Syl Johnson

By  Mark Winegardner |  November 21, 2011

In the early 1990s, on the South Side of Chicago, at the cold and humbling end of the second act of his life, in the wake of the death of each of his parents, his second marriage, his second career (and the fish restaurants that went with it), with little to his name but a bed and a TV, Syl Johnson is walking down the street when—from inside a car blaring a rap song—he hears himself grunt.

He's sure.

And damn sure he ain't been paid for it.

Before the car disappears around the corner, Johnson makes out the whole intro of his song "Different Strokes." The drum break he'd made up and sung to Mo Jennings, who nailed it. The demented orgasm-cackle he'd acted out for the ladies hanging around in the Chess Records studio that day—Jackie Ross and Fontella Bass, who wouldn't do it, and one of the label's secretaries, Minnie Riperton, who jumped right in and made it sound even more unhinged. And, of course, Syl Johnson's four echoey sex grunts.

Johnson immediately starts asking around, singing the intro over the phone and in person to his six children and other young people, but he gets various answers about what song might have used it. He makes deals with kids in the neighborhood, offering them money if they hear Syl singing (or grunting) in any rap songs.

In no time, he learns that the Billboard charts are filthy with people who've helped themselves to tiny pieces of the Syl Johnson songbook. Public Enemy. Ice Cube. De La Soul. Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch. Both The Beastie and The Geto Boys. Michael Jackson. And every conceivable branch of The Wu-Tang Clan.

Like any soul singer with two ex-wives and thirty-plus years in the music business, Syl Johnson knows a few lawyers. Problem is, even though most of the samples come from records made for a long-defunct label that Johnson had theoretically owned (first Twilight, then Twinight), it seems unclear to anyone who owns the rights to them now.

Anyone but Syl Johnson.

Let's say you wanted to write a novel about a soul singer but couldn't choose what era or style or kind of character you wanted to write about and decided, screw it, I'll create a mythologized, composite character who finds himself at least briefly in the orbit of everything in blues, r&b, soul, and funk that I love and find interesting, sort of like a braggadocious soul-man Forrest Gump.

Give him a masterpiece or two, but make sure they're poorly timed, tragically so. Say, a brilliant political one right after Martin Luther King's assassination. Maybe a stripped-down fusion of soul and blues released at the dawn of disco. "I wanna be somebody so bad," he sings in his best and most searing song, "but you keep on putting your foot on me."

Saddle him with the legacy of the ambitious and misunderstood. When the bright lights dim, the few who remember him will subject him to endless disquisitions about how much bigger he deserved to be. Some wanker from London will do a phone interview with him for winning a poll as the greatest soul singer you never heard of. Afterward, Syl hangs up then tears up, alone in the dark.

Then (deus ex boombox?), The Wu-Tang Clan will write him a big check and he'll build a house with a guitar on the facade and his music (at least a few seconds of it) will never die.

That novel, written with passion and skill, is the Syl Johnson story.

Story—not biography. Absent the mythmaking that the public provides its stars, Syl Johnson has seen to the task himself, forging legend into fact, followed by sporadic wails of righteous indignation when some poor sap prints the legend.

Best I can tell, his story goes like this.

He's born Sylvester Thompson in 1936, in Benton County, Mississippi, delivered by midwife in a one-bedroom farmhouse at the edge of Holly Springs National Forest, youngest of three boys. The neighbors are buzzing with rumors that the boy's father, Samuel, isn't really his father—that Erlie Thompson had a fling with some itinerant womanizing guitar player who died down in Greenwood, six weeks after Syl was born. Name of Robert Johnson.

By the time Syl's six, he's spending his days the way the rest of his family does, out picking cotton. At night, two kinds of sounds come from the Thompson house. Early in the evening, it's music out on the porch. Mostly, it's a string band featuring Samuel Thompson on harmonica. Sometimes, they play with a neighbor kid, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, a friend of Syl's oldest brother, Jimmy, who soon learns how to play guitar from Murphy and joins in. Mack, the middle brother, learns, too. As does little Syl, who also sings.

Late at night, though, once the neighbors leave, other sounds take over. Samuel Thompson beating his wife, Erlie Thompson sobbing, all of it just a flimsy sheet of plywood from the boys. Whether the rumors about Syl's paternity are true or not, on nights like these he wishes they were. Or, maybe, it's on nights like these that he makes the whole thing up. He would not be the first kid from an abusive home to escape into fantasy, to invent elements of his own life story that, later, even he won't be able to separate reliably from the known facts.

