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The Real Syl

An underappreciated soul great gets another chance.

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It's a Thursday evening in early November, and Chicago soul great Syl Johnson and five other veteran musicians are at Soundmine Studios in Stony Island Park to rehearse. Drummer Morris Jennings, bassist Bernard Reed, keyboardist Anthony Space, guitarist Larry Blasingaine, and baritone saxophonist Willie Henderson—sans horn and here to help with the arrangements—all have stands full of sheet music for a dozen tunes that Johnson recorded four decades ago. This band's never played any of them, and Johnson himself might as well be learning them for the first time.

I heard him sing at least one of the 12, the 1968 midtempo burner "Same Kind of Thing," in April 2009 at Park West last year, in a revue presented by local reissue label the Numero Group to celebrate its Eccentric Soul series. But there Johnson was backed by JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, a young Chicago band, not this crew of old hands.

The group that takes the stage at the Old Town School this Saturday, November 27, will be close to three times the size of the core that's meeting at Soundmine, with a full horn section and a contingent of backup singers—and the set will be a lot longer than 12 songs. The occasion is Numero Group's November 7 release of Complete Mythology, a lavish box set of Johnson's music, most of it from the early part of his recording career, between 1959 and 1971. Those were great years for soul but so-so years for Syl Johnson, at least commercially—he never won the national crossover audience of a James Brown or an Al Green, despite a respectable collection of hit singles. Complete Mythology exists to make the case that Johnson's second-tier status wasn't a reflection of a second-tier talent.

At rehearsal Johnson, 74, is wearing a blue leather baseball cap cocked at a jaunty angle, a black leather jacket, and baggy, streetwear-style blue jeans. He has the 12 songs from the band's charts burned onto a CD, and as the musicians work out their parts he keeps walking back to the studio's stereo to stop the music, back it up, and start it over. In most cases they only need two or three passes, but Johnson, who's already relearned the melodies at home, seems like he'd be happy singing certain phrases and lines again and again all night. Thirty minutes in, Jackie Ross and her daughter LaDonna Middleton arrive; Ross will be singing a few songs herself at the Old Town concert, and both women are singing backup for Johnson. As the instrumentalists work, he shows the vocalists where their harmony parts fit, waving his arms like a conductor and wearing a toothy smile.

When the original 1970 recording of "That's Why," a funky number with lush arrangements by Donny Hathaway, bursts from the speakers, Johnson loses himself for a moment. He jumps up from his stool, wiggles his hips seductively, and tugs at the fabric around the crotch of his pants. I think I might be the only person who notices—the others are engrossed in their charts.

Then the band plays "That's Why," and Johnson stops the music to ask Jennings to play eighth notes instead of sixteenth notes on his cymbal—the denser pattern, he says, is pushing him too hard. Then he leaves the musicians to work among themselves and pulls out a checkbook to pay each of them for the rehearsal. As the song's groove takes shape, he walks the room, placing a check on every music stand. In two hours they've nailed six songs.

Syl Johnson and band at 1804 S. Rush, July 1960
  • Courtesy of The Numero Group
  • Syl Johnson and band at 1804 S. Rush, July 1960

Johnson's almost giddy enthusiasm seems to be contagious: Space grins and follows the rhythm with his head, and Ross and Middleton sway gently, exchanging smiles with each other and with Johnson, who flirts with both of them. They look like they're hamming it up for a crowd, but aside from a lone studio staffer, only two people are watching.

The next day I visit Johnson at his two-story Bronzeville home, identifiable by the green guitar in bas-relief at the top of its red stucco facade. Over the course of a rambling two-and-a-half-hour interview, I learn firsthand what the folks at Numero Group have already told me—that the focus Johnson displays where music is concerned pretty much ends there.

At one point he says, with characteristic bravado, "I ain't no jack of all trades, but I'm a multitalented genius." Fair enough, I think. But then he's off and running: "I'm not a great singer, but you know who can make a great hit? The one that can hear hits. You know Jesse Jackson? Or Louis Farrakhan? Them motherfuckers know how to . . . excuse the expression, I don't mean to call them motherfuckers . . . they know the shit to say what the people like. I've been discriminated against, and I know about racism, and I know that my great-great-grandfather was a slave. I know they killed six million. You ever heard of Adolf Eichmann? He killed four million. I said, 'Mama, how come they're killing those babies, mama?' She said, 'Boy, they're just some rotten people.' My point is, everybody's been discriminated against. I'm not worried about racism, I just want you to be straight up."

