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Different Strokes

Numero Group brings back not just the recordings of Syl Johnson, but the legend himself

Syl Johnson's music has found a new audience a generation later thanks to the Numero Group.

By Sam Hopkins | Posted 11/4/2009

Syl Johnson

9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., Nov. 10.

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For soul singers like Syl Johnson, it's often been a choice between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore when it comes time to play the Mid-Atlantic. "I used to play the Howard Theater," the 73-year-old R&B legend says in a phone interview, recalling the Washington music landmark that is now a cinema. "I played the Royal in Baltimore a few times, but not as much as the Howard. The Howard was really cool."

His touring band didn't have anything against Charm City, Johnson reassures. It was a matter of expediency in a time when he could be back home in Chicago playing three or four shows a day, and more on the weekends. As he rattles off a list of his favorite spots to hit on national tours over a generation ago, he names many venues where the marquees have long since dimmed, or whose demolition was part of the demise of blocks' worth of inner-city soul and jazz venues, as in the case of the Royal on Pennsylvania Avenue.

These days, Johnson and his peers have grown older, but not too tired to tour. Johnson has sold out shows from the Windy City to Russia and beyond in recent years, and he's headlining the Eccentric Soul Revue, a showcase put together by Chicago-based reissue juggernaut Numero Group. He'll be performing soul classics like his hit "Is It Because I'm Black?" and the heavily-sampled "Different Strokes," but he'll also add deeper cuts that are highlighted in Numero's upcoming Syl Johnson box set and a CD of rarities from Johnson's Twinight label, called Twinight's Lunar Rotation.

"'Different Strokes' was like a theme for rappers," says Johnson, who was born Sylvester Thompson in rural Mississippi. Johnson kicks off the song with a virile "Ungh!" on the one, followed by the playful cackle of an 18-year-old secretary at Chess Records who went by Andrea Davis, though she would later use her given name, Minnie Riperton. Under that vocal intercourse, Morris Jennings' simple shuffle on drums made the cut irresistible for producers from Boogie Down Productions' Scott LaRock to the RZA, the Wu-Tang maestro who grabbed a different part of the song. "Hip-hop is where I made the cash, trust me," Johnson says.

And, though it seemed for a while that Johnson's soul might be best known to posterity via bits and pieces backing MCs, he's finding new audiences and loving it. He recalls riding in a car during a stint in Australia and thinking he heard his own voice singing on the radio: "I told the driver, 'That's me!' Then the guy starts rappin' 'You just heard Syl Johnson from 1963. . . '" It was a song Johnson had forgotten for a generation, but was now gaining attention thanks to Numero's efforts. "They found some shit I never dreamed I had recorded," he says. "In those days [the records] didn't do nothin', absolutely zero! My mama and my brother might have bought a few copies, but that was it."

Even in his more successful years in the late '60s and early '70s, Johnson took a while to even consider himself a singer. He had started off playing guitar and harmonica with blues legends like John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells, then applied blues progressions to the sound he was crafting for himself and other artists on the Twinight imprint, such as the Notations and Renaldo Domino, who will also play at the Eccentric Soul Revue.

Instead of gigging with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, Johnson found himself sharing the stage with--and sometimes loaning his band to--the Jackson 5. They hadn't found national fame yet, but he remembers the Jacksons as "some bad little boys."

"Michael was a James Brown and Jackie Wilson freak!" Johnson remembers. "James Brown more, though. They used to play for social clubs, and they were some of the baddest that were on the shows at that time." The brothers from nearby Gary, Ind., moved on to worldwide fame, and Johnson kept on performing just like he had done since the late '40s. "I picked cotton as a boy," he recalls of the years before he moved with his parents to Chicago from the deep South. One of thousands of families in the Great Migration north, Johnson and the Thompsons brought the music of the fields with them. "I could already play guitar," he says. "I couldn't play harmonica yet, but I could sing like a bird."

As Johnson matured in the Midwest's biggest city, he made a trade out of his music. The civil rights movement, contemporary style, and love of women all figured into his blues-influenced songs at different points. "Is It Because I'm Black?" is the flipside of "Let Them Hang High," a song about short skirts that reversed Johnson's earlier hit "Dresses Too Short."

"I wanted to let 'em know I still wanted to talk about the ladies," he laughs. Was there a contradiction there at all, having a track about mini-skirts on the reverse of such a heartfelt political song? "Nah, political is some kinda military bullshit," Johnson asserts. "This ain't, 'I'm gonna kick your ass if you keep fuckin' with me!' It's not really political--just asking a question."

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