Syl Johnson is one of the great recent stories of a lost legend re-discovered by an enterprising young record label. Primarily known for a few regional hit singles and his cult 1970 socially conscious soul LP Is It Because I'm Black?, Johnson's entire oeuvre is ripe for review thanks to an exhaustiver reissue program by R&B archivists The Numero Group. Myself and photographer Tim Bugbee caught up with Mr. Johnson the morning after a rain-delayed but ultimately triumphant opening set for Wilco on the second night of their second annual Solid Sound Festival in Western Massachusetts.
How were you approached to appear at Solid Sound Festival with Wilco?
They're kind of friends of mine, they just contacted me and wanted me to come and do this festival and make me the co-star, which is cool. They were great last night themselves.
Were you familiar with their music before you were invited?
You've been in the music industry for almost fifty years. In an earlier interview, you compared record labels to drug dealers. With your new relationship with Numero Group and their reissuing your material, has your attitude toward record labels changed?
No, but Numero is not just a record label, they're historians. They're trying to capture the real heart of R&B music, like an old bottle of Scotch. They're trying to capture the 1960s type music. When they get up to the 70s, they kind of – like the rappers, they don't sample past the early 70s. Numero, they like the 60s, so that's all good. R & B was some of the best music ever to hit the Earth.
You were originally based out of Holly Springs, Mississippi?
[Laughter] No, no but Holly Springs was close by.
Did you have any contact with or desire to work with Stax/Volt (in nearby Memphis, Tennessee) at the time?
No, Chicago was the thing. You remember what came out of Chicago? Curtis Mayfield, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles.
The Beatles were out of Chicago? I didn't know that.
[Laughter] I keep on tellin' you...Jerry Butler...and we can keep on going: Tyrone Davis, myself. But I like Memphis musicians. Willie Mitchell would come to Chicago to my gigs. I had a choice, I could've gone with Jerry Wexler or with Hi (Records). I chose to go with Hi, Willie Mitchell, which was a mistake in my opinion because there was a bumper zone? You know who that was? I know you're familiar with this guy.
That's right, he sold more to blacks than any artist including Michael Jackson. He sold so many albums to black folks, then he crossed over. He was a crossover, he took out “American Pie” at number one (starts singing Don McLean's “American Pie”) – he knocked it out of the top spot on the Billboard charts.
You closed last night's set with Al Green's “Take Me To The River.”
Well, I debuted that song. Teenie (Guitarist Mabon Hodges) wrote the song and he wanted me to help him write the song and I drug my feet, I went to Europe and then Al Green got with Teenie and wrote the song, same as “Love and Happiness.” So he put some beautiful lyrics to it, but Teenie came up with that groove and also “Love and Happiness.” I was supposed to do another one of Al's, but I didn't like it, I didn't want to do it. But I debuted [“Take Me To The River]”. Everybody did, it, Talking Heads did it. I went gold but they went platinum, you know the story.
When you first started out, it took about eight years before you had your first breakout hit with “Sock It To Me” -
Well, let me get back to the bumper zone. It wasn't Al Green's fault but when I say bumper zone, I mean the company would put more money behind the big gun. But it didn’t stop me, I still broke away with some hits. So let's get it clear it wasn't the fault of Al Green. He was doing his thing and he was doing a wonderful thing. But the company, London Records, that was their gun. Naturally if you've got Coke and another little old pop here, you're gonna put your money on Coke.
“Come On Sock It To Me,” from 1967, was your first break out hit. Did you ever imagine you'd be here years and years later, still in the music business and with such enthusiastic fans?
When I cut “Sock It To Me” I had a good band, I had my own band and I was driving a truck. My record was number one, I had this little transistor radio in the cab of my truck. I could afford a good band, I played every weekend, year in and year out, I would go in the studio and make some records, always went into a good studio. I had the tapes, I did some little 45s and nothing happened. Numero found a whole bunch of stuff that I had forgotten I had made “Lookin' for my baby” - I cannot place that! Quite a few others I can't place. These young men found stuff I had recorded and, man, I'm grateful. They're about one of the only...most record companies, they figure you can make yours on the road. They come in as thieves toward the artists. They figure, “You got chicks, you're signing your autograph, you're lucky, people clappin' for you. You're traveling on the road, making money. We're a poor little old record company sitting on our ass doing nothing...” With a pencil, learning how to fuck people. Elton John, I saw him in a documentary – I love Elton John, love his music, he's different. He said he wasn't ever gonna make any more records. They said “Why mister John?” “I don’t like record companies.” I said, damn that's a good idea Elton. He said “I'll go and sing, cuz I don't feel like forming a company of my own, I’ll go sing and do concerts and meet the people. I love the fans, I don’t like record companies.” He was huge, he was big and he didn't like the record companies. But I don't consider [Numero] as an old time record company, they’re historians. They love the old stuff, it's in the hearts.
Numero isn't a drug dealing type of record label?
They've been after me since 2005. Meanwhile, I was in court, fighting for the rights to my masters, which I deserved. I started my label out as Twilight. Somebody swindled me, changed the name, it's like the “The Twilight Zone.” [Laughter] It was being switched...I just want to say that I really don't have to travel now if I don't want to. But I want to travel now, because I want to promote my legacy, they got ideas [Numero] and I’m gonna work with them and travel.