“I wanna be somebody so bad, but you keep on putting your foot on me.”
To hear him tell it, Syl Johnson could have been as big as James Brown or Al Green. #1 on the charts, top billing on the marquee, Hall of Fame inductions, tearful tributes... all within his reach, and yet never in his hands. Something, someone, and sometimes—if you believe his lyrics—the sole of a shoe was holding him back. Was it because he’s black? Not likely, though his inability to crossover to the pop charts never did him any favors. “I made my opportunities, but I never got the breaks I should have gotten. I was a jack-of-all-trades. More soul than Marvin, more funk than James. If I’d gone pop, you’d be talkin’ about me, not them. I rate right at the top, though I’ve been underrated all my life.”
Laced with that unique brand of bravado, the Syl Johnson interview tends to veer toward harrowing voyages through interruption, correction, and deliberate obfuscation. “Back up, hold on, slow down… Wu Tang, Kid Rock, Michael Jackson… Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Jones….” Johnson has a habit of insisting that everything printed before—every verbatim transcript read directly back to him—is a blatant misquote or misunderstanding…and sometimes both. His date of birth and place of birth, his surname change from Thompson to Johnson, the murky beginnings of the Twinight record label—Syl Johnson weaves them all into one convoluted narrative, a daunting challenge for historians and fans alike to follow. Resolving his life story for this collection became an exercise in patience and diligence, as we chased the rabbit through even more big-hole 45s than bear his name.
The blues was always a genre riddled with myth and legend—its half-truths muttered on sun-baked Mississippi porches have long-since morphed into biographical foundations. From Robert Johnson’s midnight bargain with the devil at the crossroads near Dockery Plantation to Bo Diddley’s divergent claims about the origin of his name, fabrication is fully ingrained in blues tradition.
Syl Johnson’s apple never fell far from that tree. When this bluesman-at-heart felt his career tapering off early in the 1980s, his tendency toward self-mythologizing gained momentum. If he couldn’t enjoy the successes of an Al Green or a James Brown, he could surely concoct for himself a more mysterious history. Forget hot grits and armed robbery, Syl Johnson’s illegitimate father would be Robert Johnson. Or so he began to claim….
For decades, Johnson has been toeing the edge of a wide chasm that separates soul’s upper and middle classes, overshadowed across his career by the bill-paying stars of the Federal and Hi labels. He’s joined by the likes of Otis Clay and Candi Staton in a pantheon of great soul singers who maintained viable careers over several decades but never achieved that national #1 smash. Consequently, he’s been eschewed by oldies stations and Final Jeopardy questions, never having scattered the cultural detritus that keep even one-hit wonders in the periphery of the national consciousness. The litany of his largely regional hits—“Come On Sock It To Me,” “Different Strokes,” “Is It Because I’m Black,” “We Did It,” “Back For A Taste Of Your Love,” and “Take Me To The River”—is undeniable, a list that dwarfs the tally of winning output in his caste. Even so, Johnson’s reevaluation as a serious artist has yet to arrive.
Beginning in 1986, with Charly’s bootleg Is It Because I’m Black CD, the Syl Johnson story, as told by his work’s compilers, has been boiled down to a few paragraphs gleaned mostly from the pages of Robert Pruter’s Chicago Soul. The predictably atrocious mastering of his material reaching its nadir with Collectables’ 1996 Twilight & Twinight Masters Collection, which presented source 45s transferred at the wrong speed. In 1997, Ace upped the ante with their Dresses Too Short/Is It Because I’m Black CD twofer, but—having never interviewed Johnson—the label settled on including only a woefully slim booklet. Given Syl’s track record with interviewers, it’s hard to blame the reputable UK firm for their decision to go another way. “I love the music business, but it sucks,” Syl has said. “The only thing I can liken it to is the drug business. Everybody’s out to get you, no one’s legit, and the only people getting paid are at the top.”
By sheer quantity of singles issued, Syl Johnson should be an oldies radio staple. He’s issued more than 60 unique 45s, at last count—and that excludes international pressings and what he refers to as “booties.” Of those, 28 are collected here, in addition to extant cuts from his two Twinight LPs and a swath of period outtakes. Johnson’s Hi singles and albums have been compiled comprehensively, and recently, so we’ve chosen to focus on his work prior to joining the Memphis powerhouse in 1971. In cases where no dates could be found, we’ve taken pains to place them within the chronology Syl himself provided over the last four years. But with Syl Johnson, those dates seem to shift every time they’re about to be confirmed. We’ve broken our own Syl Johnson biography into discrete sections, headed by topical quotations even the man himself can’t rightly deny. When grilled, Johnson just shrugs and says, “Gotta keep some mysteries unsolved….”
Born a Thompson
“Holly Springs, Mississippi, July 1, 1944. Willie Mitchell gave me that birth date!”
As always with Syl Johnson, the fiction is wound loosely about the truth. Though he’s stated in several interviews—and insisted otherwise in just as many accounts—that he was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Johnson was born one county over, near Lamar, Mississippi, on the outer edges of Holly Springs National Forest. This first fact has been obfuscated largely for convenience, as he was born off-grid on the Peck Place farm by midwife, the closest hospital being a twenty-minute drive down Route 7 in Holly Springs.
The lone constants at his biography’s beginning are the month and date of his birth, though the year’s been nudged forward a time or two to serve the marketing whims of the various labels Syl recorded for. Benton County birth records confirm the year as 1936; Sylvester Thompson was the sixth child of Samuel and Erlie Thompson. Crammed by night into a one-bedroom shack, the Thompsons eked out their meager existence growing cotton and corn, on Sundays attending Hebron Missionary Baptist Church where Samuel sang with the choir. A harmonica player by trade, Samuel and his fiddle-wielding brother Hubbard played intermittently in a country string band, but performed most often on the Thompson porch. Brothers Mack, Jimmy, and Syl hung in rapt attention on every double-stop and bend, waiting for the Hohner to hit the stool and then fighting over which kid got to blow indiscriminately across its ridge first.
Urged by childhood friend Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Jimmy was the first to pick up that instrument, though a six-string sickness would soon spread to Mack and the much younger Syl. The Thompsons, too poor to purchase one, built an instrument of their own out of haywire and a two-by-four, using the requisite recycled-glass slide to bend notes. “I couldn’t play harmonica yet, but I could sing like a bird,” Syl smiles. “Sometimes I’d just blow on a bottle trying to imitate those birds.”
Eventually, Murphy would lend Jimmy a proper guitar, and despite his eldest brother’s warnings to keep his paws off it, Syl took every opportunity to become intimate with the instrument. The first songs he ever learned were by sight, memorizing Jimmy’s fingers as they traced the frets, recalling them later while hiding in the house’s only closet. Syl would have to wait a few Christmases for his own, a white acoustic Stella. If they could scrape together two quarters each, the Thompson brothers hoofed the six miles to Billy Carpenter’s Show Club in Hudsonville. Perched high in the “Colored Only” balcony, they peered down on early performances by Joe Hill Louis and B. B. King, soaking up every chord and turn of phrase. These acts, coupled with the radio waves streaming from WDIA in Memphis, ignited a spark deep inside the brothers’ bellies, starting a small fire that would require big-city kindling to set ablaze.
In the mid-1940s, Samuel Thompson got swept up in the Great Migration that put 25% of Mississippi’s black workforce on a path north, headed for jobs paying four times the $439 they’d make, on average, at home. Thompson settled in Chicago after signing on with the W.P.A., sending for his wife and children one by one. Jimmy, old enough to work himself, got first dibs, taking a job welding at a steel mill upon arrival. One-way tickets later put Mack and Syl on the City of New Orleans train, bound for Chicago in 1950. With them came two small suitcases, two guitars, and their blues.
