Syl Johnson - Let Them Hang High (Twinight 125)
Let Them Hang High
Sylvester Johnson was born in Mississippi, but moved to Chicago with his family by the time he was eight years old. They lived next door to blues legend Magic Sam, and grew up surrounded by music. His brother Mac became the bass player in Sam's band, and brother Jimmy would go on to become a celebrated blues guitarist in his own right.
Syl came up playing the South Side clubs behind folks like Shakey Jake, Billy Boy Arnold, and Junior Wells and would become a member of Howlin' Wolf's touring band in 1959. His first appearance on record was as a side man for Jimmy Reed on the Vee-Jay label that same year.
Johnson was signed by King Records shortly after that, and they issued a few singles on their Federal imprint (like "Teardrops" and "I've Got Love") with label-mate Freddy King backing him up on the guitar. The records didn't do much in the charts, but Syl continued to work Chicago's club circuit on a regular basis.
Syl recorded sporadically for some small outfits over the next few years, and scored a pretty big local hit with Straight Love, No Chaser for the Zachron label in 1966. He followed this with his ultra-rare northern soul crowd favorite, Do You Know what Love Is on the Special Agent label in early 1967.
This brought him to the attention of Chicago music maven Peter Wright, who was in the process of winding down his own Quill label. He was so impressed with Syl's talent that he made him the centerpiece of his new label, Twilight. The first single released by the new company, Johnson's Come On Sock It To Me, was a huge hit, reaching #12 on the R&B charts in the summer of 1967.
After just four more singles, Wright changed the name of the label to Twinight (nobody knows why...), and installed Johnson as producer and A&R man at their digs on "record row" in Chicago. The studio became somewhat of a funk incubator, with Syl lending his way cool vision of hard-edged soul to releases by The Notations and The Pieces of Peace, as well as continuing his own string of releases.
While Johnson's harmonica and guitar playing are great, it was his incredible voice that caught the ear of Memphis producer Willie Mitchell one night at a South Side club. This was during the period when Mitchell was on the lookout for singers to bring to the mostly instrumental Hi label, and he offered to record Syl if he was ever interested.
Johnson had been writing songs with Carl Smith (a local lyricist who had worked on such classics as Higher and Higher and Rescue Me), and in 1968 he brought a song they had written, Dresses Too Short, down to Mitchell in Memphis. Produced at Royal Studio with backup provided by the incendiary Hi Rhythm, the record just cooks!
Syl was big on "answer songs" in those days. Tunes like I'll Take Those Skinny Legs, I Can Take Care Of Business, and I Can Take Care Of Homework were tongue-in-cheek take-offs on what was going on in the charts.
Today's B side is one such record, written by Smith and Johnson as an answer to their own hit from the year before. This is pure all around good-time music, man... woo-hoo! Willie Mitchell is credited as the "arranger" on the label, and I guess that means it was recorded at Royal with Hi Rhythm. Check out that guitar work, huh? I can't tell if it's Syl or Teenie Hodges, but it's just killer stuff, yo!
This is one of those great records that had like no chance of being heard because the A side was just too big. I'm talking about Is It Because I'm Black, the tellin' it like it is soul searcher that was way ahead of its time in 1969. His next release was another great 'ghetto' song, Concrete Reservation in 1970.
A few more singles on Twinight would follow, like the great One Way Ticket (which was written by Johnny Moore and would become a big hit for Tyrone Davis the following year), but Peter Wright had apparently lost interest in the label in much the same way as he had done a few years earlier with Quill.
In 1971, Syl signed on with Hi Records, teaming up with Mitchell full time. The records Johnson made for Hi during this period are such unreal stuff, man. Songs like Any Way The Wind Blows and Please Don't Give Up On Me still hold up as absolute soul classics.
This was, of course, all happening during Al Green's reign as the king of southern soul, and his string of big hits with that Willie Mitchell 'sound' tended to overshadow Johnson's own releases at the time. He would, however, take a song Green had written with Teenie Hodges and make it his own. Take Me To The River had (incredibly) only been released by Al as an album track (on 1974's Al Green Explores Your Mind), and when Hi released Johnson's absolutely smokin' version of it as a single in 1975, it just took off, climbing to #7 R&B.
As we've mentioned before, Hi was sort of collapsing under its own weight at this point, and when Cream Records took over in 1977, Syl was on his way out the door. He would release a few things on his own Shama label, and had a moderate disco-tinged hit with Ms. Fine Brown Frame, which was picked up by Boardwalk records in 1982.
Johnson walked away from the music business in the mid-eighties, opening a string of seafood joints in his home town of Chicago. When he began to hear his work sampled by people like the Wu Tang Clan in the early nineties, he figured it was time to jump back in.
His aptly titled 1993 album, Back In The Game, reunited him with Hi Rhythm and holds its own with the best of his earlier material. He was joined on the album by his daughter Syleena, who would go on to become quite the R&B singer herself, earning a grammy nomination last year for her work with Kanye West.
Her father continues to make great records. Albums like Bridge To A Legacy, and Talkin' About Chicago are too often categorized as "blues", and so don't get the consideration they deserve as the cool soul records they really are. As Syl maintains to this day; "I'm a soul man, I ain't no blues man!". He teamed up with his brother Jimmy (who IS a blues man) for the first time to record the great Two Johnsons Are Better Than One in 2002.
Syl Johnson is still going strong today, and performed a show with fellow Chicago soul legend Jackie Ross in the UK just this past weekend.
He is scheduled to appear at the Ponderosa Stomp in Memphis on May 8th, the same night Hi Rhythm is going to be there...
I'm gonna be there too.