Back in the Game

Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson is reborn with a little help from the homeboys

There are a lot of good and even excellent blues guitarists, but players of the subtlest instrument, soul-blues singers, are an increasingly rare treat. That's why Chicago singer Syl Johnson's pending gig at the Rhythm Room is the kind of show rabid Japanese fans would sell their limbs to see. A walking soul encyclopedia, Johnson, by his own account, taught the blues to Magic Sam; was sideman to John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed; was a million-selling R&B artist, chitlin'-circuit star, Memphis labelmate to Al Green, inspiration for the Talking Heads; and, most recently, was the old-schooler most sampled by rappers Hammer, N.W.A, Tone-Loc, KRS-One, the Geto Boys, TLC, and Wu-Tang Clan.

With tributes and royalties rolling in, the world was looking like a big inflatable toy when Johnson spoke from his home in Chicago last week. But it didn't take much prompting for him to recall where the bottom was and how recently he'd seen it. Four years ago he thought he'd left music behind for good, he says--or rather, it had dumped him: "My type of singing went sour. Disco came in, and rap came in, and I could see over the horizon." So Johnson regrouped. He bought a former Church's Fried Chicken outlet, he says, and before he knew it, he had five Solomon's Fishery restaurants. He was making money again, and he was even appearing at blues shows--as a concessionaire. "I was doing the fish at the Chicago Blues Fest and, man, when B.B. King was out there, I was makin' so much money I couldn't hardly carry it away."

That's when the double whammy hit: In 1992, the year of the Great Chicago Flood, Johnson's wife divorced him while his business lay in soggy ruins. "It made me want to get back in the [music] business, because I had the blues so bad," he says. "I got put out with a bed and a TV, that's all; she took everything--the antiques, the Mercedes, the house. So I was walking through a flea market one day when my oldest daughter, Sylette, beeped me. I found a phone and called her, and she said, 'Daddy! They got your stuff, they got your music!'

"I said, 'Hold on, who's got my music?' . . . Turned out it was this young lady named Boss, about 22 years old, she had this thing called 'Gangsta Groove' and she was sampling my stuff. I'd never heard of her, but my daughter said, 'She's hot! She's cool!' . . . And then I got a check from Sony for $6,000--for an old tune from 1967!"

It was, by a conservative count, the fifth act in the journeyman-singer-cum-entrepreneur's career. Johnson, 60, was born Sylvester Thompson near Holly Springs, Mississippi (also home to Fat Possum bluesman Junior Kimbrough, whom Johnson says he's never heard of), and grew up playing guitar along with whatever he heard on Memphis' WDIA, the first radio station in the country to feature an all-black format. He followed his father to Chicago when he was 12, where he promptly ran into little Sam Maghett, the boy who, as Magic Sam, would become the king of West Side soul.

"I saw him sitting on a porch playing guitar," Johnson recalls. "He couldn't play nothin', he was playing like some ragtime or something. I said, 'Let me show you how to do that.' I tuned up the guitar for him, then I showed him how to play 'Smokestack Lightning.' He said, 'Man!'"

Thompson found work as a session guitarist in Chicago, strumming behind Junior Wells, Billy Boy Arnold, Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed. He hadn't thought of himself as a singer, he says, until one day in 1959 when he was on a Jimmy Reed date at Chicago's Universal Studios and Reed took a long break. "They had the pots open and I started singing, just fooling around, you know, and [Vee-Jay label co-owner] Vivian Carter heard me. This guy there said, 'Hey, she wants you to sing.'

"I said, 'Man, I can't sing. What should I do?'
"They said, 'Make a dub.'
"I made an acetate recording of this song I wrote, 'Teardrops,' and I was supposed to go to Vee-Jay with it. I was going on the bus there a few days later, and it stopped a couple of blocks away, so I was walking with my dub and I saw King Records. And I said, 'Well, let me just stop in here.' [Producer] Ralph Bass was standing at this counter in front. I said, 'Hey, I got a dub.'

"He said, 'Lemme listen to it.' Then he came back and said, 'I like it!'
"I said, 'Okay, good. I gotta go to Vee-Jay now.'
"So he called his boss and came back and said, 'No, we want you here.'
"I said, 'Give me back my dub.'

"He said, 'No, you don't need it back, just come back on Wednesday and we're going to have your music all worked out for you.'

"Oh, man! I was nervous. I recorded 'Teardrops.' You know, I still get residuals on that thing. It plays in the background on [the TV show] Crime Story, and I guess that's on in Europe now. At the time, it sold about five copies, I think--to my oldest sister, my dad, my cousin . . .

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