In Chicago, circa 1950, finding music to suit them didn't require a six-mile walk. The blues was all around. Within a six-block radius of the Thompson two flat near 27th and Calumet, no less than five blues clubs thrived, including Carlisle’s at 339 S. Cottage Grove, Flame Club at 3020 S. Indiana, Tempo Tap at 31st & Indiana, Plantation at 328 E. 31st, and Tuxedo Lounge at 311. S. Indiana. But initially, Syl and Mack—delivered by cab from Illinois Central Station—encountered something else entirely. A 13-year-old Sam Maghett was playing guitar on the stoop next door. By Syl’s recollection, Maghett “was kind of into a hillbilly style at the time. I said, ‘Man, give me that thing. Let me show you something!’ I struck out on “Smokestack Lightning,” and he went crazy! He said, ‘Man, how do you do that?’ We stayed up a whole night, all day, all night, and the next day and the next night, we just played.” Though Syl’s excitement gets a bit ahead of his memory in this instance (Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” wasn’t recorded until 1956), it’s true that the young Mississippi transplants and the future “Magic Sam” became fast friends.
Born just a year apart, Sam and Syl teamed up for petty mischief, ditching classes at Wendell Phillips High. Pinching corner-store candy before retreating to the Thompson house to jack around with Mack became daily routine. Too young to drop out, the pair was sent to Princeton Continuational, a school that required attendance only one day per week and better fit the needs of these aspiring musicians. Thompson joined the National Guard shortly after his 18th birthday, but it hardly bit into his wide-open schedule. In a 1970 tribute to Maghett, Mack Thompson dismisses these early days: “Really, it wasn’t a band. Just sit around the house, you know. Just between the neighborhood guys.” Syl agrees, adding, “We made six bucks a head at the time. There was about two guitars and a harmonica, and a guy with a parade-style drum. So I didn’t really classify that as a gig.”
Following the boys’ unholy racket down Calumet Avenue, James “Shakey Jake” Harris, Sam’s uncle, poked his head in, wondering who he might peel off for his own upstart combo. He’d utilize all three, eventually, but the moment demanded a harmonica player, and Syl was his man. “My first gig was at a club on State Street,” Syl recalls, “I don’t remember the name. It was a white club, so the band had to sit in the kitchen before the set. I think I made six dollars. After that, things really started cookin’.” When one of Shakey’s guitar players split for better money, Syl moved into the slot. He spent the better part of 1955 on stage, backing up both Shakey Jake and pianist Eddie Boyd before joining the Four Aces in 1956.
Founded in 1951 by brothers Louis and David Meyers, the Four Aces began as merely Three Deuces. But, as Louis joked, “Deuces are only good when they are wild, and we went by the cards!” The Meyerses became Three Aces after adding harpist Junior Wells, while drummer Fred Below’s entrance in 1954 made them Four. Junior’s departure in 1956 found Louis sliding over to harmonica, leaving a gaping hole in the rhythm section: Syl was happy to be dealt in. The Aces’ standing gig at the 708 Club was certainly an upgrade; perched on the stage behind the bar, Syl could play the boogie-woogie without fear of errant bottles zipping past his head. Clive Anderson’s liner notes to The Love Chimes, Syl’s Hi Records compilation, list him as present on Louis Meyers & the Aces’ ABCO-issued “Just Whaling” b/w “Bluesy” 78, though no supporting evidence has appeared...and limp guitar on both sides makes Anderson’s claim seem dubious.
It’s more likely that Syl Thompson’s first work in a recording studio dates to November 1956. Syl had been moonlighting in William “Billy Boy” Arnold’s band for several months when he and Fred Below were called in to support Arnold’s third Vee-Jay session. Syl, Below, Henry Gray, and Odell Campbell—Syl’s downstairs neighbor—laid down four songs for Arnold: “My Heart Is Crying,” “How Come You Leave Heaven,” “Heartache And Trouble,” and “Kissing At Midnight.” Though that last song bore his first known co-writing credit, Syl admits he ripped the riff out of Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s “Dealing With The Devil,” among the first songs he had ever learned. Ten months passed before the group was invited back to Vee-Jay, but Syl himself returned to the booth much sooner.
Billy Boy wasn’t the only young lion of mouth-harp Syl accompanied on record. He backed Junior Wells on a 1957 session for Mel London’s Chief label that spawned the rocking “Lovey Dovey Lovely One,” for which Syl peeled off two slashing solos. London brought Syl’s axe back for slide guitar wizard Elmore James’ “Cry For Me Baby” that same year, letting Syl update James’ sound with his imaginative rhythmic underpinning. In the wake of his work for Chief, and later Cobra, Syl was incorrectly lumped in with a rising tide of west side bluesmen, led first and foremost by Magic Sam. And although he would find himself stationed west of the Loop in coming years, he remained a south-sider at heart.
One of the sturdier west side operations was Eli Toscano’s Cobra concern, run out of the back of A.B.’s One Stop at 2854 W. Roosevelt with semi-silent partner Howard Bedno. Born without a single musical bone in his body, Bedno found his calling in pushing product awareness. He had stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and that same conquering spirit came home with him. Considering Toscano’s main strengths were in sales and television repair, Bedno knew they would have to lure outside talent in order to get Cobra hissing. Willie Dixon was brought on as Cobra’s staff producer and immediately hit pay dirt, signing Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Betty Everett, and Harold Burrage in the label’s first year. Syl would pass through in 1958, backing his old mentor Shakey Jake—along with Dixon and Magic Sam—on “Roll Your Moneymaker” b/w “Call Me If You Need Me” for Cobra subsidiary label Artistic. Whether Howard Bedno and Syl Thompson crossed paths there is unknown, but it would not be the last time Bedno promoted a record Syl played on.
Following Billy Boy Arnold’s September 1957 Vee-Jay session with Syl, Mac Thompson, Sunnyland Slim, and Reynolds Howard, it would take another two calendars before Syl found himself back at 1449 S. Michigan Avenue. Al Smith, Jimmy Reed's manager, recruited Syl to take a job as Jimmy's road guitarist. “I went on some gigs with Jimmy Reed, but I didn’t like ‘em,” Syl says. “He’d get drunk, and the people would just clown. He couldn’t play. Oh, man, he was a character. You never seen nothin’ like that in your life.” One Reed show in particular stands out in Syl’s mind. “Women were throwing their panties at him! It was packed, too,” he says. “I was just watchin’ him. He said, ‘I gotta piss!’ Man, he had his harp around his neck and a big long cord. He went around the curtain and took a piss.”
Despite his misgivings about sharing a stage with Reed, Syl returned to Vee-Jay in early 1959. Syl remembers, “The pots were open in the studio, and I was just cocking around with one of the other musicians in the studio. I used to sing like a bird real high.” What Syl and bassist Phil Upchurch enjoyed as a moment of tomfoolery had actually piqued the curiosity of Vee-Jay co-owner Vivian Carter, who just happened to be on site for the Universal Recording session. Before Reed stumbled back in, Syl had been tugged aside by Calvin Carter—Vivian’s brother and Vee-Jay’s head of A&R—with a proposition. “Carter approached me and told me he wanted me to cut a record. I said ‘What, playing guitar?’ He said ‘No, singing.’ I said, ‘I can’t sing man! I can’t sing that well!’ ‘Yes you can,’ he said. ‘We want you to cut a record. Get your two tunes, we’ll record you.’”
But Vee-Jay never did.
Becoming Syl Johnson
“Ralph Bass called up my house to get the last name of the kid they just recorded, ‘cause they were gonna press the record immediately. My mom answered and said, ‘Well, his real dad’s last name is Johnson. Put Syl Johnson on the record.’”
Syl’s alleged “real dad”? None other than Robert Johnson, the godfather of the blues himself.
It’s only plausible chronologically. Robert Johnson spent the first half of the 1930s hauling his guitar all over Mississippi, and wasn’t in San Antonio to record “Terraplane Blues,” his first record, until November 1936. That Erlie Thompson, caregiver to six, might’ve found a spare moment to sneak off for that particular one-night stand seems highly unlikely. Perhaps Syl’s story, one he’s told even recently, serves to reconcile his own rocky relationship with Samuel, who had openly and semi-regularly beaten Erlie, and with just a sheet of plywood between them and their young family. Even more, the tale reads as a man’s desperate attempt to ensure his own lofty spot in the annals of blues history. It’s the sort of yarn spun by a green guitarist looking to make his name, not a seasoned veteran who’d long-since surpassed many of his heroes across a five-decade career.
