Syl Johnson – Complete Mythology

When it comes to venerable, and always under-appreciated, rhythm-and-blues greats, later is better than never for the spotlight to shine their way once again. That’s decidedly the case with Syl Johnson. The 74-year-old songwriter, vocalist and fried-fish entrepreneur gets the royal treatment with a new 4-CD (or 6 LP) box set, compiled with religious obsession by the Chicago-based Numero Group label. This magnum opus – Complete Mythology – only touches on the first 15 years of Johnson’s robust and versatile career, from his earliest recordings for Vee-Jay through a string of hits made for Chicago’s Twinight Records, as well as R&B powerhouse Federal, and such colorful-sounding operations as Special Agent, Cha-Cha and Tmp-Ting. The cumulative impact of all this not only bolsters Johnson’s assertion that he’s one of the monsters of soul – as good (or, bad, rather) as James Brown, he claims – but serves up a stirring revelation at a time when it’s needed most. “I wanna be somebody so bad,” Syl Johnson cried, “but you keep on putting your foot on me.” But that never stopped him.

The sales campaign for the package stresses how contemporary hip-hop stars including Public Enemy, J. Dilla, Michael Jackson and Kanye West made hay from his 1960s hit “Different Strokes” – with its guttural moans, swamp-daddy guitar, and hip-pushing rhythm – and the equal rights pride anthem “Is It Because I’m Black,” and, for sure, those are stone classics. But the wonder of this set is it includes so, so many more. Not everything is pure genius.  I can’t say something like “I’ll Take Those Skinny Legs” or “Fox Hunting on the Weekend” is more than a sexy, wolfish riff on the pursuit of carnal pleasures, stylishly arranged and urgently delivered, with a knowing wink. Yet, this is the bread-and-butter of chitlin’ circuit soul music, material built like the blues that birthed it to be at once durable enough never not to speak truths, and flexible enough so that any singer could bring his or her own inimitable savoir faire to bear on its tight-crotched verities.

The path charted here, only a decade and a half, covers the ongoing evolution in Johnson’s style. The earliest songs, which go back to the mid-1950s, betray both Johnson’s steep immersion in the blues (the Holly Springs, Miss., native worked alongside Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf) and his total affinity for sock-hop ready teen angst. “I’ve Got Love” is just a few mohairs off from Sam Cooke, and the heart-struck near aria “I Resign from Your Love” seems to present Johnson as the soloist for an a cappella group that got locked in the tour bus. There’s not a second of it that’s not terrific fun, but I’d argue that the set doesn’t really get cooking until the mid-1960s, when Johnson hits his stride and starts pouring on the chicken grease. Discuss endlessly whether the singer is an heir to Robert Johnson, the real deal abides in tracks like “Come on Sock It To Me” – “You got to go, go, go, Mama!” – “Dresses Too Short,” and “Annie Got Hot Pants Power.” Here is the sound of a man come to get his own, strip it down to the bone, and take your woman home. Hit it or quit it.

Syl Johnson
Complete Mythology