Syl Johnson playing at London's Barbican in 2005 (Photo: T abatha Fireman/Redferns)
One would think an underappreciated soul music legend like Syl Johnson would be elated by his two recent Grammy Award nominations for Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes for his four-CD, six-LP box set "Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology" (Numero Group). But true to his mercurial form, Syl has some spleen to vent.
"Should have been three," the seventy-five-year-old firecracker said by phone from his home in Chicago. "[Kanye West and Jay-Z] sampled me and Curtis Mayfield, slowed us down and cut us up." Johnson is referring to "The Joy," a bonus track from the duo's "Watch the Throne" record (a Best Rap Album Grammy nominee) that sampled Johnson's classic track "Different Strokes" -- allegedly without proper clearences. The song was originally slated to appear on a deluxe edition of West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" but much to Johnson's dismay the song came out on the WTT album without the proper clearances.
"I don't know why Kanye didn't get with me first," says Johnson, "the man knows me and my daughter -- he knows my daughter well." Indeed Syleena Johnson, Syl's daughter, sang back-up on "All Falls Down" the second single off West's 2004 "College Dropout." "[Kanye] said he wanted to meet with me and apologize - since I sued him -- but I didn't sue him to be smart, I sued him because that's the right thing to do man, I'm a musician."
Johnson -- and his lawyers -- are only too familiar with artists using his music without permission -- especially the song "Different Strokes." According to whosampled.com, the 1967 track has been sampled by more than 90 artists, ranging from Michael Jackson and Run-DMC to the Go! Team and Public Enemy. "That's my biggest money-maker," Johnson says.
Dapper Don: A promo shot of a Syl Johnson from his Twinight Record label.
It's easy to hear why "Different Strokes" -- with its funky, wordless intro with Syl's deep soul yelp, an in-the-pocket drum beat and a then-unknown Minnie Ripperton cackling -- became such a heavily sampled song and eventually brought Johnson financial gain.
"Wu-Tang made me …not wealthy…but semi-wealthy," Syl says when asked about a house he built with a guitar on the roof reportedly financed by a settlement with the Staten Island hip-hop group. "I could have gotten it without them," he says, "I'd just gotten a big settlement from BET [who sampled the track for "Rap City"] and the Ghetto Boys."
The story of Johnson's sampling claims and his colorful and complex career path is keenly documented in Ken Shipley's excellent 52-page liner notes to "Complete Mythology." Shipley succinctly breaks down Johnson's affiliation with a multitude of labels (Federal, Twilight/Twinight, Hi, Ace), seminal artists and producers (Junior Wells, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Reed, Willie Mitchell) and career changes (he owned chain of fish restaurants, worked for UPS, was a part-time deputy marshall) while separating fact from fiction (Robert Johnson, it turns out, may not be Syl's father). The text is accompanied by archival photography and painstakingly researched recording details.
How the Numero Group's Shipley, Tom Lundt and Rob Servier got permission from Johnson to compile the box set deserves its own liner notes. "I thought they were gangsters," Johnson says. "They followed me for two years." Syl still doesn't know how the trio unearthed his old recordings, which he compares to archeologists digging up ancient Egyptian cities. "They're young and they hustle," he says. "The studios would keep these safeties -- I forgot about them, but they found them and I can't explain how." The result is 81 remastered soul rarities and unpressed singles covering the years 1959-1971 cementing Syl's rightful place among the pantheon of great R&B-soul singers. And the set could pick-up two Grammys.
Johnson is playing L.A.'s Echo during Grammy weekend. "I'm hoping my female friends can come on and guest with me," he says referring to the three women whom he's been making music with: an Australian named Melody (a.k.a. Melody Whittle), Vicci Martinez (the third place finisher on "The Voice") and his daughter Syleena.
And what would happen should Syl be called to the Grammy stage? When asked, he goes on a rant: "I'm gonna tell the young people, 'Come on, Man! Let's put some music out! Stop making synthetic music when you can make music yourselves! Play instruments...Make real music!" Something Syl Johnson for sure knows all about.