In 1959, with Calvin Carter’s promises ringing in his ears, Syl hurried back to his mother’s west side apartment in the Henry Horner projects to write a song. Inexperienced at authoring lyrics, he enlisted the services of Howard Scott, lead vocalist for the Masquerades, a group Syl’s brother Jimmy had been tooling around with. “Howard Scott, him and my brother…They used to try to write songs and stuff. I knew about that. And I got with Howard." Syl and Howard sliced the Berry Gordy-penned and Jackie Wilson-sung “Lonely Teardrops” in half, emerged with just “Teardrops,” and headed straight away to the nearest Voice-O-Gram novelty recording booth to lay down a rough demo. Fresh acetate in hand, Syl Thompson boarded what turned out to be the most important bus he’d ever ride.
“I was coming down Roosevelt Road. I got off the bus because it didn’t stop at Michigan. So I figure I could walk to 18th Street, where Vee-Jay is. Nine blocks, I walk that, ain’t no problem. So I got off at Wabash [and] just walk down Wabash and I saw King Records. I looked up and saw the sign. I think I’ll go in there.”
Manning the counter that fateful day was Ralph Bass, Chicago A&R man for Cincinnati-based King Records and its Federal subsidiary, which Bass had launched in 1951 with the Dominoes’ smash “Sixty-Minute Man.” He’d helmed Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’ 1954 blockbuster “Work With Me Annie” and brought James Brown into the Federal fold in 1956. Never one to turn away potential talent, Bass took the acetate back to his office for a listen. Syl, sitting in the waiting room of the 13th & Wabash office, was about to see his future unfold.
Ten minutes later, and with blessings from King founder Syd Nathan, Bass returned to offer Syl a recording deal—cutting Syl’s Record Row stroll toward Vee-Jay one label short. “You heard of King Records?” Bass asked. “Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, James Brown?” Syl nodded that he had. “I’d like to keep the dub until Thursday,” he said. Bass convinced Syl that the demo should be sent to King’s Cincinnati studio and asked Syl to return to cut a proper 45. He reappeared at Universal two days later, guitar in hand, shocked to see longtime Chicago session player and King house guitarist Lefty Bates running a combo through Syl’s own “Teardrops.” Bass had not exaggerated King’s long-term success at all. Founded by Syd Nathan during the mid-1940s, King had made its fortune in country music before branching into R&B and achieving a similar impact. When rock and roll exploded, King heeded the call with organist Bill Doggett, the soulful stylings of Little Willie John, and a raft-load of doo-woppers. Gospel, rockabilly, jazz, pop—King marketed them all.
“Teardrops” was issued as a Scott/Thompson composition in April 1959 on Federal, backed by “They Who Love”—another Scott co-write, this time with his brother Tommie entering the mix. That 45’s pressing saw the birth of a star, one found not in its grooves, but appearing only as a surname on the silver and green label. Syl’s recollection has wavered over the years about the origins of his show business name, but most interviews have it more or less this way:
“Syd Nathan said, ‘We don’t like “Sylvester Thompson.” “Syl Johnson” sounds better.’ So when I got my record, it was ‘Syl Johnson.’ I took it to show my mother. I said, ‘Mama, my name is through! I got a new name! My entertainment name is Syl Johnson!’”
While Billboard deemed it “A nice, easy-going medium beater,” Syl’s debut single failed to generate much airplay. Syd Nathan was undeterred, sending for him in June 1960 to record at King’s on-site studio in Cincinnati. “It was quite an experience,” Syl says. “The first time I had ever ridden on an airplane. American Airlines, out of Midway.”
Nathan was a constant presence inside the halls of his massive Cincinnati plant. King, with its Federal, Queen, DeLuxe, and Bethlehem subsidiaries, was 100 percent self-contained, incorporating a pressing plant, a print shop, and a fully equipped studio under one gargantuan roof. “[Syd] never wore a suit, he always wore just a shirt and some pants. He loved black talent,” says Syl. “He would take me to lunch, and then he would take me home in the evening time. He told me, ‘You’re gonna be around a long time!’” In terms of his overall career, that was true, but Syl’s days wandering around Nathan’s complex were numbered.
Johnson would make two more trips to Cincinnati during his tenure at Federal, cutting a total of 14 songs over the course of the three-year contract. Nathan’s decision not to pick up the option came as no surprise—all five of Syl’s singles had failed to chart. Johnson has hinted that King’s principal breadwinner might have had a hand in dampening Syl’s commercial splash. “James Brown was a big problem for me,” he muses. “He didn’t want nobody to come in there like me, ‘cause I was young, good-looking, and I got a good voice.” It’s even more ironic, then, that Syl chose to re-record “Please, Please, Please”—Brown’s first smash—during his final Federal session in August 1962.
By the time of that last Federal date, Syl Johnson was married with three children. “I knew her when she had no front teeth,” he says of Hazzie Perry. The two had gone to grammar school in Mississippi, staying in contact through family friends before, in 1956, a "little accident" occurred during one of her northerly visits. With his career sputtering and the mouths of Antoinette (6), Tony (5), and Michelle (3) to feed, Syl took his first straight job since washing dishes at the Stevenson Hotel in 1951. Through his friend Robert “Squirrel” Lester (of Chi-Lites fame), he found work driving a truck for Midwest Glass but got bounced shortly after throwing in with the Teamsters Local 705. Syl, playing his union card, did temp driving for Santa Fe and P.A. Johnson before ending up in UPS brown. He would stay with the delivery outfit from 1964 to 1967, quitting only after hearing his own “Come On Sock It To Me” on the radio during drive time.
While his days were spent behind the wheel of a truck, Syl rarely recuperated by night. Following Magic Sam’s 1960 imprisonment for bucking Uncle Sam’s call, Syl picked up the pieces of Maghett’s backing band and glued them back together in a decidedly less bluesy mold. “Jackie Wilson was my main influence. I didn’t like the old, slow, drag-out blues,” Syl insists. “I could play that stuff. I was like a backup man. But when I started singing, I started singing Jackie Wilson songs.” The old-guard band—Odell Campbell on bass, Johnny Jones on piano, and S. P. Leary on drums—couldn’t quite keep up with Syl’s soulful new style. Scarce corroboration exists to support the claim, but Syl is certain that the group recorded a handful of times. Either way, he dismisses the results flatly. “No one was interested in the blues. People got tired of the same kind of thing, ya’ know?” Only one session capturing Johnson’s divorce from the blues turned up on 45. Issued on Don DeLucia’s primarily rock ‘n’ roll imprint Cha Cha, “She’s All Right” b/w “I Know” exists now in just a handful of collections. Syl can’t even remember the circumstances of his brief Cha Cha dealings, and DeLucia’s estate was unable to provide any further information.
A similar murk surrounds his lone session for George Leaner’s One-Derful! imprint. The Leaner family story is one worthy of its own boxed set and accompanying tome, from their 1950 opening of United Record Distributors (a company that would dominate the R&B landscape in the 1960s) to 1971’s shuttering of Midas and Toddlin’ Town, their fifth and sixth labels. Brothers Ernie and George Leaner appear, on the surface, to have had a very small impact on Syl’s career trajectory, but it is at United and on their primary trio of labels (One-Derful!, Mar-V-Lus, and M-Pac) where the seeds of his first renaissance were sown. The three tracks Syl cut for them in 1964 are snapshots of the Leaner sound, a harder-edged soul than is generally identified with the Windy City. Here, they serve mostly as Syl’s connectors to a larger circuit board.
Though their bread was buttered with dance songs (including “Shake A Tail Feather,” “The Cool Bird,” “The Chicken Astronaut,” “Do the 45,” “Twine Time,” “The Bump,” “The Barracuda,” “The Penguin,” “Boston Monkey,” “The Whip”), the Leaners dismissed these fad records as merely means to an end. Their stable of artists boasted McKinley Mitchell, Otis Clay, Johnny Sayles, Harold Burrage, Alvin Cash, and the Five Du-Tones, harnessed by the keen A&R staff of Andre Williams, Jimmy Jones, and a moonlighting Monk Higgins. It was Williams who shepherded Syl up 1827 S. Michigan’s flight of stairs to the Leaners’ second floor studio. Both Higgins and Jones would play a larger role in Syl’s development down the line, but at the time they were likely in the next room, working with the label group’s more established artists. None of the three sides impressed George Leaner enough to put pen to paper, but he was more than happy to be the exclusive distributor for Syl’s Zachron label a couple years later.
