“When I started singing ‘Is It Because I’m Black,’ the girls stopped pulling after me! When I was singing ‘Different Strokes,’ you had to pull ’em off the stage, the police had to hold them off the stage. When it was ‘Is It Because I’m Black,’ that all stopped. But guess who the biggest fans of that song is now? Whites. It was like one tenth of one percent at the time, but now it’s all whites. They’re very, very responsive to it now. And they bought the hell out of that $90 box set!”
~ Syl Johnson, Village Voice, December 2010
Syl Johnson’s story follows the long and winding road-map of a select few mid-20th century black musicians. It is a story of seemingly thankless struggles — decades-worth — for a chitlin’ circuit market only to be coda’d by a post-retirement burst in popularity among the credit card-wielding middle class. Most never make it to this point. Even among the persistent few who do, how many would actually endure such a Sisyphusian life? Yet Johnson is one of those elusive aces.
Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1936. His family joined the Great Migration and settled in Chicago. He became a singer, songwriter and musician who performed through decades of the Black American music canon: from blues to rhythm & blues to soul to funk. He always kept good company, backing blues legends like Junior Wells and Elmore James and later signed to Al Green-era Hi Records. He had a handful of regional hits, like 1967’s “Come On Sock It To Me.” The aforementioned 1969 song and album Is It Because I’m Black? raised eyebrows among the Civil Rights-minded. But that was it. Johnson recorded into the early ’80s before calling it quits. He never became a music star, but he had enough business acumen to enter the restaurant and/or real estate business (depending on which account you read).
And then hip-hop happened. Herein lies the unique twist in Johnson’s story. In the early ’90s Johnson caught wind of rap songs sampling his 1967 record “Different Strokes,” specifically the opening drum break and the now ubiquitous grunt (“Huh!”). Johnson pursued compensation with a vigor and with great success — turns out “Different Strokes” is one of the more sampled records. The range of artists isn’t as important as knowing the ones with the highest net worth: TLC, Kid Rock, um, Michael Jackson…? Understandably, Johnson now jokes about living “in the house that Wu-Tang built with their money.”
Which brings us to the present and the box set you should have in your hands. The product of four years of calling, convincing, conversatin’ and collecting, reissue company Numero has compiled a comprehensive chronology of Johnson’s first act from 1959 to 1971 (topped off with a pinch of 1976 to 1977). According to the label, Johnson has released 60 seven-inches, 28 of which are found here in addition to material from his LPs and a handful of bonus material. The cream of Johnson’s five-decade-plus career is finally available — albeit to an audience several generations and income brackets off.
Much of the material mirrors the times: cheery (“They Who Love” and “I’ve Got Love”) and droopy (“Lonely Man”) blues; loose rhythm & blues (“Little Sally Walker”); even some swaying (“I’m Looking For My Baby”) and Spector-style pop (“Falling in Love Again”). The meat of the compilation features the sounds of soul music and rest assured there are go-go bangers (“Straight Love No Chaser” and “Send Me Some Lovin'”) and lesser-heard goodies, like the lush Donny Hathaway-produced “Kiss By Kiss” and a funky cover of “Get Ready.” The entire Is It Because I’m Black? LP is included in its entirety. Sandwiched between Johnson’s comparatively lighthearted discography, the album’s raw emotion stands out as a brief but necessary pressure valve. However, Johnson’s voice is a centerpiece alone — don’t think his grunt and strained wail on “Different Strokes” are a one-night affair. His screech and pleas throughout “I Resign From Your Love,” the showstopping “I Wanna Know” and the two-steppin’ “Sockin’ Soul Power” are just a few of the highlights.
The points of Johnson’s story that are missing from Complete Mythology are his Hi Records years and the everything since the late ’70s. Numero stated because there is sufficient documentation of his Hi output, there was no need to include it. That said, the included period makes up the body of Johnson’s long way to the middle class. Make sure to toast him with a microbrew for staying on his grind after all these years.