From the LA Times gift guide feature:
A four-CD, six-LP set, this collection spans more than a decade of Johnson’s career, showcasing the work of the Mississippi-born artist throughout and just beyond the ‘60s. A criminally unheralded stylist of urban funk and Southern soul, this detailed and annotated set provides a snapshot of Johnson’s expansiveness, and a voice — one that can wail with heartache just as easily as it can rip up the floorboards — that is long overdue for rediscovery. —Todd Martens
I don’t care how glamorous the big labels make their boxes this year, nothing — and I mean nothing — is more stunning than Numero’s release of Syl Johnson’s Complete Mythology. Last year, Numero Group flexed their holiday muscle with Light On the South Side, a compilation of mid-’70s Chicago soul artists. This year, they continue to show that boutique labels are perfect for producing lovingly packaged sets like this four CD/six LP work of art. Johnson has more Top 40 R& B hits than most artists have releases, and he’s one of the most heavily sampled musicians in the history of recorded music, but this set alone gives Johnson the due he deserves, and I think it’s the best box release of the season. — Brian F. Johnson
A peerless soul auteur with a remarkable, underappreciated body of work, Syl Johnson is in the midst of a well-deserved resurgence. The Mississippi-born, Chicago-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer was already a seasoned veteran when he burst onto the R&B charts in 1967 with the gritty dancefloor hits “Come On Sock It to Me” and “Different Strokes,” then subsequently moved toward darker, more topical material such as “Is It Because I’m Black” and “Concrete Reservation.” Although he never achieved the pop-crossover hit that would have made him a household name with white listeners, Johnson’s best work is the equal of any of his better-known contemporaries.
Johnson’s return to New York coincides with the release of the lavishly illustrated, copiously annotated four-CD, six-LP box set Complete Mythology by visionary archivist label the Numero Group. The epic package emphasizes his largely brilliant ’60s output for Federal, Twilight, Twinight and various obscure regional labels, while bypassing his better-known ’70s work for Hi Records. It’s an overdue tribute for a unique artist whose greatest accomplishments have been ill-served previously by reissue compilers.
At 74, Johnson remains a fiery, feisty performer with a propensity for flamboyant, self-mythologizing onstage rants. For this rare New York gig—presented by the R&B obsessives at Dig Deeper, who’ve brought a dazzling array of forgotten legends to Brooklyn—he’ll be accompanied by the Divine Soul Rhythm Band, which has done a yeoman’s work backing up a litany of vintage acts.—Scott Schinder
Saturday evening, Chicago soul legend Syl Johnson celebrated Complete Mythology, his recent Numero Group box set, with a storming live show at an at-capacity Old Town School of Folk Music, where every free space was filled in with extra tables and chairs. Clad in a flashy red suit and hat and backed by a full 17-piece band (horn section, back up singers) of Chicago music veterans including ace session players Bernard Reed, Morris Jennings and Willie Henderson, Johnson was a true showman and breathed life into songs, some of which he had not performed in forty years. Despite a few tentative endings, Johnson and band played loose and lively renditions of many of his early tunes (as featured in the Numero set) and then brought the tempo down for his immortal slow burner “Is It Because I’m Black?” Midway through the night Syl brought out Chicago soulster Otis Clay (known for his singles for One-Derful!, Cottillion and Hi) who did a lengthy take on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” Soon, Clay was joined by Syl and Chicago R&B legend “The Duke of Earl” Gene Chandler (who happened to be in attendance) for an impromptu collaboration. Jackie Ross came out to sing lead on her “Selfish One” which Johnson produced for Chess Records. Johnson with expert harp work performed his biggest hit—his up tempo take on Al Green’s “Take Me To The River”—which he cut for Hi Records in the early ‘70s. Throughout the night, Syl kept the audience entertained with his rambling, stream of conscious banter. When he came back for his encore—a funky “Ms. Fine Brown Frame” featuring a proto-rap from Johnson, he even delivered his own liner note material as he spoke at length of his legal ups-and-downs (the case came down to “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby, judge?” in Johnson’s words) with ownership of his Twinight/Twilight label material, his healthy relationship with the Numero Group and the numerous artists who have sampled him–“Wu Tang was cooler than a mother*cker.” Even with his horn section packed up and departed for another gig, Johnson had energy to spare, launching into his dance staple “Come On, Sock It to Me” as the finale. It felt like the soulman could go all night and then some. Throughout, Johnson’s band was great and lent a natural feel to the material with one of the toughest horn sections we’ve seen in recent memory.—Nicholas Myers and John Dugan
Not to be outdone, the Chicago Tribune weighs in on the same performance:
Better late than never. More than 50 years after his recording debut, Chicago soul artist Syl Johnson turned a 105-minute show into a vivacious coming-out party Saturday at a sold-out Old Town School of Folk. The man knows how to throw a bash. He brought a dapper band—a 14-piece ensemble complete with separate brass and vocal sections. He invited local guests—gospel legend Otis Clay, vocalist Gene “The Duke” Chandler and former Chess Records singer Jackie Ross joined the celebration. And he had character to spare.
Dressed in a fire-engine-red suit and matching fedora, Johnson operated as jack-of-all-trades, working the stage as if he were in the prime of his life. In many ways, at 74, the singer/guitarist/producer is peaking, thanks to an assist from Chicago-based Numero Group, which recently released a lavish collection highlighting Johnson’s output. Underappreciated for decades, the Mississippi native spoke about how he now receives calls from international journalists and riffed on topics ranging from business improprieties to Twitter. Unscripted, humorous, eccentric, unvarnished: All parts of a colorful personality that extended to the music.
A natural showman, Johnson physically reacted to the beats, his rubbery expressions, animated gestures and loose-limbed dance steps reinforcing a succession of deep grooves. Similarly, the singer interjected rhythmic moans, falsetto cries and emphatic shouts into songs when emotions ran high. And he verbally challenged the band to follow his lead—not always an easy task. Rising and falling horn lines served as entryways into refrains. Chicken-scratched chords laid funk foundations. Johnson’s clarion voice jelled with call-and-response passages, lending to participatory sing-a-longs that often stretched to epic lengths.
Johnson also testified on behalf of his stylistic evolution. The gritty, Southern-flavored “Same Kind of Thing” paid homage to the singer’s Memphis phase. Knee-buckling and massively arranged, “Thank You Baby” touched on his Chicago stint. “Ms. Fine Brown Frame” found Johnson rapping several verses that connected him to hip-hop acts sampling his tunes. “Is It Because I’m Black” spun off psychedelic and blues currents. The latter also fueled “Groove With Me Tonight,” a rolling and tumbling strut that, like Johnson, would equally be at home in either a risqué juke joint or classy nightclub.
Next week we’ll go through the mountain of press pouring in from New York.
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