The enduring soul of Syl Johnson

by Ryan Snyder

Syl Johnson will headline the Eccentric Soul Revue this Saturday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham with the Notations, Renaldo Domino and the Sweet Divines.

I´m not old, I’m original. I’m not old, I’m modern.” To hear Syl Johnson tell it, the sound he was creating in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the only sound. It was good. He knew it then and still does, that’s why he hasn’t changed a thing about it. Despite a recording career that took him to prominent singles-era studios in Detroit, Memphis and Chicago, that one big pop hit had nonetheless eluded him, even if the songs were worthy. Johnson was among the first to directly confront the black experience through popular music. 1969’s “Is It Because I’m Black?” went on to reach No. 11 on the Billboard singles chart that year as his biggest hit, and he could write the sweet soul ballads with as easily as he could the redlining funk melees. He could howl like James Brown and croon like labelmate Al Green, but unlike the legends of funk and soul, the world never knew Johnson quite the same way.

That is until hip hop resurrected Johnson after institutional memory of his body of work had practically faded by the mid 1980s. Now, to know hip hop is to know Syl Johnson. Samples of his music can be heard everywhere from Eric B. & Rakim to Jay-Z and Kanye West. The wicked outro riff to his minor hit “Different Strokes” formed the foundation to Wu Tang Clan’s classic “Shame On A Ni**a” and literally dozens of other hip-hop staples.  Sampling royalties have paid him more than he could’ve dreamed when he was actually making the music. Some artists he says — Wu Tang, Kid Rock, MC Hammer, En Vogue, the Geto Boys — were forthright in their clearances. Johnson built a house with what he made from Kid Rock. Others have been costly legal struggles. He’s still waiting to get paid from Cypress Hill, and recently Jay-Z and Kanye West have been accused of misrepresenting a sample on the Watch the Throne track “The Joy.” Johnson said he was surprised at the oversight, particularly since West has worked with his daughter Syleena, but believes the matter will ultimately be resolved amicably.

“I don’t think they want to go all the way to court. I hate to have to sue them, but they ain’t paying me. I’m not upset with them personally,” Johnson said. “I’m upset because they didn’t recognize they have to pay for my music. Most everybody else does. They didn’t play no games.”

Yet, when it comes to the question of the legacy of the Mississippi-born guitarist, singer and producer, it is still best answered directly via the title of his anthology released last year by Chicago label Numero Group. The Complete Mythology summarizes all of the ‘60s for Johnson; it includes six LPs, many of which were fabricated because almost all of the music was put out as singles, or even not at all. To hear Johnson tell it, he was almost shocked to see some of the music on it.

“It surprised the sh*t outta me. I don’t even know about 20 of the songs. I had a hell of a band back in the day, right, and we’d be in and out of the studio. Some of them never got released.” Johnson said. “During some shows in Australia in ‘09, they wrote the lyrics out for me. Then I got flustered and threw the lyrics on the floor.”

That’s another aspect of Johnson’s personality. Even at 75, he’s a fiery, proud son of a gun, and that bluster has always come through in his sound. Before even being asked a question during a recent interview, Johnson was crowing about his collection of Gibson guitars. There’s a Les Paul Custom, a VS 336, a 1960 ES 335.

“Guess which one is worth the most?,” he said. Of course it’s the ES 335, but fat chance of him bringing it on a plane for a show. “Hell naw, I ain’t putting that thing on a plane. Can’t do it.”

When he comes to the Carolina Theatre of Durham as part of the Eccentric Soul Revue this Saturday he’ll be playing the slimmed- down ES 336 for a crowd that will almost assuredly be white kids born after Johnson’s heyday. It’s hip-hop as much as the soul revival that’s brought him that audience, and Johnson said he simply wants to be the purveyor of the sound he held onto for this long.

“I ain’t trying to be a big star, but I’m just trying to give the culture of my day to the young people,” Johnson said. I tell ‘em about it. This song was sampled by such and such and do the song like it go. Young people know man. They say, ‘okay pops, you did some good shit.’”