Since his first gig with Shakey Jake in 1955, Syl Johnson had been without management. His meager receipts were tallied by hand, his band paid in cash, all his breaks of his own making. But becoming bandleader at The Club at 55th and State Street began to unlock more doors than Syl could walk through. When Morey Alexander made his initial approach, Johnson was skeptical of the balding, moustached, former Mid-America rack-jobber. Alexander had struck out on his own in November of 1964, setting up shop at 22 E. Huron for his generically named Talent Management & Promotions firm. Syl was swayed by Alexander’s promise to get him signed to a major recording contract by year’s end. The addition of Johnson to the roster was a major coup, immediately bringing up the stock on former Vee-Jay one-shot Bobby Jones and Keith “Conscientious Objector” Everett, and yet, the elusive major recording deals remained just that. Alexander formed the TMP-Ting label as a way of jumpstarting his flagging enterprise, kicking off in 1965 with Syl’s “Falling In Love” b/w “I’ve Got To Get Over,” a record that marks the commencement of Syl Johnson’s transition from gritty blues/R&B singer to strutting soul man. At least six other 45s would materialize on the imprint, but only Everett would work for a major, and even his stay was brief. Alexander had a field day with “Falling In Love” following the success of “Come On Sock It To Me,” pressing it with several label variations and making it one of Syl’s most common 45s. Even so, not a single royalty check for the song ever graced Johnson’s mailbox.
His Club position put Syl on a path to crafting a backing band in his own image. The blues geezers had long been shed, replaced by younger, hungrier cats that were coming up on a steady diet of R&B and soul. For the first few months, the cast was a revolving-door quartet with a patchwork horn section anchored by tenor saxophonist Johnny Cameron and Willie Henderson’s baritone sax. But as the money improved and the group found themselves behind the likes of Count Basie and Cannonball Adderly, they added mainstays John Zachary on bass, George Moss on drums, Raymond Orr on trumpet, and Harvey Burton on trombone. “We had 13 horns,” explains Zachary. “Four trumpets, four trombones, and five saxophones.” Among the live additions were Louis Satterfield on trombone and tenor saxist Donald Myrick; George Moss split onstage drumming duties with Jimmy Tillman. “It would have killed one drummer for this show, ‘cause it was a big show. It was a package deal, about four artists and a chorus line,” says Zachary.
With a tight band and money in his pocket, Syl Johnson, for the first time in his career, rolled the dice on himself and came up seven—or at least seven inches. Though it has long been rumored that the Zachron label was co-owned by John Zachary and John Cameron, Syl sets the record straight succinctly: “It was my band. I funded the band, and I had the skills and I had the money. They didn’t have the money like me.” Issued in 1966, “Straight Love No Chaser” b/w “Surrounded” was an immediate in-town smash, piquing the curiosity of Tag Ltd., a brand new LA-based company founded by former Minit Records promotion director Rennie Roker and KGFJ’s Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague. Tag’s logo read “House of Soul Seal of Approval,” but that seal didn’t guarantee sales. “They leased it and reneged on the next deal,” says Johnson. “They made a big mistake when they turned down ‘Sock It To Me.’” Zachron would issue only two more singles, Syl’s “Try Me” b/w “Surrounded” and the Scott Bros.’ “We Like Girls” b/w “Magic Wand.” The Zachron logo, but not the font, would be abandoned entirely for Syl’s next self-released record.
Perhaps the most important connection Syl made during his tenure at The Club was with co-owner E. Rodney Jones. By the time he purchased the former Club DeLisa with fellow WVON jock Purvis Spann in 1965, Jones was already one of the most dynamic figures in black radio. Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, “The Mad Lad” had worked his way east, through stations in Kansas City and St. Louis, before finally being hired on as program manager at WVON. To call Jones a major player in the Chicago music business would be a gross understatement. In addition to being one of “The Good Guys” at WVON, Jones managed a handful of groups, including Johnny Williams, the Vontastics, and—at one time—the Jackson 5; he cut records for the Tuff and Westbound labels, operated the Double Soul and Supreme labels, and somehow finagled a bit part in the Berry Gordy-directed Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany. And while he never managed Johnson in an official capacity, Jones acted as mentor and adviser to The Club’s young bandleader.
Special Agent Records was another short-lived outfit of the sort that proliferated up and down Record Row and all over Chicago during the mid-‘60s. The province of Monk Higgins, who handled production for the twin St. Lawrence and Satellite labels, and Burgess Gardner, who was busy with his own Down To Earth, Lamarr, and More Soul labels, Special Agent appeared like an unplanned pregnancy in the midst of a torrid love affair. Four singles would emerge, and Syl found himself on half of them. E. Rodney Jones had strong ties to Higgins via his management agreement with the Vontastics, who cut ten sides for St. Lawrence and Satellite, likely squeezing Johnson in as a favor. Special Agent issued two versions of “Do You Know What Love Is” in 1966, but Higgins and Gardner’s attentions were focused elsewhere. Rodney’s next suggestion would bear considerably sweeter fruit.
“Twilight, that was my label. Twinight was just some bullshit on a letterhead when I got back from Memphis.”
Conflicting accounts cloud the founding of the Twilight label, and the story might have been set straight, had the company bothered to incorporate in 1967. But when “Come On Sock It To Me” crashed the Billboard R&B chart in July 1967, Syl Johnson was so caught up in his own whirlwind that a host of crucial t’s and i’s were left uncrossed and undotted. It would take 40 years and tens of thousands of dollars to straighten out all the ownership details. And like the deal Syl inked with Federal, it all began with an acetate.
The band had cut their infectious slab of party-soul at RCA, within spitting distance of Navy Pier. “We had the band, so there wasn’t no cost or anything for the musicians. All we needed to do was get the studio and do our own stuff,” says John Zachary. “So that’s what we started doing. We could rehearse the stuff and go in. We’d get an hour or so of studio, tape it ourselves, and have us a record.” With dub in hand, Johnson and Zachary headed southeast to the home of E. Rodney Jones to see what the next move should be. After pouring himself a strong libation, Jones auditioned “Come On Sock It To Me,” and—according to Syl’s animated retelling—exclaimed, “Damn, this is gonna be the Pick of the Week!”
With Syl’s two Zachron 45s stalled out at United, Jones recommended he shift the “Sock It To Me” disc to All State Record Distribution at 1450 S. Michigan. All State handled the cream of the independent crop, holding down regional accounts for Chess, Stax, Motown, Atlantic, and 27 more under the direction of Paul Glass. A 1986 Chicago Tribune tribute to Glass quoted an unnamed associate: “He could smell a hit. He could pick the winner and consequently [All State] became one of the biggest independent record distributorships in the country. [Glass] was known then as the boy wonder of the record industry.” But others lay All State’s successes at the feet of Howard Bedno.
Bedno had already taken a job in promotions at Chess by the time his Cobra label folded in the summer of 1959. After a year as Leonard Chess’ right-hand man, he found himself managing sales at All State. Lamented Bedno, “What I was doing, I was a damn fool, because I was getting acts and giving them to Paul Glass. If I had taken all those acts myself, I could have built a hell of a label.” He was right. Between the New Colony Six, the Rivieras, and the Buckinghams’ improbable #1 punch, “Kind Of A Drag,” for Glass’ U.S.A. imprint, Bedno could have bought himself a nice home on Chicago’s Gold Coast. At the end of the day, he didn’t do so poorly for himself.
Bedno and E. Rodney Jones may as well have been bedfellows when Syl Johnson appeared in Jones’ WVON office in the summer of 1967. “I liked payola. You got what you gave,” Bedno candidly confessed near the end of his life. With Jones stationed as the P.D. at the #1 R&B station in Chicago, and Bedno one of the top promo men in the city, there’s little doubt that portions of their business dealings passed quietly under the table. Bedno and Johnson, at Rodney’s urging, formed their company as a way to focus the fire that leapt out of the “Come On Sock It To Me” acetate. “I said, ‘You be the president, I’ll be the vice-president, ‘cause I’m going out of town,’” Syl yawps.