A conversation with Johnson can be a challenge, but his friends and colleagues take it in stride. Guitarist Pete Nathan, who produced two of Johnson's late-career albums, puts it best: "He gets exhilarated and gets too far over his skis sometimes."

Numero Group has been working with Johnson since 2006. During the process of producing Complete Mythology, cofounder Ken Shipley became an expert at navigating the singer's personality—he says label staff conducted 30 or 40 interviews with Johnson before the deal to do the set was formalized. Eventually they began jotting down their favorite pearls of wisdom and posting them to the Numero Group's Twitter account with the hashtag #ShitMySylSays (a riff on the popular Shit My Dad Says). A recent example: "The art director at Hi was a lesbian, no doubt. No titties, fucked up hair. She fucked up Total Explosion when I found out." And from September: "The most healthiest fish in the world is SALMON."

The work that brought Numero and Johnson together began in 2003, when the label hatched a plan to compile the complete singles of Chicago soul label Twinight Records—a discography dominated by Johnson, Twinight's sole hit maker. Numero soon decided to assemble a curated compilation, not an exhaustive one, after discovering that Twinight had released its fair share of mediocrities—and that Johnson was embroiled in a lawsuit for control of his masters with Twinight cofounder Peter Wright.

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Wright, who declined to be interviewed for this story, had been licensing the Twinight catalog since the label folded in the early 70s—in 1996 he authorized British reissue label Ace Records to release a collection of Twinight singles and a CD of Johnson's two Twinight albums, Dresses Too Short (1969) and Is It Because I'm Black (1970). The Numero Group folks decided to stay out of the fray and leave Johnson's music off their Twinight comp. "Our point was to never get between the artist and the label, always to be a mediator between the two, and to allow ourselves to come out on top and be the good guy to both parties," says Shipley.

In 2007 Johnson and Wright reached a settlement that gave Johnson control of his Twinight material for the first time. But he still wasn't ready to work with Numero Group. "I think my father has been exposed to one too many snakes, and they've really taken a toll on his perception of the music industry," says Syleena Johnson, the youngest of his three daughters and a successful R&B singer in her own right. "My dad is really old-school, and he's been really scorned by some old stuff and he just doesn't let go."

Johnson has made a lot of money from hip-hop artists sampling his old records—his 1967 funk hit "Different Strokes," which opens with a series of well-placed grunts, the delirious giggling of a 19-year-old Minnie Riperton, and a huge Morris Jennings breakbeat, has been sampled more than 50 times. He's made enough to build his house and buy the land it stands on, including an adjacent plot where he maintains an impressive garden—far more than he's seen in royalties from his entire discography. But much of that windfall came his way only as a result of litigation, and he hasn't forgotten that.

Johnson wasn't initially helpful when the Numero Group contacted him about the Twinight anthology, Lunar Rotation, which eventually came out as a two-disc set in 2007. He'd done some songwriting for Twinight and produced many of the label's records—including its only hit he didn't sing, "I'm Still Here" by the Notations—but he'd come to regard CD reissues as scams across the board.

"He wasn't really agreeable, but we were so tenacious that he just kind of wore down after a while," says Shipley. The way Johnson describes his first impressions of Rob Sevier, Numero Group's lead researcher and collector, it's pretty clear he thinks his early suspicions were silly. "I checked him out. He looked like a gangster to me . . . I thought he might be a Peter Wright setup," he says, and gives a sinister, theatrical laugh.

After Lunar Rotation came out, Shipley began scouring the Internet for Johnson rarities, turning up advertisements and gig fliers as well as pressings of his records from Canada and Spain. "There was stuff we knew about that he didn't know about," Shipley says—including unreleased Twinight-era tracks like "Try My Love" and "My Funky Band" that Johnson has no memory of recording. "Us becoming experts on him was sort of what turned the corner, with him realizing that we actually cared. We were paying him royalty checks [from Lunar Rotation] at the same time, so it became a lot easier for him to trust us and understand that we were going to do it right."

These days Johnson can't say enough nice things about Numero Group. "They were the first ones to give me a royalty check from Twinight on the artists I produced. I had never been paid for any of them.

