Syl Johnson

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For the Major League Baseball pitcher, see Syl Johnson (baseball).
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 (age 78)
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.[citation needed]

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 TV ONE's "R&B Divas," which starred his daughter Syleena Johnson. In the episode Syl is giving Syleena advice and words of encouragement before one of her live performances.



  • 1968: Dresses Too Short (Twinight)
  • 1970: Is It Because I'm Black? (Twinight)
  • 1973: Back for a Taste of Your Love (Hi)
  • 1974: Diamond in the Rough (Hi)
  • 1975: Total Explosion (Hi)
  • 1979: Uptown Shakedown (Hi)
  • 1980: Bring Out The Blues In Me (Shama 8001)
  • 1982: Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Boardwalk 33260)
  • 1983: Suicide Blues (Isabel 900.517)
  • 1988: Foxy Brown, Volume 1, December 1988 (Shama 8003)
  • 1994: Back in the Game (Delmark Records)
  • 1995: This Time Together by Father and Daughter (Twinight) with Syleena Johnson
  • 1995: Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's)
  • 1999: Talkin' About Chicago (Delmark)
  • 2000: Hands of Time (Hep' Me Records)
  • 2002: Two Johnsons are Better Than One (Evangeline) with Jimmy Johnson
  • 2003: Straight Up (P-Vine PCD-25004, Japan)
  • 2013: Syl Johnson With Melody Whittle, featuring Syleena Johnson (Twinight 4086-CD2)


  • 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[edit]

Year Single Chart Positions Label
US Pop[6] 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


  1. ^ Ward, Ed. "The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson". NPR. Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Liner notes to album Back in the Game by Robert Pruter
  3. ^ Hoffer, Jason; Syl Johnson. "Interview Continued With Blues/Soul Legend Syl Johnson - Come on, sock it to me S02Ep01 (2 of 3)" (.mp3 audio). S02Ep1-2-of-3-Syl-Johnson-Come-on-sock-it-to-me.mp3. 12:25: Going Thru Vinyl. Retrieved 16 June 2012. 
  4. ^ Gardner, Eriq Gardner. "Kanye West and Jay-Z Sued for Allegedly Sampling Syl Johnson". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 16 June 2012. 
  5. ^ Mlynar, Phillip. "Interviews Q&A: Soul Singer Syl Johnson Prefers Money To Women, Loves Being Sampled By The Wu-Tang Clan, And Is Sorry He Had To Sue Cypress Hill". The Village Voice. Retrieved 16 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 365. ISBN 0-89820-155-1. 
  7. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995. Record Research. p. 231. 

External links[edit]