Before he split, Syl stopped by Musical Productions at 521 W. 26th street. “I ordered 2000. It cost $500. I drove for United Parcel, so I had money in my pocket, ‘cause I was in the Teamsters and the band.” On the resulting 45, and in the Zachron typeface, Twilight appeared in Chicago for the first time. “I shipped them records in there. That girl told me those records didn’t stay but 15 minutes,” Syl reports. “I’ve had some pretty good ones, but ain’t had none like that one. Oh, what a record! About a million and a half…” he beams, inflating the record’s myth by as many as a million units.
Whatever the true figure, Syl did hit the road, leaving to Bedno the duty of following up Twilight’s first strike. But label-for-hire deals with the Soul-Heirs and George McGregor & the Bronzettes failed miserably for Bedno, and it fell to the returning Syl to save the young imprint’s bacon. What “Different Strokes” did for Syl Johnson cannot be measured by mere chart position (#17 R&B and #95 Pop, for those keeping score). The notion of sampling was primordial in 1967, occurring mostly on radio station talk-over discs and novelty cut-in records. Hip Hop was nearly two decades away, its break-hunting pioneers still saddled in diapers. And yet, the seven-second crack of Morris Jennings’ snare and kick—coupled with Minnie Riperton’s cackle and Syl’s grunts—revived Johnson’s career completely in the 1990s, along with his bank account. If only he’d taken care of that pesky paperwork and made Twilight legal…. But between the road and the studio, there was never an extra moment. Even his marriage began to suffer, and in the words of Hazel Thompson, “His mind was going another way.”
With two hit singles nearly tripping over one another, Syl Johnson suddenly found himself in demand, and not just as a performer. E. Rodney Jones paired him with Johnny Williams for a single, and Syl, infected by the producing bug, set up his own Shama label (the name an acronym for Syl, his wife Hazel, and their offspring Antoinette, Michael, and Anthony), which issued an instrumental version of “Sock It To Me” by brother Jimmy’s group, the Deacons. Syl the producer would be an integral part of what Twilight would soon morph into: Twinight.
Singles flying out the door at All State and money piling up in shoeboxes under Bedno’s desk made it clear that Twilight needed to go legit. Bedno was an incredible promoter, but he lacked the ears to take the label from a one-horse buggy to a stagecoach pulled by thoroughbreds. Howard Scott had brought John Colley’s “Stormy” nom-de-plume in for a test ride, but what Twilight really needed a true A&R man. Across the Loop, Peter Wright’s All State-distributed Quill label was winding down, allowing Wright to focus on managing the New Colony Six and work the lucrative independent promotions graft. Bedno longed to break free from Glass and All State, and in Wright he saw the perfect catalyst.
Peter Wright got his start in 1955 as a soldier for the Leaners’ United Record Distributors, opening and running their Indianapolis branch. In 1960, he returned to Chicago, forming Don Caron Productions a few years later with—who else?—Don Caron. They found their greatest success with the Drew-Vels of Evanston, Illinois, and their lead vocalist Patti Drew, signing both to Capitol Records. Wright turned his attentions to Chicago’s garage band scene in 1965, issuing a dozen singles on the Quill label by the likes of the Skunks, the Riddles, and the Prophets, while his production firm pushed the equally obscure Fabulous Flippers onto Cameo, the Reasons For Being onto Fontana, and the Rush Hour onto Philips. Somewhere along the way, he discovered a natural talent for jukebox and radio promotions. By 1967, Wright was raking in more money promoting records than making them. After setting up offices at 166 E. Huron, Bedno and Wright looked into filing articles of incorporation for Twilight. In the process, they discovered that the Hush label, in cheery-sounding Sunnyvale, California, already owned the name. Pushing two letters deeper into the alphabet and some hours later into a darkening day, Bedno and Wright hit upon the evocative Twinight moniker.
Over time, Syl Johnson has clouded the story of starting out as co-owner of Twilight, and ending up as just a 5% shareholder in Twinight. He has vacillated between accusations of racism and more sober realizations that he was far too busy and lacked the experience to run a successful record company. But in a 1983 interview with Robert Pruter, he seemed to be at peace with his role at Twinight:
Pruter: You seemed to be the main producer. Did you own a piece of it?
Pruter: That’s not much.
Johnson: It was their label.
The first Syl Johnson 45 to be issued on the newly minted Twinight label, “Ode To Soul Man” b/w “I’ll Take Those Skinny Legs,” tanked hard. As did the next two Syl records. Their productions were rushed, not just in the studio but through to the marketplace, as Twinight raced to capitalize on their hottest—really their only—commodity. Twinight’s principles opened Bedno-Wright Associates in October 1968, their top clients—Chess, Atlantic, and Motown—stolen out from under the unsuspecting Glass. In the middle of a heated payola investigation, Bedno and Wright adopted “friendola” practices, which involved favors done for DJs over the industry-standard $50 handshakes; they hustled to fill out the label’s release schedule in the process. Never privy to the accounts register, Johnson had no idea that profits from his singles were being drained into the vanity projects of the regional DJ pool. When his contract was up in May 1968, he paid a visit to Memphis, with no sure plans ever to return.
Enter Willie Mitchell
“He said I had a strange sound. Like he had never heard before.”
Willie Mitchell first encountered Syl Johnson on the stage at the Burning Spear in 1968. “[We were] the backup band for Johnny Nash. I was opening the show,” Syl recalls. “And then he was on the road at the time, and he heard ‘Sock It To Me.’ He said ‘That’s the S.O.B. I heard in Chicago. I’m gonna get that cat on this label [Hi].’” Syl continues, “O. V. Wright was traveling with me on my show. He was the co-star. He said, ‘Come on by the studio in Memphis tomorrow, I’m recording,’ I came by, he was recording, and I just fell in love with the band he was recording with, the Hi Rhythm. Teenie, Charles, Leroy, and Bulldog. I just fell in love with that band.”
Tennessee’s Bluff City was host to Stax/Volt Records, where Booker T. & the MG’s and the Memphis Horns provided fatback grooves for Johnnie Taylor, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd. It boasted American Studios, at which Chips Moman assembled a house band so versatile that it could back Wilson Pickett or Bobby Womack one day and Neil Diamond or Elvis the next. And at Hi Records, trumpeter Willie Mitchell had put together a marvelously tight in-house rhythm section consisting of three Hodges brothers (Mabon, known as “Teenie,” on guitar, Leroy on bass, and Charles on organ) and drummer Howard “Bulldog” Grimes.
This latter quartet’s interplay was so subtly spectacular that easy-surging rhythms oozed from their pores. Mitchell had grown his sibling-heavy rhythm section organically. Said the late Willie Mitchell:
“I lived in East Memphis, and Germantown is about eight miles from Memphis. I came to a store—one of those stores where you buy those red soda waters and everything—to get some air. Teenie was sittin’ on a porch with a guitar. He was about 16. So I said, ‘Hey, man, come on and go home with me.’ So he came home with me. I taught him how to play guitar. Kept him there five years.”
“Willie had adopted me when I was 18. I joined the group first, even though Leroy, my brother the bass player, had done an album with him, the Sunrise Serenade album, while he was in high school. He actually hired me first to join the group. And then about a month later, he hired Leroy. And a couple of months later, he hired Howard Grimes. And then a couple of months later, he hired Charles.”
Home away from home for all of them was Royal Recording Studio on South Lauderdale, a spacious former movie theater with a steadily sloping floor where Poppa Willie reigned supreme as producer and engineer. The studio was available for outside productions when Mitchell wasn’t recording Hi artists. That’s where Syl cut his next Twinight session.