"Man, they also found some good shit," he continues, and sings the opening line from "I'm Looking for My Baby," a 1962 single he cut for Federal Records in Cincinnati. "I forgot I had made that record. Ken and them are some great researchers. I was totally flabbergasted about how many songs I had made that I couldn't remember. You got a band, you're moving around, shit, you didn't get no deal, you make a little would-be record on that label or whatever label, nothing happened, you forgot about the label, you forgot about the tape, but it was good. I couldn't remember that stuff."

Complete Mythology contains 81 Johnson tracks recorded between 1959 and 1977. The bulk are from his stint at Twinight, 1967 to '71. Eleven are previously unreleased, and the set also includes rarities for short-lived labels like Cha Cha, TMP-Ting, and Zachron as well as songs issued only in Japan. Nearly all the music predates Johnson's 1971 signing to Memphis powerhouse Hi Records—at various times home to Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and fellow Chicagoan Otis Clay. The set packages the same material on four CDs and six LPs, along with a photo-packed 52-page book that includes a detailed essay by Shipley and thorough song annotations by Reader contributor and blues and soul scholar Bill Dahl. Despite the $75 price tag, Numero expects to sell out the initial run of 5,000 by year's end.

Johnson, born Sylvester Thompson near Lamar, Mississippi, in 1936, moved to Chicago in 1950 as part of the great migration of southern blacks heading north for better-paying jobs. His brothers, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and bassist Mack Thompson (a longtime sideman of Magic Sam), also became prominent musicians, playing mostly blues. By the end of the 50s Syl was working as a sideman for the likes of Junior Wells, Elmore James, Billy Boy Arnold, and Jimmy Reed. In 1959 he landed his first record deal, with Federal, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati label King—then home to James Brown. As Johnson tells it, he walked into the label's Michigan Avenue office with an acetate demo he'd cut in a Voice-O-Graph—a kind of novelty recording booth that became popular as a way to send audio letters in wartime—and had a contract ten minutes later. Ralph Bass, the A&R man who signed him, later renamed him Syl Johnson—Sylvester Thompson, he said, wasn't a good showbiz name.

Through 1962 Johnson cut 14 songs for Federal, releasing five singles, but none took off. He got a job as a truck driver to support his wife and three children, and for the next five years he put out music on a number of small-time, short-lived labels.

Things changed in 1967, when influential WVON DJ E. Rodney Jones, who also co-owned a club where Johnson had a regular gig, hooked him up with record promoter Howard Bedno. They released "Come On Sock It to Me" on a new label called Twilight, and it became Johnson's first hit, reaching number 12 on Billboard's R&B chart and number 97 on the pop chart. Johnson says he decided to quit his job the day he heard it come on the radio in his UPS truck.

Twilight didn't incorporate until several singles later, changing its name to Twinight to avoid conflict with a label in California. At that point another record promoter, Peter Wright—then managing the New Colony Six and generally more in tune than Bedno with what the kids were buying—came aboard as a partner.

Johnson's story about this period has changed a lot over time, but in a 1983 interview with Chicago soul historian Robert Pruter, he said he had a 5 percent stake in the label. Over the next five years Johnson had several more hits for Twinight—"Different Strokes," "Dresses Too Short," "Is It Because I'm Black," "Concrete Reservation," "One Way Ticket to Nowhere," a cover of the Temptations' "Get Ready"—and recruited artists, wrote songs, and produced records for the label. But he didn't get paid anything near what he felt he should have, and after his contract expired he signed with Hi.

Johnson made some good records there with producer Willie Mitchell, including more than half of his 19 R&B hits. But for his entire stay at Hi he was overshadowed by Al Green, who'd begun his rise to superstardom just as Johnson arrived. In fact, the highest-charting song of Johnson's entire career was a 1975 cover of Green's "Take Me to the River." His deal with Hi ended in 1980, but his enthusiasm for the relationship had faded several years earlier.

By the mid-80s Johnson was all but out of the music business. In 1984 he opened a restaurant, Solomon's Fishery, which he eventually franchised out—at its peak, he says, it had more than a dozen locations, including several in Georgia and Indiana. But then his luck ran out. Between 1990 and 1992 his mother, father, and brother Mack died. His second wife, Brenda, filed for divorce, and the Chicago flood of 1992 fatally hurt Solomon's—Johnson says it forced the closure of a few Loop locations he owned. By '96, all the remaining franchises were in other hands. Today there's nothing left of Solomon's in Chicago, though Johnson hopes to open a new location next year at 89th and Cottage Grove.

