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Syl Johnson

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Syl Johnson

Syl Johnson
Syl Johnson at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 1997
Background information
Birth name Sylvester Thompson
Born (1936-07-01) July 1, 1936
Holly Springs, Mississippi, United States
Genres R&B, blues
Occupation(s) Musician, singer
Instruments Guitar, harmonica
Years active 1959–present
Associated acts Syleena Johnson
Jimmy Johnson

Syl Johnson (born July 1, 1936) is an American blues and soul singer and record producer.


Born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, Mississippi, United States, he migrated with his family to Chicago in 1950; blues guitarist Magic Sam was his next-door neighbor.[1] Johnson sang and played with blues artists Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf in the 1950s, before recording with Jimmy Reed for Vee-Jay in 1959. He made his solo debut that same year with Federal, a subsidiary of King Records of Cincinnati, backed by Freddie King on guitar.

He then began recording for Twinight Records of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Beginning with his first hit, "Come On Sock It to Me" in 1967, Johnson dominated the label as both a hitmaker and producer. His song "Different Strokes", also from 1967, featured on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats breakbeat compilation.

Like other black songwriters of the period, several of his records at this time explored themes of African-American identity and social problems as in songs including "Is It Because I'm Black", which reached Number 11 in the US Billboard R&B chart in 1969.

In 1971, Willie Mitchell brought Johnson to Hi Records, the two recording three albums which spawned a number of singles. Produced in Memphis with the Hi house band, these yielded the hits "We Did It", "Back for a Taste of Your Love" and "Take Me to the River", his biggest success, reaching Number 7 on the R&B chart in 1975. However, at Hi Records, Johnson was always to some extent in Al Green's shadow commercially, if not artistically. Mitchell also chose to use mainly in-house material rather than Johnson originals.

After the Hi years ended, Johnson produced two LPs for his own Shama label, the latter of which (Ms. Fine Brown Frame, 1982) was picked up for distribution by Boardwalk Records and produced Johnson's last hit record, the title cut.

Around the mid-1980s, Johnson started a fast-food fish restaurant business, and became semi-retired from performing, only making occasional appearances at blues club gigs.[2]

In 1992, Johnson found out that his song "Different Strokes" had been sampled by number of rappers including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap, Hammer, and the Geto Boys. Stimulated by this fact, he decided to make a comeback in the music industry.[2] In 1994, he released the album Back in the Game on Delmark Records. The album featured the Hi rhythm section and his youngest daughter Syleena Johnson.

Johnson has become one of the most sampled artists, largely from "Different Strokes" and "Is It Because I'm Black"; he feels passionately that taking music from an original artist without proper compensation constitutes theft[3] and has sued for copyright infringement.[4][5] Adding to Syl's famous family are his brothers, Blues guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson and bassist Mack Thompson.

Syl Johnson recently appeared on an episode of the TV One reality series R&B Divas: Atlanta, which starred his daughter Syleena Johnson. In the episode Syl is giving Syleena advice and words of encouragement before one of her live performances.