“I had been hearing a record on Syl—it was called ‘Different Strokes’—for a long time. I never thought that I’d have the opportunity to record with Syl Johnson. ‘Cause I had been listening to that record, and then he had another one called ‘Sock It To Me.’ Willie Mitchell had kind of spoke to the rhythm section and said, ‘Syl Johnson’s comin’ in.’ So I was a little excited about it, not knowing how I was gonna be able to record [with] him. So when we did the session, I was trying to visualize the two songs that I had heard because I had no idea what particular song he was going to be singing. I just wanted to [make sure] that I could stay in focus and play whatever I had heard on the first two records.”
“His voice is very unique. You can see he has musical background, knowledge, and experience, even all the way from church. When I first met Syl, Syl and I got off on a real good foot. We’ve been just like brothers from the first day of it to right now.”
“Dresses Too Short,” the first track to surface from these sessions, restored Syl to firm commercial footing, climbed to #36 R&B in late 1968, and also served as the title track on his first Twinight album. At the same bountiful session, Syl produced a single by Chicago singer Lee Shot Williams for Shama. “He was driving for me. A chauffeur, in a Fleetwood Brougham. A big black Fleetwood Brougham,” says Syl. “He said, ‘Hey, man! Why don’t you let me cut a couple tunes with these guys, man?’” So Syl did. Although Willie Mitchell was a world-class R&B producer in his own right, Syl makes it clear who was in charge during his early sessions at Royal. “I paid the union and I cut,” he says. “I produced my own stuff there, and Willie Mitchell was my engineer.” His return to Memphis in 1971 would be under a completely different set of circumstances.
Syl Johnson’s first LP hit stores in the summer of 1969. True to its era, it wasn’t so much an album as a collection of singles. The four non-single tracks (“Soul Drippin’,” “Fox Hunting On The Weekend,” “Same Kind Of Thing,” and “I’ve Got The Real Thing”—none of them a throwaway) were outtakes tacked on to capitalize on the expanding long-player market. Prolific designer and photographer Jerry Griffith shot the cover on a South Michigan Avenue building’s balcony. Despite blaring its title in Christmas-y, green-and-red cover lettering, Dresses Too Short never found its season creatively or commercially, selling just a few thousand copies before being discontinued in the mid 70s.
Because He’s Black
“After Martin Luther King got killed, I wanted to write a song."
Ten years into his role as poster boy for pop soul and peak-hour R&B, Syl Johnson did an unlikely about-face and cut the most inspiring and powerful song he’d ever touch. “I didn’t want to write no song about hating this people or hating that people,” he remembers. “I really didn’t have no vendetta against people. It’s a sympathy song.” Issued on 45 in September of 1969, "Is It Because I'm Black" struck an immediate chord within the black community, forcing the song up the charts by sheer volume of call-in requests. It would be Syl’s biggest hit for Twinight, climbing as high as #11 on the Billboard R&B chart during its 14-week stay, marking the defining moment of what had become more than just an occupation. Syl had his hands on a career.
The days of shuckin' and jivin' through dance songs were over, replaced by a heavy and sometimes cynical undertone that would dominate Syl’s output for the foreseeable future. As the world-at-large was changing, so was Syl’s personal life. Fed up with 13 years of her husband’s life-on-the-road, Hazel Thompson checked out of their bungalow at 6843 S. Aberdeen. The formerly rock-solid band was beginning to show cracks too, as the pressures of an offstage life took their toll. Willie Henderson was the first to duck out, grabbing his shot at producing Tyrone Davis for Brunswick. “It kind of fell apart,” Syl laments. “Zachary became an entrepreneur. George Moss couldn’t travel. Harvey Burton was teaching school. And Cameron couldn’t go on the road. His wife wouldn’t let him.” For the first time in 33 years, Syl Johnson found himself alone. He holed up at Twinight’s woodshedding studio at 2131 S. Michigan (the former address of both King and USA Records, ironically) and spent the bulk of 1969 tinkering. That storefront space would host the rehearsal of several Johnson productions, before Syl made an 11-door journey north to Chess’s Ter-Mar studios, where many of his Twinight records, and those of others, were ultimately set to tape. But first he had to find a new band.
Seven blocks north of Ter-Mar, Brunswick's Jalynne Sound house band was feeling awfully underappreciated at the hands of A&R director Carl Davis. Davis had put the group together piecemeal after walking out of OKeh in 1965, installing Bernard Reed on bass, guitarist John Bishop, trumpeter Michael Davis, alto saxist Jerry Wilson, and drummer Hal “Heavy” Nesbitt. Jalynne Productions set up shop at Roosevelt and Wabash, housing Davis’ publishing and managing concerns, the latter of which boasted a stable of Gene Chandler, Otis Leavill, the Opals, Major Lance, Billy Butler, and Walter Jackson. When Jackie Wilson showed up at Jalynne, looking for a hit to revive his faltering career, everything changed. Following Wilson’s success with the Barbara Acklin/Eugene Record penned “Whispers” for Brunswick in 1966, Davis leveraged his new job at the label to set up a Jalynne writing workshop and studio in the old Vee-Jay offices at 1449 S. Michigan. The group would be used on many Brunswick and Dakar recordings between 1967 and 1969. But they were most egregiously offended at being left off the credits on Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” (when, in fact, neither Eldee Young nor Isaac “Red” Holt had even played on the Top 5 Pop hit).
Bernard Reed recalls Jalynne’s acrimonious split with Brunswick:
“I was a little disillusioned with how things were going for me down there. So we left Brunswick, and we got downstairs, and Jerry Wilson, the horn player, he said, ‘Well, hey, Syl Johnson is right up the street. We can go down there and talk to him. I know he’s looking for a band.’ And that’s what we did. We walked down the street to Syl’s place. He was right across the street from Chess Records then. We were on Record Row. Syl had a little rehearsal studio there set up. He wasn’t doing any major recording, but he had a machine there where we could make little dubs of what we wrote. Syl let us come in in the mornings, and we’d stay there up until the late hours of the night, practicing and performing new songs and putting together our own act. We dropped the Jalynne Sounds when we left Brunswick, I came up with the name Pieces of Peace. It just came to me as sort of a play on words. It was during that whole era—peace, flower power, during the end of the 60s. It sounded good to me, and I mentioned it to the fellows, and they said, ‘Well, that’s who we are now! The Pieces of Peace!’”
Syl put the Pieces of Peace rhythm section to work immediately, employing Reed, Bishop, and Nesbitt on the no-frills “Is It Because I’m Black.” Before the single even hit the streets, much less the charts, the full band was marked present on the Dynamic Tints’ Reed-composed “Package of Love Pt. 1 & 2” and had backed up Syl up on a handful of regional dates. With no one waiting at home and a band with nowhere else to go, Syl worked tirelessly rehearsing his next opus, an album of songs reflective of the changing times. With “Is It Because I’m Black” still bolding the pages of Billboard, the coming LP’s title appeared to Syl plain as day—or, in this case, black as night.
Issued in April 1970—a full 13 months before Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—Is It Because I’m Black can rightly be called the first black concept album, a distinction few give it credit for. But that factoid, whatever its meaning then or now, failed to inspire music buyers: Johnson’s record never got a whiff of the two million copies Gaye’s did in its first year of availability. Syl lays the blame squarely on the record’s lack of marketability to a white audience:
“That was a college record. Black college kids. They’re political. But these kind of records tend to hurt you a bit. You’ve got white people, and then you’ve got white liberals. But you’ve got white people who care nothing about you talking about being black. They say ‘Why shouldn’t I sing “Is It Because I’m White”?’ They just don’t care for it. Not that they hate it, but they’re not going to pay five or six dollars to buy an album of it.”
The album’s cover didn’t exactly move units either. Photographer Jerry Griffith dragged Syl to a burned-out building on 43rd Street to shoot the back cover image, and he finger-painted the iconic title over a stock photo of an eroding brick wall. The title track, coupled with the politically charged “I’m Talking About Freedom” and ghetto conscious “Concrete Reservation” sealed the album’s cool reception as the work of an “angry black man.” Which is unfortunate, as “Together Forever,” “Come Together,” and “Black Balloons” are positively uplifting, forming their own pot of gold at the end of a grayscale rainbow. The album’s closer burns the brightest. “Right On” devolves into a full-on party track, ending with Syl riffing on the line “I’m gonna keep on doing my thing,” as if to answer his critics before their needles reached the run-out groove.
