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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The R&B singer Syl Johnson once described himself as more soul than Marvin, more funk than James. But unlike Marvin Gaye or James Brown, Syl Johnson never enjoyed huge success. Now, a new box set compiles over 80 of his songs from the late '50s through early '70s. It's called "Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology." Oliver Wang has this review.

OLIVER WANG: Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson, but he used to tell folks he changed his name to honor his, quote, real father, blues legend Robert Johnson. It was really a record label that renamed him, but when you first heard the emotional intensity of Johnson's quavering tenor, it's easy enough to believe the fiction.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SYL JOHNSON (Musician): (Singing) I used to be so happy until I fell for you. Now I'm full of misery, all misery and blue.

WANG: Johnson was born in Mississippi, but his family joined the post-war Great Migration of African-Americans to the North, ending up in Chicago. It was there that Johnson began playing guitar behind such blues artists as Elmore James and Jimmy Reed before beginning his solo career in the late 1950s.

However, in his first eight years, none of Johnson's nearly two dozen songs managed to hit, and by the mid-'60s, he had taken on a day job, driving trucks for UPS. Then, one day in 1967, he heard one of his songs on the radio and quickly retired the brown uniform.

(Soundbite of song, "Come On, Sock It To Me")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Sock it to me. Rock it to me. Mop it to me. Sock it to me, baby.

WANG: "Come On, Sock It To Me" was soon followed by an even bigger hit, "Different Strokes," and both fueled the new imprint Johnson helped co-found, Twilight Records.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Baby, you laughing, but I'll be around for a while, yeah, yeah, yeah.

WANG: Twilight was renamed Twinight, and Johnson was the label's biggest asset as artist, songwriter and producer. In 1969, his mood still dark over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he wrote what would become the label's highest charter, a searing indictment of racism in America, "Is It Because I'm Black?"

(Soundbite of song, "Is It Because I'm Black?")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew, wondering why my dreams never came true, is it because I'm black? Somebody tell me: What can I do? Oh, lord.

WANG: The full-length LP of the same name was a stunning post-civil-rights concept album released a full year ahead of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" However, despite the single's success, the album faltered, and Johnson soon parted ways with Twinight.

This is where the new box set more or less ends but not Johnson's career.

(Soundbite of music)

WANG: His third act began in 1971, when he headed south to Memphis and signed with Willie Mitchell's famed Hi Records.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) You remember the last time you threatened to leave me, girl. I got down on knees and begged you not to go. Now here you come, threatening me again, girl. But I ain't gonna plead no more.

WANG: It should have been an ideal match, pairing the sublime soul chops of the Hi Rhythm Section with Johnson's powerful voice, but the singer's decade-long tenure at Hi turned out to be a mixed bag.

On the one hand, Johnson's recordings, alongside those by Ann Peebles and Al Green, marked Hi's golden era. However, despite being 10 years senior, Johnson found himself in the shadow of Green, Hi's marquee star. Even Johnson's gritty, ragged singing style began to take cues from the smooth falsetto croons of his junior rival.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Could I be falling in love with you? Could I be falling in love with you?

WANG: By the 1980s, Johnson's career fell into a seemingly permanent recession. But then, a younger generation of fans took charge and sampled his songs to make hits of their own.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WANG: Sampling royalties helped Johnson get back to recording. His last album, "Two Johnsons Are Better Than One," was a duet project with his daughter released in 2001.

With this new box set out, it's tempting to think that another wave of rediscovery might coax Johnson back into the studio. If there's one thing his long career has proven, it's that you can never count out Syl Johnson's persistence in adding new chapters to his own mythology.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible). I've got a whole lot of love waiting for you, honey.

BLOCK: Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, runs the blog Soul-Sides.com. You can listen to more Syl Johnson songs at nprmusic.org.

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