  1. Dresses Too Short
  2. I Can Take Care of Business
  3. Different Strokes
  4. Soul Drippin'
  5. Fox Hunting on the Weekend
  6. Ode to Soul Man
  7. Come On Sock It to Me
  8. I'll Take Those Skinny Legs
  9. Try Me #2
  10. Same Kind of Thing
  11. I've Got the Real Thing
  12. Sorry 'Bout Dat!
  • 1970: Is It Because I'm Black? (Twinight)
  1. It Is Because I'm Black
  2. Come Together
  3. Together, Forever
  4. Concrete Reservation
  5. Black Balloons
  6. Walk a Mile in My Shoes
  7. I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom
  8. Right On
  • 1973: Back for a Taste of Your Love (Hi)
  1. Feelin' Frisky
  2. Back for a Taste of Your Love
  3. I'm Yours
  4. I Let a Good Girl Go
  5. Anyway the Wind Blows
  6. You Don't Know Me
  7. We Did It
  8. Wind, Blow Her Back My Way
  9. I Hate I Walked Away
  10. The Love You Left Behind
  • 1974: Diamond in the Rough (Hi)
  1. Let Yourself Go
  2. Don't Do It
  3. I Want to Take You Home
  4. Could I Be Falling in Love
  5. Stuck in Chicago
  6. Diamond in the Rough
  7. Keeping Down Confusion
  8. Please, Don't Give Up on Me
  9. Music to My Ears
  10. I Hear The Love Chimes
  • 1975: Total Explosion (Hi)
  1. I Only Have Love
  2. Bustin' Up or Bustin' Out
  3. Star Bright Star Lite
  4. Whatch What You Do to Me
  5. Steppin' Out
  6. Take Me to the River
  7. It Ain't Easy
  8. 'Bout to Make Me Leave Home
  9. That's Just My Luck
  • 1979: Uptown Shakedown (Hi)
  1. Mystery Lady
  2. Let's Dance for Love
  3. Gimme Little Sign
  4. You're the Star of the Show
  5. Blue Water
  6. Who's Gonna Love You
  7. Otis Redding Medley
  8. Respect
  9. Wholesale Love
  10. Snatch a Little Piece
  11. I Can't Turn You Loose
  12. Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
  13. (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay
  • 1980: Bring Out the Blues in Me (Shama 8001)
  1. Brings Out the Blues in Me
  2. How You Need to Be Loved
  3. Last Night Was the Night
  4. Got My Eyes on You
  5. Liberated Lady
  6. Sock It to Me
  7. Is It Because I'm Black
  8. Crazy People
  • 1982: Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Boardwalk 33260)
  1. Ms. Fine Brown Frame
  2. Keep On Loving Me
  3. They Can't See Your Good Side
  4. Groove Me
  5. Sweet Thing
  6. You Don't Have to Go
  7. It Ain't Easy
  • 1983: Suicide Blues (Isabel 900.517)
  1. If I Had a Hammer
  2. This Little Light of Mine
  3. Amen
  4. Baby Workout
  5. Before You Accuse Me
  6. Take Me to the River
  7. The Blues in Me
  8. Sock It to Me
  9. Got to Make a Change
  10. Crazy Men
  • 1988: Foxy Brown, Volume 1, December 1988 (Shama 8003)
  1. Tripping on Your Love
  2. Love Baby
  3. Here We Go
  4. Gimme Some (I Want a Taste of Fonk)
  5. Do You Know What Love Is
  6. Foxy Brown
  7. They Can't See Your Good Side
  8. Ms. Fine Brown Frame
  • 1994: Back in the Game (Delmark)
  • 1995: This Time Together by Father and Daughter (Twinight) with Syleena Johnson
  1. Lover Man
  2. Sweet Love Hang Over
  3. Keep On Loving Me
  4. I Needed Some Body
  5. They Can't See Your Good Side
  6. A Time for Us
  7. Sister
  8. Ms. Fine Brown Frame
  9. I'm Woman
  10. Trippin
  11. Different Strokes
  12. Piece of the Rock
  13. Here We Go
  14. Goodie Goodie Good Times
  • 1995: Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's)
  1. Who's Still in Love
  2. I Been Missin' You
  3. Half a Love
  4. Unconditional Love
  5. Midnight Woman
  6. Piece of the Rock
  7. I Don't Know Why
  8. Let's Get It On Again
  9. They Can't See Your Good Side
  10. Sexy Wayz
  • 1999: Talkin' About Chicago (Delmark)
  1. Cheryl
  2. Sweet Dynamite!

3Talkin' Bout Chicago

  1. Diff'rent Strokes (B.E.T.)
  2. I'm Back Into You
  3. Different Kind of Man
  4. Surrounded
  5. Caribbean Beach
  6. Get Free - Call Me
  7. Trade Secret
  8. Finger Lickin' Good
  9. All Night Long
  10. Woo-Wee!
  • 2000: Hands of Time (Hep' Me Records)
  1. Hands of Time
  2. Beyond the Finish Line
  3. Talk to Me
  4. Wake Up Cryin'
  5. Superwoman
  6. You're Number One
  7. Listen to Me Closely
  8. Touch of Your Love
  9. Funky Situation
  10. Bonus / Wake Up Cryin'
  • 2002: Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evangeline) with Jimmy Johnson
  1. Two Johnsons Are Better Than One
  2. Uncomplicated Life
  3. I Used to Be a Millionaire
  4. Is It Because I'm Black
  5. If I Wuz White
  6. I Feel the Pain
  7. Oprah
  8. Ashes in the Ashtray


  1. Let Her Go
  2. Living the Life
  3. I Can't Survive
  4. Goodie Goodie Goodtime
  5. Bottoms Up
  • 2003: Straight Up (P-Vine PCD-25004, Japan)
  • 2013: Syl Johnson with Melody Whittle, Featuring Syleena Johnson (Twinight 4086-CD2)
  • LP: My Funky Funky Band
  1. Send Me Some Lovin'
  2. Try Me
  3. I Feel an Urge
  4. I Resign
  5. Love Condition
  6. Going to the Shack
  7. Don't Give It Away
  8. My Funky Band