“Those days before Hi Records were really fantastic days for me, 'cos they were for the glory of it.”
As Syl Johnson entered the final year of his Twinight contract in 1970, his star, no longer on the rise, had become a cataloged dot in the sky. A variety of interviews survive from this period, solidifying the bedrock mythology that he would build upon going forward. These interviews capture Syl at his most candid, when events were fresh in his mind, and feature familiar phrasings and stories that pop up like mile markers on a well-trod highway. So enamored were these articles with the mystery of Syl’s past that none of them touched upon his final year at—or the end of—Twinight. They failed to acknowledge five marvelous singles and more than a dozen productions that emerged from those darkening days.
May 1970 saw a trio of singles released, all with Syl’s big paw print on them. The biggest, of course, was his own, the Donny Hathaway-produced “Kiss By Kiss” b/w “One Way Ticket To Nowhere,” which scaled its way to #24 on the Billboard R&B charts that summer. Annette Poindexter and the Dynamic Tints & Pieces of Peace Orchestra rounded out the month to considerably lesser acclaim. As Syl somewhat bitterly recalls, “First place, when I started with Twinight, there was the company. They were very small. The records made the company. ‘Sock It To Me’ and ‘Different Strokes’ made the company. They made the company somebody, but the company didn’t make the artists somebody.” If Syl didn’t already know he was Twinight’s only bankable star, he was beginning to get the picture.
Over at Shama, Syl had parlayed the success of Simtec & Wylie’s “Do It Like Mama” into a distribution and production deal with Atlantic. Camped out at RCA Studios, he helmed the Drifters’ final Atlantic record “Be My Lady” b/w “A Rose By Any Other Name,” four sides for Garland Green on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint (including Green’s sizable 1971 R&B hit “Plain And Simple Girl," arranged by Donny Hathaway), and Otis Clay’s funky-driver “Hard Working Woman.” When asked about why he went to Hi instead of Atlantic when his contract expired, Syl replied, “That’s a hell of a question. What a mistake. See, I was chasing this rainbow, and his name was Al Green. And I was so blinded by the chase that I couldn’t see Atlantic Records.”
Back at Twinight, the Notations—a stalwart vocal harmony trio from the west side—stormed the R&B chart with “I’m Still Here.” It would be Syl’s last work for the label to achieve such lofty heights. He followed the top ten track up with “Thank You Baby” b/w “We Do It Together” in January 1971, stiffing on both sides. The Dynamic Tints’ final record limped out a month later, a reading on the Bernard Reed-penned “Be My Lady,” which hadn’t stuck for the Drifters. It was too slippery for the Tints, too. Syl’s heart just wasn’t in it.
Syl Johnson’s final sessions under contract for Twinight, while capably performed, are the creative nadir for this period, littered with covers and novelty cuts. “I felt like a prisoner,” Syl laments. “I didn’t want to give them any more than they’d already taken.” Even so, “Get Ready” siphoned enough of Smokey’s magic to push all the way to #34, though Twinight did tack a two-year-old, album-only track to the flip. In his mind, Syl managed to go out with a bang: “When James Brown heard that song ‘Hot Pants Annie,’ he turned his jet around and went back into Cincinnati the same day and cut it.” But in reality, “Annie Got Hot Pants Power Pt. 1 & 2” never got off the blocks. James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” on the other hand, rode the fashion trend all the way to #1 for his King-distributed People label. In an odd coincidence, that was Brown’s final record for Syd Nathan’s monster operation.
Howard Bedno and Peter Wright, mired in a payola scandal and running the Midwest’s most powerful radio promotion company, could spare little energy for a Twinight bereft of Syl. The label’s last five releases put shelved tapes into service, each of those with the name “S. Johnson” scribbled in the Producer field. But the Notations, the Radiants, and Nate Evans stood no chance. Two of those five closing discs, however, acted as mementos of Syl’s journey to that point. “That’s Why,” a 1959 hit for Jackie Wilson—Syl’s idol—brought Johnson all the way back to his days as a blues guitarist. “I used to do [that song] onstage,” he says. “[Jackie Wilson] was a big influence on me.” Though there’s no documentation to prove the claim, he continues: “I traveled around with him and watched him kill the ladies! He was one of the greatest entertainers that I’ve ever seen, bar none.” And, continuing in their brave tradition of “friendola,” the label chopped up the instrumental of “Is It Because I’m Black,” dubbing E. Rodney Jones’ voice over the top as he rambled on about a place called “Soul Heaven.” It was an irony not lost on Syl: “Those motherfuckers stole my shit!”
Getting Hi, Getting Paid
“I wanted to go to Hi Records because I knew they had a deal with a major company, London Records. And I wanted that top-flight exposure. So, just as I went in the door, Al Green broke out.”
Here’s a case in which Syl's facts and timeline are dead-on. Al Green was becoming well established at Hi—mere inches from being noticed by the world at large—when Syl arrived at the label in July 1971. Green’s second LP for the Memphis concern, 1970’s Gets Next To You, coupled with its lone gold single “Tired of Being Alone,” likely shifted more units than all the Syl Johnson material combined did during his seven years at Hi. “The Love You Left Behind,” “We Did It,” “Back For A Taste Of Your Love,” “I’m Yours,” “Let Yourself Go,” “I Only Have Love,” “Star Bright Star Lite,” “I Want To Take You Home (To See Mama),” “’Bout To Make Me Leave Home,” and the Green-penned “Take Me To The River” all found their way to the R&B charts. And yet, something got lost between Chicago and Memphis: the real Syl Johnson."
Gone were the Pieces of Peace and their scrappy resourcefulness, replaced by the Hi Rhythm’s slick workmanship. On stage, Syl jettisoned his customary Les Paul and took to wearing shirts open down to the penultimate button. Perhaps most glaringly absent is Syl’s name from the writer credits on the Hi songs; of the 44 tracked by Mitchell, only five carry Syl’s byline. Even his vocal style began to change, session by session, until finally he had evolved fully into an impression of the label’s cash cow. Remarked Willie Mitchell in a 1987 interview: “He really just wanted to sing like Al Green.”
Syl on the shadow of Al Green:
“I couldn’t get out of the stable with him around. The bear was just too big…. He knew my reputation, because he was on shows with me when he had ‘Back Up Train.’ When he had ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ he was still on my show. He was working with my band. So he knew what I could do. I can’t pinpoint it, but I believe this man was personally involved.”
Whether or not he had any direct influence on Syl Johnson’s failings, Al Green’s shadow would prove impossible to escape. Even after getting scalded with hot grits, he managed to one-up Syl, reportedly checking out of the hospital two days later to finish Al Green Explores Your Mind. Its release effectively quelled any interest that might’ve been building around Syl’s sophomore album for Hi, Diamond In The Rough.
In 1976, Syl Johnson went on strike from recording for Hi. “I was sick of them not spending any money to promote my records, so I just stopped showing up,” Syl says. He’d already restarted Shama in 1974 to issue “Goodie-Goodie-Good Times,” a return to form that put him back on the map in Chicago, selling a reported 25,000 copies before being leased to Bill Lasley’s E.P.I. for national distribution in 1977. To maximize his newfound free time, Syl began to revisit previously shelved material. “Let’s Start All Over” recycled the backing track for Nate Evans’ “Pardon My Innocent Heart.” That song’s flip, “Main Squeeze,” got a complete overhaul on “All I Need Is Someone Like You,” with the Kitty Haywood Singers dropped in favor of a duet with Syl’s second wife Brenda. Having long regretted the sexist undertones of “Annie Got Hot Pants Power,” Syl re-recorded the vocal as “Hot Pants Lady,” taking a decidedly silkier, late-‘70s approach and adding Brenda’s sighs in the background. These four songs and eight others, including Twinight outtakes “Abaccadaba,” (AKA “Double Whammy”) “Your Love Is Good For Me,” “Trying To Get To You,” and “Wiggle In Your Hips,” were leased to P-Vine in 1979 and issued on the Japan-only Goodie Goodie Good Times LP.
