood still dark over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he wrote what would become the label's highest charter, a searing indictment of racism in America called "Is It Because I'm Black?"


The full-length LP of the same name was a stunning post-civil-rights concept album released a full year ahead of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" Despite the single's success, the album faltered and Johnson soon parted ways with Twinight. This is where Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology more or less ends, but not Johnson's career. His second act began in 1971, when he headed south to Memphis and signed with Willie Mitchell's famed Hi Records.

Standing In The Shadows

It should have been an ideal match ? pairing the sublime soul chops of the Hi Rhythm Section with Johnson's powerful vocals ? but the singer's decade-long tenure at Hi turned out to be a mixed bag. On one hand, Mitchell's production prowess was at its apogee in the early '70s, and Johnson's recordings, alongside those by Ann Peebles and Al Green, marked Hi's golden era. However, despite being 10 years his senior, Johnson found himself in the shadow of Green, Hi's marquee star. Even Johnson's gritty, ragged singing style began to take cues from the smooth falsetto croons of his junior rival.

By the 1980s, Johnson's career fell into seemingly permanent recession. But it received an unexpected boost by decade's end, as a younger generation began to rediscover his catalog via his more sample-friendly recordings.

Sampling royalties helped Johnson get back to recording. His last album, Two Johnsons Are Better Than One, was a duet project with his brother, Jimmy Johnson, released in 2001. With this new box set out, it's tempting to think that another wave of rediscovery might coax Johnson back into the studio again. If there's one thing his long career has proven, it's that you can never count out Syl Johnson's persistence in adding new chapters to his own storied mythology.


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