The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson Al Green wrote "Take Me to the River," but it was his labelmate Syl Johnson who first made it famous. Rock historian Ed Ward traces Johnson's early career, which started in Chicago blues clubs in the 1950s.
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The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson

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The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson


Music Reviews

The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson

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The new Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration, "Watch The Throne," has a track that samples the song "Different Strokes" by soul singer Syl Johnson. But Johnson says the sample was not authorized by him. You can hear a lot more of Johnson's music on a career-spanning collection of his work called "The Complete Mythology." Rock historian Ed Ward looks at Johnson's career, which dates back to the blues clubs of 1950s Chicago.

(Soundbite of song "I've Got To Find My Baby")

Mr. SYL JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) Got to find my baby, I wonder where did she go. Trying to find my baby, I wonder where did she go. Yes, when I find my baby, I won't be blue no more. I wake up every morning...

ED WARD: Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson near Lamar, Mississippi in 1936, the sixth child of a harmonica-playing farmer and his wife. When Sylvester was almost 10, his father migrated to Chicago, where he found work, and he sent for his wife and kids one by one.

Sylvester and his brother Mack arrived in 1950, and almost before they were in the house, discovered their 13-year-old next-door neighbor sitting on his porch playing a guitar.

The kid was Sam Maghett, later known as Magic Sam, and he was amazed at how well this new kid played guitar. Soon, Mack, Sam and Syl had a little band. Sam's uncle, Shakey Jake Harris, an established player on the Chicago blues scene, grabbed Syl for his band in 1955, and soon Syl was in demand as a studio guitarist.

One day, at a session for Vee-Jay Records, Calvin Carter, whose sister co-owned the label, heard Syl singing and said he'd like to make a record with him. Syl went home and wrote a couple of songs, then stopped by a record-your-voice machine to make a little demo.

Then he got on the bus and was walking from the bus stop to Vee-Jay to remind them of their promise. Halfway there, he saw the King Records office, and decided to go in there instead.

(Soundbite of song "Teardrops")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Teardrops, teardrops. I used to be so happy until I fell for you. Now I'm full of misery, full of misery and blue. Teardrops, teardrops since I've fallen for you. Why do you treat me this way?

WARD: Ralph Bass, who oversaw King's Chicago operation, took the homemade record into his office, played it a couple of times while Syl waited in the lobby, made a phone call to the home office in Cincinnati, and came back and told Syl he had a deal.

The label boss, Syd Nathan, didn't like the name Sylvester Thompson, so he changed it to Syl Johnson. Syl signed to King's subsidiary Federal, where he cut 14 sides between 1959 and 1962 that were very much in the style of Federal's big star, Freddie King.

The later ones sounded more like the music that was big in Chicago's West Side clubs where Syl played, music halfway between blues and soul. Chicago in those days was a jungle of tiny record labels, and Syl recorded for a number of them. If these records had sounded better, he might have had hits.

(Soundbite of song "Falling in Love Again")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) When I'm with you, I feel so fine, yeah. When you're away, I'm lonely all of the time, yeah. But you've got something that I just can't explain, maybe I'm falling in love again. I think I'm falling in love again.

WARD: "Falling in Love Again" paired him with Barry Goldberg, who ran with the University of Chicago blues crowd, which also included Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites. But the tiny TMP-Ting label it was on didn't have a chance. It wasn't until 1967 that Syl ever saw the charts.

(Soundbite of song "Different Strokes")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Baby, you're laughing, but I'll be around for a while, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can't you dig it, honey, by watching my style now, all right, oh yeah, so many ways..

WARD: "Different Strokes" made the Top 20 soul charts and grazed the bottom of the pop charts in 1967, but it would turn out to be the most important record he'd ever made. It was on Twilight, a label he partially owned, although it soon changed its name to Twi-night for some reason. Syl spent 1967 and 1968 looking for another hit and got one after some recording in Memphis.

(Soundbite of song "Dresses Too Short")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) I said baby, you're wearing your dresses too short. Baby, baby, baby, you're wearing your dresses too short, yeah. Just because I whistle at you, you said that I'm doing you wrong. Why do you blame me, baby? I didn't tell you to put it on. You're looking good, you're looking so good now. And if you sock it to me, rock it to me one more time, I can't stand it, I'm going out of my mind. I said baby...

WARD: "Dresses Too Short" was the product of a growing friendship with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell and was recorded with the same band that would make Al Green famous, but Syl still wasn't making enough to justify moving, and in 1969, in Chicago, he created his first masterpiece.

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

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) The dark brown shades of my skin only add color to my tears, oh, oh. That splash against my hollow bones, that rocks my soul. 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. Oh, something is holding me back, uh-huh. Is it because I'm black? Yeah...

WARD: "Is It Because I'm Black" is reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," although it's more conventionally played, and the album version, over seven minutes long, is a landmark. The song sold too, but the album didn't, despite its amazing version of The Beatles' "Come Together" and several more socially conscious tracks.

It was about this time that Willie Mitchell snapped Syl up, and he spent the '70s making hits for him on the Hi label. When that was over, Syl returned to the Chicago clubs. He'd done OK, but he was about to become rich. With the coming of hip-hop, someone discovered the first six seconds of "Different Strokes."

(Soundbite of song "Different Strokes")

WARD: It's been sampled legally more than 50 times and Syl's gotten paid each time.

GROSS: Ed Ward's new e-book is called "The Bar at the End of the Regime." You can download podcasts of our show at Our thanks to Maria Yagoda for research assistance. I'm Terry Gross.

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