Syl Johnson dropped his picket sign in 1977 and returned to Hi. With the label under new ownership and missing Willie Mitchell behind the board, Syl cut Uptown Shakedown in Los Angeles. His Hi swan song is perhaps his most uninspired LP, a grasp at disco’s straws along with unfortunate stoopings into medley territory. Curiously, Syl’s final recordings for the label feature two Twinight-era songs reworked: “Wiggle In Your Hips” and “Main Squeeze” got slick makeovers before sinking into the cut-out abyss. When Johnson’s contract expired in 1980, Hi exec Al Bennett declined to renew. On tour in the UK later that year, Syl sat down for an interview and put his Hi years into perspective:
“This British writer told me I was a poor man’s Al Green. It was the truth. He said, ‘You should have stayed in Chicago and recorded. You cut your best records in Chicago.’ I was kind of insulted. But he told the truth. Willie never topped ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ or ‘Sock It To Me.’ He couldn’t come that far.”
All told, the 1980s were a series of disappointing missteps. Shama was once again reanimated for Brings Out The Blues In Me and three other singles, one of which—“Ms. Fine Brown Frame”—would be Syl’s last taste of the charts. Syl had been selling copies out of the trunk of his car in Chicago before Jim Porter’s Erect label picked the record up for regional distribution. 10,000 units later, Neil Bogart’s Boardwalk concern would take “Ms. Fine Brown Frame” national. Boardwalk honored the recently deceased Bogart’s legacy by throwing endless cash at radio programmers, who promised chart-topping status to the extended 12” mix (hopelessly dated by the rap passage it included), but it stalled out instead at #64. The seven-song album of the same name followed suit. Suicide Blues, a France-only album, appeared on Isabel in 1983, reuniting Syl with guitarist Cash McCall (from his One-derful! session) on a remake of “Sock It To Me.” It had been 15 years since the crotch-thrusting, air-punching number had set the world on fire. Syl’s sun was sinking, even in the east.
Syl Johnson’s inevitable retreat into private life wasn’t as complete as one might expect. Using the proceeds from his quarter-century in the music business, he opened Solomon’s Fishery at 8053 South Racine to peddle recipes from the Thompson family cookbook. “I’ll never forget the Saturday night fish fries back in Holly Springs, Mississippi,” Syl told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1988. “There were a lot of people havin’ fun, lots of guitar players and harmonica players….And the only thing they served was fish. So my original idea was to have a weekly, all-day-long Saturday fish fry.” That humble concept swelled to eight restaurants stretching as far east as Gary, Indiana. The Johnson family had ballooned as well, with Brenda giving birth to Sylette, Syleecia, and Syleena in quick succession. When Brenda was elected Public Health and Safety Commissioner for south suburban Harvey, Illinois, Syl was appointed deputy marshal, a role that saw him keeping the peace eight hours a week. Occasionally, he’d take the stage of some rundown Chicago blues joint behind his brother Jimmy, but at the age of 52, Syl Johnson had mostly retired from music. “Maybe that’s why I’m so successful in the fish business,” Johnson mused at the time. “I had a bum deal in the record business.”
And yet, within that year, he was back…sort of. Following a successful tour of Japan, he gave Shama another kick-start, issuing Foxy Brown Volume 1 in December 1988 to critical and commercial indifference. The early ‘90s would find Syl at his lowest: He lost his mother Erlie in 1990, brother Mac in 1991, and father Samuel in 1992. Rock bottom arrived when Brenda filed for divorce, forcing the sale, and eventual closure, of the Solomon’s franchises. “That knocked me completely out of the box,” Syl remembers. “All I had was a bed and TV.” Even so, financial solvency loomed closer than he ever knew.
It began with just a drum break and a laugh. “Different Strokes,” released in 1967, predates sampling by a solid decade. But during Syl’s time cooking salmon and white fish in Harvey, hip-hop fortunes were being made on the back of a seven-second “Different Strokes” loop. Syl’s cut, of course, was hardly forthcoming. After hiring an attorney and, probably unnecessarily, a musicologist, Syl went balls deep on the record business, eventually cashing big checks from Whodini, Geto Boys, Wu-Tang Clan, and dozens more as a result. With this windfall, he returned to his roots, bought up a few lots on the 3700 block of South Calumet, just ten blocks from his original Chicago stomping grounds, and built himself a house, from scratch. A lone guitar—the frontispiece perched atop Syl’s two-story stucco home—sums up the man within succinctly.
Syl finally returned to form on his 1994 Delmark album, Back In The Game. A duet with his daughter Syleena would appear on the Mardi Gras label the following year, with Bridge To A Legacy showing up three years later on Antone’s. Before the century ended, both Talkin’ ‘Bout Chicago and Hands Of Time found homes at Delmark and Hep’ Me, respectively. Two Johnsons Are Better Than One, the latest Syl Johnson album as of this writing, features duets Syl performed with his brother Jimmy. That thought-provokingly titled 2001 LP features a jovial Johnson on songs like “I Used To Be A Millionaire,” “If I Wuz White,” and the comic—not to say completely absurd—“Oprah.” No one’s comfortable considering Two Johnsons Syl’s final album, but if it does end up earning that distinction, at least it makes perfectly clear that Syl Johnson went out on terms all his own.
"Look at Muddy Waters, he made small money until he got to be 100 years old, almost. So I just think I should be faithful and keep on. Music soothes the savage beast, you know. Music can’t just be for people to make money by.”
Four years in the making, this box set seeks not to finalize the Syl Johnson story but simply to set its foundations in stone. Numero first approached the septuagenarian in 2006 during our research for Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation—but he was none too happy to hear from us. Originally, we had planned on boxing the 56 Twinight singles, telling Syl Johnson’s tale along the way. But with Syl and Peter Wright embroiled in a lawsuit over the Twinight masters at the time, it seemed best to let Syl’s side of the story simmer. When the dust settled and Syl emerged victorious, we brought him the idea of compiling a thorough overview of his early work. After three years drifting rudderless through phone calls, meetings, and off-the-cuff interviews, the still-childlike Syl—sporting Karl Kani knock-off jeans and his Obama cap slightly askew—finally relented.
Because Syl’s own overblown narrative amounts to a bona fide myth of 20th century music making, we don’t feel far off in considering our part of the effort Herculean. From sourcing masters (or their remnants) and amassing photographic materials, to locating songwriters and musicians who wrote and backed Syl, to convincing Gusto—keepers of the King catalog and, subsequently, the Federal masters—to give Syl a better royalty rate than the 1.5 cents-per-unit he signed on for in 1959, almost all our steps headed straight uphill. Through it all, the easiest nut to crack was always Syl himself; he took our calls at odd hours, let us invade and ransack his home, put us in touch with his extended family and ex-extended family, and remained a good sport in general while a bunch of kids turned his life upside down and persisted in beating the facts out of his torrent of half-truths and misdirects.
Perhaps Syl’s own 50-year ramble past the blues, R&B, soul, funk, disco; his tour of North Mississippi hill country, Chicago’s Record Row, and one big Memphis music factory; his bad deals, one-off disappointments, big-shot flame-outs, hits, misses, and nowhere nears, countless backing bands, writers, and collaborators…maybe these—along with Syl’s invincible sense of self—best explain his open attitude toward all of his historians. He’s just waiting for the world to catch up. Because in Syl’s words, Syl Johnson songs are already monuments: “’Is It Because I’m Black’ is one of the greatest message records ever recorded,” even though “What’s Going On?” outsold it ten copies to one. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is the most sampled song ever, but according to Syl, “’Different Strokes’ is bigger than ‘Billie Jean.’ That thing’s like the national anthem!”
Whatever the numbers, Syl observes the stone-cold giants of popular music from his own lofty vantage point: “I see myself at the top. I’m not Bacharach, no Quincy Jones. But I’m just as good.” He regards his own talent with equal surety: “If you listen to me now, damn, my voice is still as good as it was when I was 28.” And it should shock no one to learn that Syl—coolly willing to tack grand pronouncements and questionable exaggerations to the tail end of a legacy already secured—offered what became our last word and his: “This is more than just a box set to me. This is the history of a masterful artist whose time has just arrived.”