BY STEVEN ROSEN / BLURT /2010
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.
On Oct. 19, it is releasing 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 his record, he saw another record company. It was a branch of Cincinnati-based King Records, an R&B/blues 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,” Johnson says. “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.