Syl Johnson Biography

Sylvester Thompson, 1 July 1936, Holly Springs, Mississippi, USA. Johnson was the youngest of three children and his family moved to Chicago during the late 40s. An elder brother, Mac Thompson, played bass with the Magic Sam Blues Band. Having learned guitar and harmonica, Johnson began frequenting the city’s southside blues clubs, playing alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. His first recordings were made in 1956 accompanying Billy Boy Arnold, after which Johnson appeared on sessions for Shakey Jake, Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed. In 1959 Federal released Johnson’s first solo single, ‘Teardrops’, and he recorded unsuccessfully for several independents until signing with Twilight (later changed to Twinight) in 1967. His debut there, ‘Come On Sock It To Me’, reached number 12 in the R&B chart. Johnson’s musical activities, however, were not solely confined to performing. He also produced several local acts including Tyrone Davis and Otis Clay, while the Deacons, his backing group, featuring brother Jimmy Johnson on guitar, enjoyed a minor hit on the singer’s Shama label. Johnson was then spotted by Willie Mitchell and ‘Dresses Too Short’ (1968) was recorded with the Mitchell’s Hi Records house band. The remaining Twinight sessions were divided between Memphis and Chicago. Johnson remained with the label until 1971, recording two albums in the process. Free to sign with Hi, he began a series of releases that matched for excellence those of labelmate Al Green. Brash, up-tempo topsides, including ‘Back For A Taste Of Your Love’ and ‘We Did It’, contrasted with the often-reflective couplings, of which ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ and ‘I Hear The Love Chimes’ were particularly emotive. The third of his exemplary albums for Hi, Total Explosion, produced Johnson’s only substantial R&B hit when his version of ‘Take Me To The River’ (1975) reached number 7. However, his final years at Hi were dogged by internal problems and towards the end of the decade he reactivated his Shama label. A contemporary blues/soul collection, Ms Fine Brown Frame, was licensed to Boardwalk, while a French album, Suicide Blues, followed in 1984. By the mid-80s, he had semi-retired from the music business and opened a string of fast-food fish restaurants. He returned to performing in 1992 and in 1994 with an excellent album Back In The Game. Jonny Lang appeared on his 1998 album Bridge To A Legacy.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.