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The Music of Syl Johnson

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The regal legacy of Syl Johnson began at Federal, a subsidiary of King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Dominoes put Federal on the national landscape in 1951 with their pre-Viagra hit "Sixty Minute Man."

And Johnson was up from the jump with the Numero Group's dazzling Syl Johnson box set "Complete Mythology" that features 81 rhythm and blues songs on 6 LPs, 4 CDs replicating the LPs and a 52 page book ($75, Numero Group)

He listened to every track and the label spent a week interviewing Johnson.
What was it like to walk backwards through his 50-year-recording career?

"Teardrops," Johnson answered during a straight ahead, no-chaser interview in the Numero offices on the near south side of Chicago.......


.....Johnson was referencing "Teardrops,' a gentle homage to Jackie Wilson (think of a tempered "Lonely Teardrops") and his first 1959 recording for Federal. At the time King had an office at 13th and Wabash in Chicago. "All this has been very emotional," Johnson said. "There's some good songs I didn't remember."

In a 1984 interview for the late-great Suburban Sun-Times Johnson told me he wanted to record for Vee-Jay Records in Chicago. "I was taking a bus from the South Side to Vee-Jay, which was on Michigan Avenue," he said. "But the bus stopped on Wabash and not on Michigan so I figured I would walk there.
"As I was walking, I passed King Records and decided to stop in. They asked me what I had and I left a demo record I had done."

By 1960 Johnson was recording in Cincinnati. You can hear his fury emerge when stripped down to guitar, bass and drums like in 1962's "I Wanna Know."

Click to listen to "I Wanna Know"

His piercing tenor shakes the windows and rattles the doors. He was really Syd Nathan's (King impresario ) answer to Sam Phillips' Howlin' Wolf at Sun Records.


Later, at Hi Records in Memphis producer Willie Mitchell pulled Johnson back. Mitchell signed Johnson in 1971 after seeing him open up for reggae-soul singer Johnny Nash at the Burning Spear nightclub on the south side of Chicago. "He said, 'Why are you shouting all the time?," Johnson recalled. "He settled me down. He said I was too hyper."
The results can be heard the sultry 1973 Hi record "Back For a Taste of Your Love" that featured Johnson backed by the Hi Rhythm Section (Leroy Hodges on bass, Charles Hodges on keyboards, Howard Grimes on drums) , best known for backing Al Green in his pre-gospel days. Is there any better track than "Feelin' Frisky" a Johnson co-write where he growls:
"I got some jingle and some jangle/I just got my pay
Got a tangle in my tingle that just won't wait."

"But the early stuff wasn't really blues, but they're bluesy," Johnson said in classic contradiction. "W.C. Handy didn't write the blues. You can't distinguish who wrote the blues. They were singing it in the cotton fields. Gospel as well. W.C. Handy knew that. And he transcribed it on paper. Blues comes from the hardened soul. It ain't happy. I guess it came through my genes.
"But there's nothing for me to be blue about, except I'm getting old."

Numero Group label director Ken Shipley said the Hi years were not included in "Complete Mythology" because "the Hi stuff was weak."
In a separate interview he elaborated, "Don't get me wrong, there's good songs. But Syl wasn't writing many of those songs. He was the hired hand. We were more interested in him as an artist. There was a period where we weren't going to include the Federal recordings, because he was sort of a hired hand there. But we felt the Federal stuff hadn't been compiled as well. There's an (22-song Right Stuff) edition of his Hi material, even though it was done poorly." Johnson had 10 R&B chart hits with Hi between 1972-76 including his deep cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River."

Although Johnson didn't have breakthrough success at Federal, he was a fan of label owner-producer Nathan.
The King operation was completely self-contained, down to the label's own print shop. "He was cooler than the gang," he said. "He told me I'd be singing for a long time. One day he told me just to hang around and watch. Little Willie John came in to do 'Heartbreak (It's Hurtin' Me,' May, 1960.) Syd wanted to show me the whole process. He said, 'Here's where they're making the lacquers, here's where we press the records.' Then they put it in the sleeve, in the box, going down the conveyer belt. Then he'd say, 'This is going across the country TODAY. I didn't talk to Willie. He came in fast. And he was gone."

