All Hail Syl Johnson

Longtime Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson’s been getting a lot of attention the past month, thanks to the Numero Group’s release of the wonderful six-LP and four-CD box set Complete Mythology. If you haven’t read or heard any of the press coverage, it’s all well worth your time. Johnson also put on a terrific show last Saturday (Nov. 27) at the Old Town School of Folk Music. More on that in a minute.

One impression you get from reading about Johnson is how challenging of an interview he can be, given his tendency to quickly jump from one subject to another. Peter Margasak described this particularly well in his Chicago Reader cover story, “The Real Syl”. And the Chicago Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra captures this bizarre quote from Johnson as he ostensibly answers a question about his classic (or should-be-classic) tune, “Is It Because I’m Black”:

“I was saying a woman doesn’t make as much as a man if they’re on the same job. The man don’t mean no harm. In fact, the holy Quran says man is a step above the woman. That’s true — in some spots. To make a long story short, I had squirrels in my eaves. I had to go out to Addison to get a squirrel trap. I glued the nuts in there. They’re very smart animals. But I got ’em. And every last one was a male. Isn’t that incredible?”

Um… OK.

Yesterday, The New York Times jumped onto the Syl Johnson bandwagon with another story. Echoing the other journalists, Ben Sisario noted: “In conversation, Mr. Johnson is as tricky to follow as the twists in his career. Alternately shouting and cooing into the phone, he made bold declarations like “I am a multifaceted genius” and told long stories about the old record business that ended with his victimization at the hands of ineffective promo men. He sang snippets from his songs and blew bluesy harmonica melodies.”

The Numero Group posted a transcript Sisario sent the record label of the first part of his phone conversation with Johnson:

Syl (picking up the phone, semi-shouting): “….now what’s the problem?”
Me: Uh, hi, is this Syl Johnson?
“Yeah, this is he.”
This is Ben Sisario from the New York Times.
(shouting) “Who is this?”
My name is Ben Sisario. I’m calling from the New York Times.
“Oh yeah! I’ve been looking for your call. How do you spell it?”
“What’s the first name?”
Yes, sir.
“Like Ben….?” [I think he was starting to sing the Michael Jackson song, but at the time I didn’t catch that.]
Like Benjamin Franklin.
(laughs) Oh wow—that’s on the what, dollar bill and shit? Who on the dollar? George Washington. Benjamin Franklin on the what? Ten?
He’s on the hundred.
Oh! That’s the shit I like, the hundred! (laughs)
How are you?
“I’m cool and the gang, man.”

Now, getting back to the concert Johnson performed last week at the Old Town School. The evening had a celebratory feeling, as Johnson was finally getting more widespread recognition for the great music he’d recorded years ago after spending a long time in relative obscurity. The set included some of the tracks that the Numero Group dug up for the box set — songs that Johnson barely remembered recording and had apparently never performed live. “I’ve never heard this before in my life, I swear,” he said before one song.

Otis Clay sang a bit with the 14-piece band, and Gene Chandler of “Duke of Earl” fame made a surprise appearance, but Johnson was the center of attention almost all night, dressed in a sharp red suit and showing few signs of age in his vocals as he sang great numbers like “Is It Because I’m Black?” and “Take Me to the River.” The band, especially the horn section, did not seem completely rehearsed, having some trouble early on knowing exactly when to end a song, but that just added to the loose, jam-session vibe of the music. It was a little odd, however, when the horn section packed up before the encore, prompting Johnson to exclaim, “Shit, I ain’t got no band with me!”

Based on what I’d read about Johnson, I expected he would probably deliver a speech of some sort during the show — and he more than fulfilled that expectation with a long statement before the final song. He complained about not getting royalties from the old records he’d made for the Twilight and Twinight labels and going to court to get money for the samples of his music that turned up in numerous hip-hop tracks.

“It took me 40 years to get my shit back,” he said. His advice to other musicians? “Cut a deal with a record company, but not your knees, because you will get fucked.” But when it came to the Numero Group, he had nothing but praise. “They’re and they’re straight,” he said. “I never got a penny until this Numero Group. … They’re the first people after 40 years to give me a royalty check for fucking Twilight-Twinight Records.”

The band finally had to nudge Johnson to play one more song, and he closed the night with “Sock It to Me.” What a memorable night it was.

The Numero Group has posted links to even more Syl Johnson press coverage here. Here’s Greg Kot’s interview in the Chicago Tribune. And here’s Alison Cuddy’s interview with Johnson (including an in-studio musical performance) for WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight show: Part 1 and Part 2.

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