A few days after the passing of Sam Lay and Jimmy Johnson, Syl Johnson’s departure saddens music lovers around the world.
Syl Johnson recorded two historical albums for Delmark that have been widely sampled by hip-hop artists
Syl Johnson – Back In The Game
Delmark 674 (1993)
In 1993, a 57-year-old Syl Johnson made a long overdue return to the studio with Back in the Game, his first album since the early ’80s. Various rappers (including the Geto Boys, Hammer, and the Wu-Tang Clan) had been sampling Johnson’s classic 1960s and ’70s recordings, and learning that younger artists had thought enough of his work to sample it was one of the main things that inspired the singer to start recording again. “Inspired” is definitely a word that describes Johnson’s performances on this CD, which unites him with the legendary Hi Rhythm Section of the ’70s. Joined by drummer Howard “Bulldog” Grimes and the Hodges brothers (guitarist Mabon, bassist Leroy, and organist/pianist Charles), Johnson delivers one of the strongest albums of his career. The Chicago-based singer emphasizes the type of down-home soul he had favored at Hi, and he is as passionate as ever on “Dipped in the Water” (which features his daughter Syleena Thompson), “I Will Rise Again,” and “Ghetto Woman.” Another high point of the album is a sweaty remake of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which Johnson had first recorded in 1975. Although the Chicagoan moves into 12-bar blues territory on “All of Your Love” and Roosevelt Sykes’ “Driving Wheel,” it must be stressed that the majority of songs on this album are soul rather than blues. This is an R&B album first and foremost, and a fine one at that.
Syl Johnson – Talkin’ Bout Chicago!
Delmark DE 729 (1999)
Syl Johnson is a unique stylist and one of the greatest singers of Chicago blues, R&B and soul. He comes from a distinguished musical family; his brothers include Jimmy Johnson and Magic Sam’s longtime bassist Mac Thompson. In ’71 Syl went to Hi Records for six years of some of his best work with producer Willie Mitchell including three outstanding albums and the evergreen “Take Me To The River.” Other huge hits included “Diff’rent Strokes”, “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Is It Because I’m Black”. Off the scene for awhile, Syl made a glorious comeback with Back In The Game (Delmark 674). With twelve new originals, a revisit to “Diff’rent Strokes”, and a tribute to Magic Sam, Talkin’ Bout Chicago! is dynamite!
Syl Johnson, Chicago soul singer widely sampled in hip-hop, is dead at 85
February 6, 20226:14 PM ET
Syl Johnson performs at the 32nd Annual Chicago Blues Festival in 2015. Paul Natkin/WireImage
Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson, whose song “Different Strokes” was frequently sampled in hip-hop, has died at the age of 85. Director Rob Hatch-Miller of the 2015 documentary about Johnson’s work, Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, confirmed his death to NPR.
“Producing Syl’s Complete Mythology is one of our proudest moments as a label,” tweeted the archival record label Numero Group, which released a box set of Johnson’s music in 2010. “We’ll treasure the hundreds of hours spent together over 17 years. Open, yet cagey, humble but with a swagger. When caught in a lie he’d pause, shrug, and say, ‘Gotta keep some mysteries unsolved.'” Johnson’s brother, the blues artist Jimmy Johnson, died last month, according to a statement posted to his website.
Born Sylvester Thompson in Mississippi, Johnson was known for his contributions to the Chicago soul scene in the 1960s and ’70s, releasing records for the labels Twinight Records — originally named Twilight Records — and Hi Records.
In 1969, he released what would then become Twinight’s biggest hit, the poignant “Is It Because I’m Black,” inspired by the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Article continues after sponsor message
“I didn’t want to be a militant,” Johnson told The Los Angeles Times in 2012 of writing the song. “I didn’t want to make something that alienated the white audience that I played for a lot.” The song climbed to No. 11 on Billboard’s R&B chart where it stayed for several weeks, solidifying Johnson as Twinight’s star performer. https://www.youtube.com/embed/xvyqlXmrEfk?rel=0 YouTube
But it was Johnson’s song “Different Strokes,” from his 1968 debut Dresses Too Short, that would have the most influence in decades to come. As one of the most widely sampled songs in hip-hop, “Different Strokes” has been borrowed by dozens of artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice Cube, and Kanye West and Jay-Z.
In 2011, Johnson filed a lawsuit that was ultimately settled against West and Jay-Z for using an unauthorized sample of “Different Strokes” for their track “The Joy.”
“He would tell people in the neighborhood, ‘If you find any rapper who has sampled my music, I will pay you,’ ” Johnson’s daughter, Syleecia Thompson, told The New York Times in 2010 of her father’s pursuit of unauthorized samples. “And so all the kids, we would go buy cassettes and listen to see if we could hear his ‘wow!’ and his ‘aw!’ “
“I’m not a star or nothing like that, and I’m not bragging that I’m so rich, cause I’m not Bill Gates,” Johnson told The Village Voice in a 2010 interview. “But I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers.”