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A big box for an overlooked R&B career

Four years ago Syl Johnson,a Chicago soul singer beloved by R&B purists but otherwise not well known today.

Written by New York Times |
December 5, 2010 3:08:14 am

Four years ago Syl Johnson,a Chicago soul singer beloved by R&B purists but otherwise not well known today,was approached by the Numero Group,a small record label that wanted to reissue some of his music from the 1960s and ‘70s. Johnson said bluntly that he was not interested.

“I don’t like record companies,” he recalled this week. To drive the point home he raised his voice to a near-bark: “I hate ‘em!”

Given his own frustrated history with the music industry,Johnson’s suspicion was not surprising. In a string of hits in the late 1960s — Come On Sock It to Me,Different Strokes,Is It Because I’m Black”—he established himself as a powerhouse of bluesy,gritty soul,with a voice that could whoop like James Brown’s or caress like Al Green’s. But the big success that he hoped for never arrived,and his career slowed; eventually he became embroiled in litigation with one of his old labels over the rights to his work.

But the Numero Group,which specialises in almost absurdly well researched collections of forgotten music,didn’t give up so easily,and after a long courtship and the resolution of Johnson’s lawsuit—it made a deal and began sifting through decades of musical cobwebs.

The result is Complete Mythology,a four-CD,six-LP monolith of a boxed set,released in October. It solidifies a career narrative for Johnson stretching from the blues scene of 1950s Chicago through socially conscious songs in the late 1960s into the Memphis of the —70s and has connected this 74-year-old singer with a new audience.

“The album shows you I was the real deal when I was young,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. Complete Mythology is exhaustive,even a bit excessive. The biggest and,at $75,most expensive product in the Numero Group’s six-year history,it has 52 pages of densely written liner notes and 81 songs recorded from 1959 to 1977.

Ken Shipley,one of the three record obsessives who run Numero said,“We want to make things that people will want to own and display forever. On Wednesday the label was nominated for its first Grammy Award: best boxed set for Light: On the South Side,an album and book of photographs of Chicago in the ‘70s.

The box tells a broad story about American music. Born Sylvester Thompson in Mississippi in 1936, Johnson moved to Chicago with his family at 14. His brothers,Jimmy and Mack Thompson,became prominent blues players,and he started out playing guitar with blues stars like Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed before embarking on a solo career. (A record executive chose his showbiz name for him.)

In the 1980s he opened a chain of seafood restaurants and invested (very successfully,he says) in real estate. But he has never fully given up on music,and the comeback conditions have never been as good as they are now,with Complete Mythology making a strong claim for his historical importance and a young audience primed for vintage soul music by Amy Winehouse,Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings,Eli (Paperboy) Reed and others.

The boxed set,too,is doing well: But Johnson says he doesn’t need the money: he just wants to show that he’s still here.

“Back in the day I didn’t get the proper chance,like a lot of people; I didn’t get the chance that I’m getting now,” he said. “But I didn’t drop out of my dreams,and now these people went back and picked it up and said,‘This is gold right here,man,you missed the gold.’ And I think that once you check it out,you’ll like it.”

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