Soon, the Great Migration comes along and Samuel Thompson signs on with the W.P.A. and moves to Chicago and sends for the rest of his family one by one. Jimmy goes first and immediately gets hired at a steel mill. A few years later, Mack and twelve-year-old Syl board the train called The City of New Orleans, bound for Chicago, each with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar in the other.

To Syl, Chicago is just like Mississippi, only with tall buildings and factories and less chance of being murdered for looking sideways at a white woman. The apartment is about the size of his house back home. The juke joints are grouped closer together. And it's not hard to find people out on the porch playing music. In fact, when the cab from the train station drops Mack and Syl off at their new home, on the stoop next door is a thirteen-year-old Mississippi kid with a guitar, picking some hillbilly blues, a boy named Sam Maghett.

The boys spend the next two days making music together, nonstop. They will become running buddies and boon pals. Mack will become the bassist in Sam's band. Sam will become Chicago blues great Magic Sam.

Syl, while still just a teenager, gets called upon to gig with Junior Wells. Elmore James. Howlin' Wolf. He has a stint in Jimmy Reed's road band. When Syl's barely twenty-one, an exec from Vee-Jay Records asks him to come in and record a single—under his own name, singing.

Syl's never even sung backup in the studio, but he goes home and writes a song: "Teardrop"—a nod to Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops." Syl records an acetate at a novelty-records booth and heads downtown to Vee-Jay.

The bus stop is nine blocks from the studio, but it's cold beyond all knowing. A blast of wind hits Syl as he steps off the bus. He looks up and sees a sign. The sign for King Records. What the hell. He ducks inside and hands the demo to the man behind the counter. The guy gives it a listen. Knocked out, he returns with an offer. Just like that, Syl Thompson's a labelmate with Hank Ballard, Wynonie Harris, and James Brown. Two days later, he cuts the song and—whether it's King exec Syd Nathan's idea or Syl's—assumes the name Syl Johnson.

At King, Johnson cuts fourteen songs but never a long-player. Five are released as singles; none chart. There's no promotion behind them. It's obvious (at least to Syl) that his problems stem from the jealousy of King's biggest moneymaker—James Brown, who's great, no question (don't get Syl wrong!), but who's also older, less pretty, and with a more limited voice. By this time, Syl's married with three kids, and, to pay the bills, he gets a pal who's in The Chi-Lites to hook him up with a day job, driving a truck.

After three years, King cuts Syl loose.

For almost the entire 1960s, the business side of Syl Johnson's life is a quagmire of excellent studios he records in but doesn't work for (Chess, Motown, Hi, RCA, Universal), sketchy, back-of-somebody's-trunk local labels who do put out his music (Cha Cha, Special Agent, One-Derful!, and other made-up-sounding outfits), and, most of all, bald white guys and the bad deals, self-interested payola, and unfavorable or nonexistent contracts that they create.

But Syl Johnson focuses on the music itself. Who can fault him for that? Man puts together maybe the best standing band in Chicago: two guitars, bass, two drummers, and thirteen horns. Thirteen horns!

The glory years commence, however modestly, with the first session Syl ever produces, "Straight Love, No Chaser." It comes out on a tiny label of which Syl believes himself to be part-owner. The song's big in Chicago. It leads to a partnership with a payola-loving promo man named Howard Bedno and the formation (however tragically unincorporated) of Twilight (later Twinight) Records.

In 1967, Syl's out making deliveries when he hears, on the top r&b station in Chicago, his first Twilight single, "Come on Sock It to Me." He turns the truck around. He (co-)wrote this song. He produced it. It's his band. On his (co-owned) label. He hands back the keys to his boss (a young white guy who loves soul music and heard the song, too) and quits (the boss takes him out for a drink). "Sock It..." goes to No. 12 on the r&b charts. A couple more hits follow: the fateful "Different Strokes" and "Dresses Too Short." Willie Mitchell from Hi Records sees Syl in a club in Chicago and tries to sign him. Syl says he's happy at Twinight, but Syl needs a few more songs for his first LP and the two soon work out a deal for him to come to Memphis and—with Syl producing, Mitchell engineering, Hi's house band backing—record a few songs.1

Within months, everything changes.

MLK is assassinated. Syl's LP comes out and stiffs. Its party grooves suddenly sound empty to the man who created them. His band falls apart. His wife leaves him.

He holes up, soul-searching and songwriting.

And what he emerges with is one of the greatest albums in soul music: Is It Because I'm Black?, the first-ever black concept album (more than a year earlier than either Marvin Gaye's What's Going On or Sly & The Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On).