Johnson's financial problems at least were short-lived: around 1993 his sampling ship came in. Since the mid-80s he'd been contributing unwittingly to songs by dozens of hip-hop, pop, and modern R&B artists—the Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Whodini, Kid Rock, Public Enemy, TLC, even Michael Jackson.Today the walls of his living room are covered with framed gold and platinum records for those works. His most popular bit, the intro to "Different Strokes," turned up again in one of Kanye West's recent GOOD Friday tracks, "The Joy," produced by Pete Rock. And a couple weeks ago Ghostface Killah requested clearance for a sample.

Johnson feels connected to and recognized by the hip-hop community, and it shows in the way he dresses—something his colleagues tease him about. "After Syl started getting all of these platinum albums from the rappers who had sampled his stuff, he seemed to have changed his mode of operation," says bassist Bernard Reed. "It looked like he tried to be a hip-hopper, and that's the way he started carrying himself. He said, 'Hey, these guys built this house.' He started going onstage in these boots, a baseball cap, and a shirt all outside of his pants."

Johnson soon began making records of his own again too. In 1994 guitarist and producer Pete Nathan, already a big fan, persuaded Johnson to return to the studio with the old house band from Hi, who'd worked with him on Dresses Too Short in '68, even before he signed with the label. The resulting Delmark album, Back in the Game, launched a revival. Johnson gravitated toward the blues on subsequent recordings, and though he hasn't made a new album since 2001's Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evangeline), cut with brother Jimmy, he's continued to play live, often in Europe.

Johnson's partnership with Numero Group has given him another late boost, propelling him back toward soul music and exposing him to a young indie audience—much of which was still a decade or more from being born when he recorded for Twinight. Because his two Twinight albums have been hard to find for much of the past 40 years—the import-only Ace reissue from 1996 is long out of print—Johnson is better known for the less impressive body of work he made for Hi. Complete Mythology is allowing much of his greatest music to be heard again, if not for the first time—and without it he'd likely never have revisited the old songs and nonhits on his set list for Saturday. Numero has also made it possible for Johnson to play at places like Lincoln Hall and the Old Town School, not just the blues clubs he's worked for decades—thanks to the label he's now booked by Erik Selz at Red Ryder, which handles the likes of Andrew Bird and the Magnetic Fields.

They may be young, but Johnson's newest fans are no more interested in hearing him update his sound for the post-hip-hop age than he is in updating it—it's the direct connection to soul's heyday they're hungry for, and there's plenty of that in Saturday's lineup. Three members of the band—drummer Morris Jennings, bassist Bernard Reed, and baritone saxophonist Willie Henderson—played on some of the records collected in Complete Mythology. Jennings's resumé includes stints with Curtis Mayfield, Ramsey Lewis, and Donny Hathaway in addition to countless sessions with the house band at Chess Records. Henderson, who's leading Johnson's horn section, worked at Brunswick Records as a musician, producer, and arranger on tracks by everyone from Tyrone Davis to Lionel Hampton. Reed was in the house band at Brunswick—where he backed Jackie Wilson, the Chi-Lites, and Barbara Acklin—before defecting to sign on with Johnson, forming his own progressive soul-funk group called the Pieces of Peace. Jackie Ross sang backup for Johnson and cut sides for Sam Cooke's SAR Records, Chess, and Brunswick. Keyboardist Anthony Space, a generation younger, has been a sideman to James Cotton and Sugar Blue. Guitarist Larry Blasingaine played with the Emotions and Jackie Wilson and at age 15 appeared on the first known studio recording by the Jackson Five.

Six days after the Chicago show on Saturday, Johnson performs at the Brooklyn club Southpaw, where he'll be backed by soul revivalists the Sweet Divines & the Divine Soul Rhythm Band. "I got a few more years left, and I want to play this shit for the young people, blacks and whites," he says. "Music was in heaven—David played the harp and Gabriel blew the trumpet. We want to spread the wealth. We want to get away from the keyboard thing. I've been a musician all my life, and I like to see a band. I don't want to see someone up there singing with a goddamned tape. I want people to know the process of making music isn't easy. It takes work and that's what you should do—work, practice, go learn, study. Young people, why you fucking around in the streets doing nothing?"   

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