Syl Johnson, soul singer with a cult following, dies at 85

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Syl Johnson, soul singer with a cult following, dies at 85
The singer and guitarist Syl Johnson at his home in Chicago on Nov. 30, 2010, the year an exhaustively researched boxed set introduced his work to a new generation. Johnson, a Chicago soul singer and guitarist who built a cult following for his raw sound on 1960s songs like “Is It Because I’m Black” and, decades later, was heavily sampled by rappers, died on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022, in Mableton, Ga., at the home of one of his daughters. He was 85. The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Syleecia Thompson said. Marc PoKempner/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK, NY.- Syl Johnson, a Chicago soul singer and guitarist who built a cult following for his raw sound on 1960s songs like “Is It Because I’m Black” and, decades later, was heavily sampled by rappers, died Sunday in Mableton, Georgia, at the home of one of his daughters. He was 85.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Syleecia Thompson said.

Although never a chart-topping star, Johnson was beloved by record collectors and hip-hop producers for the driving power of his songs, and for a versatile vocal style that could match James Brown’s grunting gusto or Al Green’s lovelorn keening. He released dozens of singles and albums on an array of record labels across five decades, and he enjoyed a career revival in his 70s after an exhaustively researched boxed set, “Complete Mythology” (2010), introduced his work to a new generation.

Johnson was also one of soul music’s most brazen and entertaining raconteurs, entrancing fans and journalists with his braggadocio and his tales of the music business’s underside. He proclaimed himself a “multifaceted genius” and compared himself favorably to giants of the genre like Brown, Green and Marvin Gaye.

When Johnson’s performing career began slowing down in the 1980s, he opened a seafood restaurant in Chicago, invested in real estate and found a lucrative side business seeking out his royalties. Grooves and stray growls from tracks like “Different Strokes” (1967) and “Is It Because I’m Black” (1969) had become go-to samples in hip-hop, used hundreds of times by artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Whodini, Public Enemy, Kid Rock and N.W.A; even Michael Jackson used some of Johnson’s music.

For help hunting down unauthorized samples, Johnson enlisted his children and their friends.

“He would tell people in the neighborhood, ‘If you find any rapper who has sampled my music, I will pay you,’” Thompson told The New York Times in 2010. “And so all the kids, we would go buy cassettes and listen to see if we could hear his ‘wow!’ and his ‘aw!’”

Johnson went after those royalties, sometimes through litigation. In recent years, his targets have included Jay-Z and Kanye West, who settled a case with Johnson in 2012.

“I’m sitting in the house that Wu-Tang built with their money,” Johnson told the Times.

He was born Sylvester Thompson on July 1, 1936, near Holly Springs, Mississippi, the sixth child of Samuel and Erlie Thompson, who farmed cotton and corn. Samuel Thompson sang at a local church and played the harmonica, and Sylvester and his older brothers Jimmy and Mack all took up the guitar. By 1950, the family had moved to Chicago.

By the late 1950s, Sylvester was accompanying blues players like Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed, and in 1959 his first single, “Teardrops,” with echoes of R&B crooner Jackie Wilson, was released under the name Syl Johnson on the Federal label. His stage name was chosen by Syd Nathan, the impresario behind King Records, of which Federal was a subsidiary.

Johnson’s brothers also had extensive careers in music. Mack Thompson, a bassist and guitarist, died in 1991. Jimmy Johnson became a prominent blues guitarist in Chicago and died Jan. 31 at 93.

Syl Johnson released singles on a variety of labels throughout the 1960s, with limited success, before signing with Twilight Records in 1967. Songs he recorded for the label like “Come On Sock It to Me,” “Dresses Too Short” and “Different Strokes,” with their gritty funk grooves and powerful vocals, raised his profile. “Different Strokes” — whose frequently sampled opening features Johnson’s deep grunts alongside giggles from singer Minnie Riperton — reached No. 17 on Billboard’s R&B chart. (After learning that another label already owned that name, Twilight Records eventually re-christened itself Twinight.)

“Is It Because I’m Black,” written as a response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., added a note of bitter social commentary. “Something is holding me back,” he sang. “Is it because I’m Black?”

In 1971, Johnson signed to Hi Records in Memphis, Tennessee, Green’s home, where he worked with Willie Mitchell, the label’s house producer. Johnson’s time there — his output included a cover of Green’s “Take Me to the River” in 1975 — gave him perhaps his greatest exposure, although he later said he wished he had continued to record in Chicago.

He continued recording into the 2000s, including an album with his brother Jimmy called “Two Johnsons Are Better Than One.” But he had mostly retired from music when he was approached in 2006 by the Numero Group, a Chicago label known for its extensive research, about a reissue project. Distrustful of record companies, he rebuffed the company for nearly four years.

When he finally agreed, the label produced a six-LP, four-CD monolith with crisp historical photos and detailed liner notes. The boxed set cemented Johnson’s legacy and established Numero’s credentials as an authoritative outlet.

“There is no Numero without Syl Johnson,” said Ken Shipley, one of the founders of the label, which has continued to represent Johnson as the owner of his music publishing rights and most of his recordings.

In 2015, Johnson was the subject of a documentary, “Any Way the Wind Blows,” directed by Rob Hatch-Miller.

In addition to his daughter Syleecia, Johnson’s survivors include three other daughters, Sylette DeBois, Syleena Johnson and Michelle Thompson; a son, Anthony Thompson; two sisters, Vivian and Marva Thompson; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Johnson could be bitter in recounting his experiences with the music industry, but in later years he often expressed gratitude for being given another chance to make his mark.

“Back in the day I didn’t get the proper chance, like a lot of people,” he told the Times after “Complete Mythology” came out.

“But I didn’t drop out of my dreams,” he added, “and now these people went back and picked it up and said, ‘This is gold right here, man, you missed the gold.’ And I think that once you check it out, you’ll like it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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