In honour of Syl Johnson (July 1, 1936-February 7, 2022), who rose to prominence in the late ’60s with now-classic tracks like “Is It Because I’m Black?” and “Different Strokes,” both sampled by major rap & hip-hop artists, before recording for Hi Records, we revisit an in-person interview conducted by founder David Nathan and a live review of one of Syl’s first UK shows in 1975….

Syl Johnson: Truth Teller

By David Nathan

In person four-hour interview, London, February 1975

Almost inevitably, the one line of questioning that any interviewer takes with Syl Johnson involves Al Green, Willie Mitchell and Hi Records. Which is understandable if Syl’s most recent career is all that you’re concerned with and if you subscribe wrongly to the impression that Syl is bound to be second main man in respect of the company, then get ready for the changes. Any respected soul fan will know that Syl Johnson’s career goes back past his few years with the Memphis company to his days with Twinight Records, when he cut such masterpieces as “Is It Because I’m Black” (unquestionably a classic cut) and “Concrete Reservation” and beyond that to his days as a number one blues guitarist on “more sessions than I can even remember!”

What emerges from any conversation with this particularly warm young man (and we rapped for what was close on four hours — and not many interviewers accomplish that!) is that what we’re hearing of Syl Johnson on record at the moment does not necessarily represent what he is capable of or what he should be doing right now. “The problem is that we always record in the same studio, with the same musicians and Willie (Mitchell) is obviously gonna go after that same sound. On the very first session I did for Hi, “The Love You Left Behind” was what I’d call the ‘Syl Johnson’ sound. But subsequent things we’ve done have come off with that Al Green sound but let me stress that it’s not on my part. The rhythm tracks are mine, not Al Green’s and if the same sound is captured it’s not down to my vocals. The way Willie feels about it is that the singer’s job is to do just that: sing. Let the musicians do their thing, let the producer his, the promotion people do theirs. All the singer should do is sing. Well, sure, that works with some people and I’ve been willing to go along with it to some extent to see what would happen but I don’t feel right now that I’m being chanelled in the right direction. What I want and need to do is introduce new instruments, new sounds onto my records and get more say in what’s happening. I think when you hear the next Syl Johnson album, you’ll hear what I’m all about”.

And what Syl Johnson is all about is the truth. Maybe we should capitalize that — The Truth. Well, it makes sense if you think about it because any guy that could write anything as strong and to the point as “Is It Because I’m Black” is reaching right to the core of what’s going on. And Syl was saying then, but a few years back, what was and still is happening. And he’s still aware. In fact, we saw the lyrics to a song he’s just written and it’s the kind of song that has a universal meaning. It relates to the problems of money (and there ain’t much left of it these days, folks!) and welfare and just tells it like it is. “Maybe I should cut “Is It Because I’m Black” all over and add some of the other songs I’ve written in the same vein. Obviously people still want to hear about the truth.”

Syl is totally aware that there is far more than just blue skies and love songs to sing about and although he’s enjoyed some degree of success with his sides for Hi, he still wants to get more into today and today’s problems. “I feel that personally I should be doing better than I am. Something is obviously wrong and I think that coming over to Europe has opened my eyes a good deal. I mean, I didn’t know that people even knew about things like “Is It Because I’m Black” — I don’t include that in my act or anything. Obviously, there are gonna be some changes made for the future as far as I’m concerned.”

Syl’s background in the music business has given him a wealth of experience — some good, some not so good. “Yeah, I was cheated out of a lot of monies and so on for my earlier recordings. And I never bothered to try and get credit for the work I did on sessions with all kinds of people from way back in Chicago (Syl’s home town). I worked with nearly all the great blues guys whilst I was in my teens and I guess my early experiences working in bars and clubs has given me far greater insight into what’s happening. I mean, nightclubs and all that stuff don’t hold any fascination for me ‘cos I’ve seen it all before. I saw it when I was 13 and 14 and those were the times when it was ‘yessir’ and no Sir’. Don’t forget my very early childhood was spent in Mississippi and I’ve seen a lot of changes since then, believe me.” Over the years, Syl has worked as a producer on innumerable sessions and here again, credit has hardly been paid to him and his role as a producer has been almost unknown but those days of not getting what is due are well and truly over for the man.

He is determined to break completely away from the continuing comparison with Al Green and his sound since he feels that he is nothing like Al vocally speaking. “A lot of people have suggested that being down there at Hi hasn’t allowed me the kind of development I should have had. Well, I don’t know about that but I do know that some of my records — like “We Did It” — should have made some headway in respect of the pop charts and just never got there. It’s difficult to say who or what is to blame but I’m determined that the future will not be a reflection of the past. There are a whole lot of people out there who are really overrated and whose real talent and ability are far less than they’d like to adimit. But like I say, the truth will come out in the end — it always does — and I’m hoping that with some of the musical ideas I have now, I can start to get things really happening for me.”

Syl Johnson is obviously a gentleman whose full potential and ability have far from been recognised. He has determination to make sure that he makes it across and the warm feeling he generates both in person and on stage should ensure that his is a name that is going to be one that a lot of people will be talking about soon, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Syl Johnson – Live!  “Gulliver’s,” London, January 29th, 1975

Syl Johnson’s second appearance at this prestigious venue in less than a week was the direct result of public demand.  And far from being an ordinary, run-of-the-mill entertainer, Syl Johnson has his own thing and he knows how to use it. Inevitably, people draw comparisons with Al Green but the fact is that the Hi-written, Willie Mitchell-produced material is what Syl’s using so you can understand it. Vocally, Syl is a long way from Al Green and his voice has considerable depth and expression.

You get the feeling that the true quality of the man’s talent would be far apparent if he stuck to the ballads but with the limited time available to rehearse anything other than his Hi singles and one or two album tracks, we only got a taste of what the man can do when he performed a strong ballad entitled “Could I Be Falling In Love” (from his latest set, “Diamonds In The Rough”). Items such as “I Want To Take You Home,” “Back For A Taste Of Your Love”, “Baby I’m Yours” and “We Did It” are thus inevitably part of Syl’s act but the surprises come when he decides to give you a taste of the blues. This man is a fine guitarist and he offered a blues segment via “Sweet Sixteen” and “Baby, What You Want Me To Do” which drew excellent response from the usually ultra-cool audience.

Obviously, Chicago’s bluesmen had their influences on Syl but what you hear him do is very much his own. There can be little doubt that the inclusion of “Is It Because I’m Black” (his much-sought after classic) would have pleased many but now that he’s aware of the interest in that particular item, he hopes a future UK tour will allow him the opportunity to include it.