King was built along the Baltimore & Ohio tracks for easy distribution. Bill "Honky Tonk" Doggett once made a records on a Saturday night in Cincinnati, played a gig in Chicago that Monday and walked into a record store that afternoon and saw the record he had just made.
Check out my friend Chris Varias' outstanding story for Cincinnati Magazine on the top 50 pop songs recorded in Cincinnati. He wanted to include Syl in the worst way.

Johnson claimed to have a good natured rivalry with King of Soul James Brown, who was king at King.
"I talked to James Brown in a hotel," Johnson said. "He had rouge on his face. I don't know what he was doing. But I loved James Brown."
But in August, 1962 Johnson recorded Brown's "Please, Please, Please" as his signoff track for Federal in Cincinnati.
In 1988 Johnson and I talked about "Annie Got Hot Pants Power," which Johnson cut in 1971 for Twinight. Johnson recalled, "James Brown's manager told me James heard my tune on the plane, turned the plane around in mid-air, and went back to Cincinnati to cut his 'Hot Pants'. He knew I was competition. In 1966 his bandleader asked me to join James' band for $125 a night, hotel and transportation. Never did it."

Johnson did channel Brown on the scorching rap n' blues "Right On" that closes out the 1969 concept album "Is It Because I'm Black?" Johnson gets loose and starts chanting the names of his tight backing band Pieces of Peace: Drummer Hal Nesbitt, guitarist John Bishop, others and a shout out that "WE GOT WOMEN!".

Click to listen to "Right On"

Conventional Johnson wisdom says his star was eclipsed by Brown at King, Al Green at Hi, and Chicago blues that included his oldest brother Jimmy, a regular on the local club scene.
Syl Color002 copy.jpg
(Photos courtesy of Numero Group)

But the most accurate cornerstone of Johnson's template is found in the Chicago west side soul of Magic Sam Maghett. Johnson was 16 years old in 1950 when he ran away from his Mississippi home with his older brother Mack. They took the City of New Orleans train to Chicago.
"My Dad had us in the cotton fields and my Mom sent for us," Johnson said. "We had five acres. We were picking 400 pounds. Mack had some samples from a bale of cotton. So we sold cotton to escape my father. Pops was on our trail. When we got up here the Yellow Cab dropped us off and there was (Magic) Sam sitting on the porch on Calumet (near 27th) playing a little old raggedy guitar."
That's how Chicago was.

Maghett was living next door to Johnson's mother.
In 1950 Maghett also moved to Chicago from rural Mississippi at the age of 14. Johnson picked up on Maghett's stinging, idiomatic guitar playing and soul-over-blues vocals. Maghett was playing urban rockabilly on his guitar. "The guitar was a little out of tune so I tuned it for him," he said. "We stayed up all night. I bought me a little amp and we put that amp in the window. We drew the police every day. And we drew Shakey Jake (Harris, who was Maghett's uncle and future harmonica player). He picked me for his band. I was the first one to venture out from Sam."

In 1960 Maghett was imprisoned for dodging the draft. Johnson inherited Maghett's band that consisted of Odell Campbell on bass, jazz-based drummer S.P. Leary and Johnny Jones on keyboards. Johnson's brother Mack Thompson (Federal changed Syl Thompon's name to Johnson for recording purporses) was also a Maghett bassist .
Mack turned the trick on Sam, bestowing him with the nickname "Magic" Sam when other record folks liked stuff like "Sad Sam."
Maghett died in 1969. He was only 32.

Chicago has several unsung living soul stories including Otis Clay, Mavis Staples, Gene Chandler and Jerry Butler. Only Curtis Mayfield has been covered in a (Rhino) box set. Why did Numero Group choose to go so deep on Johnson?
"We have a responsibility to the city," Shipley answered. "To do right and create the best version of the history of the city's music. Syl was so close to us. He is such an incredible performer. I thought his entire catalog sucked. We knew it needed a major overhaul and needed to look as good as it sounded."


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1 Comment

Chicago has a lot of unsung dead soul stories also. I would like to see a box set called "Chicago Soul", calling attention to our soul characterized by very high caliber vocal leads and hamonies, amongst other distinctive features. The Vee Jay building is presently for sale. If there is a wealthy Chicago soul fan out there, let's start a museum.

Mr Hoekstra, as you know there is only one book on the subject of Chicago Soul. But there was such a vibrant scene and so many great stories sitting inside of so many living musicians. Why don't you write a book telling this story?

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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