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Back in the Game

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 . . .

"King, they changed my name to Johnson. They said 'Thompson' wasn't a proper name for a Negro. Can you believe that? I went home and showed my mother the record, and said, 'Look, Mama--that's my entertainment name!'"

Johnson toiled at King and a handful of small labels for the next eight years without a hit. He finally broke through in 1967 with the hard soul of "Come On Sock It to Me." "The most exciting night of my career," he recalls, "was when I was driving a truck for United Parcel and 'Sock It to Me' hit No. 1 on [Chicago radio station] WVON--that was the biggest radio station in the world then. I had my little transistor with me, and when they said, 'Number One, One, One!' I said, 'This is it!'"

The song soared on the R&B charts, making Johnson a local hero and, suddenly, a performer in demand on the black-nightclub circuit. It ultimately sold two and a half million copies, he claims, although he was paid just $3,500. His follow-up, "Different Strokes," did almost as well at the time; it would have a second life when rappers discovered and sampled it in the '90s.

After several more Chicago sessions, yielding the powerful R&B hit "Is It Because I'm Black," Johnson signed to the Hi label in Memphis, where he would spend the better part of the '70s. Hi producer Willie Mitchell was assembling a stable of R&B talent that included Al Green and Otis Clay, crafting a silky black pop style that proved to be soul's last stand. Johnson, with his urban edge, blues background and high register--his voice has an eerie, embedded sob--was Mitchell's perfect foil.

The Chicago singer racked up an impressive body of work in Memphis, including "Back for a Taste of Your Love" and his highest-charting hit, the Al Green-penned "Take Me to the River." The latter song, covered for a bigger hit by the Talking Heads, features Johnson's hard-blown harp and a baptismal fervor that carried him to No. 7 on the R&B charts. The period was amply documented last year on the Right Stuff/EMI set The Best of Syl Johnson: The Hi Record Years, and constitutes his best-known work for white audiences. Johnson, however, is less than sanguine about the Hi life.

"Mistake, mistake," he says. "For one thing, the band wasn't as good as my band. And they all had their eyes on Al Green. You know, jealousy and envy is the key to confusion; he was a star. He was a nice guy, but he didn't like some of the tracks that I made because they sounded too much like his tracks. . . . We played all these little places together, like Selma, Alabama, and Shreveport, Louisiana. You couldn't put [Green] in a club, it was like a basketball game. I had never seen that many black people in one place in my life--there's never been no singer in the history of the world who sold as many records to black people as Al Green. It was lightning and thunder. It'd take 15 to 20 policemen just to keep people off the stage . . .

"After a few years, I didn't like it so much. I finally scored a press party--this was in 1975, I had my album [Total Explosion] coming out--and this was gonna be just for me and the Detroit Wheels. They put me up at a hotel, flew my whole family in--it was gonna be great. Then Willie Mitchell comes to my room and says, 'Would you mind if Al used your band?'

"I said, 'No, why?'
"He said, 'Well, he's just gonna do a few songs tonight . . .'
"I said, 'No! He cannot!' But he came in and he dominated it. It was almost like his press party. Then they came in with the art for my album, with my head on this dynamite, and it was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen in my life. 'This is a piece of shit!' I said. I threw it out the window." The art, however, dynamite head and all, was used for Total Explosion.  

Johnson was back in Chicago by the early '80s. He rallied briefly with "Ms. Fine Brown Frame," a 1983 marriage of disco and blues that recalled the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" (not altogether a coincidence, since Chicago harpist Sugar Blue played hard on both songs). The single was graced, if that is the word, by a sleeve shot of a swimsuited black woman on her hands and knees and the legend "Erect Records." Johnson actually issued "Frame" on his own Shama label and then sold it to Boardwalk, a company which went belly up moments later. For whatever reason, the single and album of the same name stiffed. That's when he took a long look at the music business, and thought: fish.

"I was the first black man to own a building, a storefront business, downtown in the Chicago Loop," he says. "I was the second black man in the country to have a franchise business. We had Solomon's Fishery in Chicago, Indiana, and one in Atlanta that got burned down when the Rodney King verdict came through."

Johnson says he hated rap music in the late 1980s, but his attitude changed when he heard "Different Strokes" being sampled. "Because, what does it tell me?" he says. "'Okay, Pops, your music was great, we got to take it into the year 2000'--even if I die tomorrow. Rap music is great. Young white kids love it, and they're using all the old music again."

In 1993, Johnson returned to the recording studio, using the Hodges Brothers and his daughter, Syleena Thompson, to cover some old Hi ground. The resulting album, Back in the Game (Delmark), was a surprisingly solid, soulful collection. On most of the cuts, Johnson sounds like a man who hasn't been away for more than a week--his voice is still high, burred and supple.

"I'm even better now," he says. "I know how to do it better: I get my rest, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I don't chase women, and I don't chase men. . . . My soul is coming out much better now, because there's no pressure no more. I've got to have money, but I've got the rap stuff and I'm not looking to make a killing."

There's a Zen message in all of this, perhaps: Now, when Johnson has ostensibly renounced striving, there's a flurry of activity around him the likes of which he hasn't seen in more than two decades. He recently played the opening night of the Chicago branch of the nightclub chain House of Blues. On the just-released tribute album Songs of Janis Joplin: Blues Down Deep (House of Blues), he covers Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee." And on the forthcoming Blues Brothers album, he joins Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd with his new composition "Groove With Me Tonight."

"I'm playing for whites," he says. "I never played for them that much before; it was always the chitlin' circuit. It's like, if you got a 1965 Buick and the car's sitting in the garage, and an old guy just drives it now and then to loosen it up--that car is better than a 1997 Buick. The metal was harder, if it's been maintained.

"My father used to have these hunting dogs; he'd tie 'em up for two days before he went hunting, and they'd be full of fire. I'm that hunting dog. Don't you ever think I didn't have it hard. I lost everything, but--I say this to my ex-wife--how do you like me now? I got a new life."

Syl Johnson is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, May 14, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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