Syl Johnson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Chicago soul legend Syl Johnson started out as a blues guitarist, working with such greats as Magic Sam, Junior Wells, and Elmore James. But he soom immersed himself in the youthful, affirming cadences of soul music: his first major hit, "Straight Love, No Chaser," showcased his brash, slightly hard-edged way with a melody. Then in 1967 he came out with the side that catapulted him to national recognition, "Come on Sock It to Me"--a propulsive, guitar-laden gem tailor-made for both the extravagant optimism of the times and Johnson's keen, wailing vocal style. Since then, Johnson's recorded output has remained consistently outstanding--especially his series of LPs and singles for Willie Mitchell's Hi label in the 70's--and his clear, high-pitched voice has lost none of its sizzling intensity. My only criticism of Johnson is his apparent unwillingness to cool down and show some vulnerability--even his most eloquent personal and social commentaries tend toward the defiantly aggressive, rather than the meditative or compassionate. But as a purveyor of hard-core soul, with a soaring exuberance that at once embraces and transcends the anger that bore it, Johnson is a master. Friday and Saturday, Checkerboard Lounge, 423 E. 42nd; 642-3240.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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