The brilliant title song is a yearningly bewildered cry for sympathy. Fueled by an overwhelming number of phone calls from black folks, it becomes a big r&b hit.

"Is It Because I'm Black?" by Syl Johnson

White people are another matter; the song stalls in the lower reaches of the pop charts. The album does worse. Not enough people are willing to spend five bucks and thirty-three minutes on a black man's plaintive (if surprisingly hopeful) portrait of his benighted world. It's...too soon.

For Syl's career, this could have been the end.

Instead, within months, everything changes once again.

In 1971, he signs a contract with Hi Records. He's ready to cede control to a real label. Why not? Where has having control gotten him? He's tired of the rigors of keeping a band together, but Hi Records already has a band, and Syl's already made magic with them. He's wounded, too, from the reception for the songs he wrote for Is It Because I'm Black?—but so what? Hi Records has songwriters coming out of their air ducts. Let them write the hits and let Syl Johnson seal the deal.

At Hi, Al Green is just breaking out, but Syl figures he can outdo Green at the man's own game. Syl can unbutton his shirt just as far, sing just as well, and play guitar to boot. Syl's been watching ladies throw their room keys and underpants up on stage since he saw them doing it to drunken old Jimmy Reed. Syl Johnson is ready to play the hell out of this game.

In some ways, these are the best years of his life. He remarries. He releases three strong albums in three years. He has seven r&b hits, three pop, including his biggest (No. 7 r&b, No. 48 pop): "Take Me to the River" (Al Green's version was never released as a single).

But, for Syl, it's King Records all over again. Brown, Green: same shit, different color. First album, Syl gets a cool cover (badass shades; close-up) and doesn't have to fight to get decent songs. Second record, though, songs and studio time are scarce, and the cover—it's like someone wants it to tank: pimples on Syl's pretty face just because for a stretch there he's not getting any sex, saving everything for the music, and that's what no sex does to a man: pimples. Think Al Green never had a pimple? Hell yes he did. Wasn't ever on no album cover, though, was it?

Third album, Syl tries to reassume control of his music. He does the arrangements himself, tones down the strings, pulls out the harmonica, reconnects the dots between Mississippi, Chicago, and Memphis soul, tweaking his sound so that nobody can accuse him of being a poor man's Al Green and then, to prove it, takes "Take Me to the River" and kicks the man's ass with his own song. Another soul masterpiece.

Except: Some genius gives it an awful title—Total Explosion—and, on the cover, they put Syl's face on a goddamned bundle of dynamite, like he's gonna kill himself. Or like he's some angry black man, gonna blow up some building. Who's gonna buy that?

Worse, for all of soul music, disco arrives.

As Hi slouches toward insolvency, Syl goes to L.A. and makes a disco record himself. In the novel, this is a heartbreaking if grimly funny interlude.

In real life...let's be more merciful.

In the '80s, Syl Johnson's musical career all but flickers out. His records become hard to find. Once in a while, he and his brother Jimmy go play together at some grimy blues joint, but there's no money in that.

His wife, Brenda, becomes the first African-American woman to be police commissioner (in a suburb called Harvey), and Syl picks up an eight-hour-a-week job as deputy marshal.

Finally, inspired by the Mississippi Friday-night fish fries of his youth, he opens a little restaurant in the Loop. And then two more.

But that falls apart, too: all of it.

And then, the first seven seconds of "Different Strokes" save his life.

Syl goes to court, eventually wins the rights to his Twinight/Twilight recordings. Lawyers are dispatched; money streams in. When people ask him about the house he builds and the guitar on its facade, he sings a snippet from one of The Wu-Tang songs that built it: "Shame on a nigga who try to run game on a nigga!"

Soul-music blogs spur new interest in his music, and he puts together a band and starts touring again—all over the world, this time. In 2010, Numero Group's massive and gorgeous Syl Johnson box set comes out. It's expected to be nominated for a Grammy. He's been invited to L.A., to play a big party the night before.

If that comes through, Syl's gonna blister that place. Gonna play the set of his life. Gonna tell those Grammy people they should have been paying more attention all along.

If it doesn't, fine. Syl Johnson has other things to do. For starters (he'll tell you), there's a few choice seconds of Watch the Throne that Kanye West and Jay-Z never did pay for. 

(1) None were released as singles, but none were filler. Perhaps the best, "I Got the Real Thing," a silky shout-out to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, was co-written with frequent collaborator Carl Smith, who also wrote the lyrics for "Rescue Me" by Fontella Bass and "Higher and Higher" by Syl's musical hero, Jackie Wilson.