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….”