3Sockin' Soul Power

  1. Double Whammy
  2. Take Me Back
  3. I Take Care of Homework
  4. Let Them Hang High

Singles and EPs

  • I've Got Love / Lonely Man (7")
  • Please, Please, Please / I'm Looking for My Baby (7")
  • Little Sally Walker / I Resign from Your Love (7")
  • Lulu Reed / Syl Johnson - Rhythm & Blues Volume Four - Blue Beat Style (7", EP)
  • Do You Know What Love Is (7")
  • Falling in Love Again / I've Got to Get Over (7")
  • Straight Love No Chaser / Surrounded 5 versions
  • She's All Right / I Know (7")
  • Come On Sock It to Me / Try Me 2 versions
  • Ode to Soul Man / I´ll Take Those Skinny Legs 3 versions
  • Sorry Bout Dat / Different Strokes 5 versions
  • Is It Because I'm Black / Let Them Hang High 4 versions
  • Take Me Back / I Take Care of Homework 2 versions
  • Dresses Too Short / I Can Take Care of Business 2 versions
  • Going to the Shack / Don't Give It Away (7")
  • One Way Ticket to Nowhere 3 versions
  • The Syl Johnson & Pieces of Peace - Concrete Reservation / Together, Forever (7")
  • Annie Got Hot Pants Power 2 versions
  • We Do It Together / Thank You Baby 2 versions
  • The Love You Left Behind / Anyone But You 2 versions
  • Get Ready / Same Kind of Thing (7")
  • That's Why / Everybody Needs Love (7")
  • We Did It / Any Way the Wind Blows 2 versions
  • I Wanna Satisfy Your Every Need 2 versions
  • Back for a Taste of Your Love / Wind, Blow Her Back My Way 5 versions
  • Please Don't Give Up on Me / Let Yourself Go 2 versions
  • I Want to Take You Home (to See Mama) / I Hear the Love Chimes 6 versions
  • I'm Yours 3 versions
  • Goodie-Goodie-Good-Times / Love Baby 6 versions
  • Take Me to the River / Could I Be Falling in Love 8 versions
  • Bout to Make Me Leave Home / It Ain't Easy 2 versions
  • I Only Have Love 2 versions
  • Star Bright, Star Lite / That's Just My Luck 4 versions
  • Let Yourself Go / Please Don’t Give Up on Me (7’’, Single)
  • Can't Nobody Stop Me Now / Let Me Love You (7")
  • Fonk You / That Wiggle (7")
  • Stand by Me / Main Squeeze 2 versions
  • Otis Redding Medley / Mystery Lady 2 versions
  • Mystery Lady / Let's Dance for Love (7")
  • Brings Out the Blues in Me / How You Need to Be Loved (7", Single)
  • Ms. Fine Brown Frame 12 versions
  • Steppin (7")
  • I Got Your Beef /John, Muddy, Bob & Marvin (7", Single)
  • I Been Missin' You / Sexy Wayz (7", Single)
  • Labi Siffre / Syl Johnson - I Got The / Is It Because I'm Black ? (12", Promo)
  • Different Strokes / Is It Because I'm Black (7", Single)
  • All I Need Is Someone Like You / Do You Know What Love Is (7", RE)
  • Syl Johnson / Kendra Morris - Everybody Needs Love / Seaside (7", Promo)
  • I Wanna Know / Well Oh Well (7")
  • Send Me Some Lovin' / I Resign (7", Single)
  • Syl Johnson / E Rodney Jones & Friends - Is It Because I'm Black / Soul Heaven(7", Single)
  • Syl Johnson / Notations - Come On Sock It to Me / I'm Still Here (7")
  • Mellow-D with Sil-J's New Old Soul / Syl Johnson - Half of Love / Lovin' on the Run (7", Single)
  • Syl Johnson / Charles Mann - I've Got to Get Over / Hey, Little Girl (7", Single)
  • I Feel an Urge / Try Me (7")


  • 2000: The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records (Demon, UK)
  • 2010: Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology (The Numero Group)
  • 2012: Backbeats Artists Series: Syl Johnson - Mississippi Mainman (Backbeats)

Chart singles

Year Single Chart Positions Label
US Pop[7] US
1967 "Come On Sock It to Me" 97 12 Twilight
"Different Strokes" 95 17
1968 "Dresses Too Short" - 36 Twinight
1969 "Is It Because I'm Black" 68 11
1970 "Concrete Reservation" - 29
"One Way Ticket to Nowhere" 125 24
1971 "Get Ready" - 34
1972 "The Love You Left Behind" - 43 Hi
"We Did It" 95 23
1973 "Back for a Taste of Your Love" 72 16
1974 "I'm Yours" - 68
"Let Yourself Go" - 54
"I Want to Take You Home (to See Mama)" - 40
1975 "Take Me to the River" 48 7
"I Only Have Love" - 15
1976 "Star Bright, Star Lite" - 89
"Bout to Make Me Leave Home" - 94
1977 "Goodie-Goodie-Good Times" - 93 Shama
1982 "Ms. Fine Brown Frame" - 60 Boardwalk

Any Way the Wind Blows

Syl Johnson's Documentary, "Any Way the Wind Blows, will premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. It is directed by Rob Hatch-Miller[9] Still The premise is of the piece, still in production, has an interview moment from a documentary. It takes from real events of a mostly forgotten soul singer from the 1970s seeking a second attempt at a career. His records being sampled by everyone from Wu Tang Clan to Kid Rock to Jay-Z and Kanye West, he found himself often with no credit and no money.[10]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Liner notes to album Back in the Game by Robert Pruter
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^

External links

  • Syl Johnson at AllMusic
  • The complete Syl Johnson discography at Soul Express
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