Sylvester "Syl" Johnson (born July 1, 1936)[1] is an American blues and soul singer and record producer.

Syl Johnson
Sylvester Thompson

(1936-07-01) July 1, 1936 (age 85)
  • Musician
  • singer
  • record producer
Years active1959–present
RelativesJimmy Johnson (brother)
Musical career
  • Guitar
  • harmonica
Associated acts
  • His daughter
  • his brother


1950s: Early life and recording debutEdit

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi,[1] he moved with his family to Chicago in 1950, where blues guitarist Magic Sam was his next-door neighbor.[2] Johnson sang and played with Magic Sam and other blues artists, such as Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf, in the 1950s.[1] He recorded with Jimmy Reed for Vee-Jay in 1959,[1] and made his solo debut that same year with "Teardrops" on Federal, a subsidiary of King Records of Cincinnati, backed by Freddie King on guitar.[1]

1960s: Career at Twinight RecordsEdit

Johnson began recording for Twilight/Twinight of Chicago in the mid-1960s.[1] Beginning with his first hit, "Come On Sock It to Me", in 1967,[1] he dominated the label as both a hit-maker and a producer. His song "Different Strokes", also from 1967, is included on the breakbeat compilation album, Ultimate Breaks and Beats (SBR 504).

Like other black songwriters of the period, he wrote songs exploring themes of African-American identity and social problems, such as "Is It Because I'm Black", which reached number 11 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1969.[3]

1970s: Hi Records and Willie MitchellEdit

In 1971, the producer Willie Mitchell brought Johnson to Hi Records, for which the two recorded three albums, which generated a number of singles.[1] Produced in Memphis with the Hi house band, these albums contained the hits "We Did It", "Back for a Taste of Your Love" and "Take Me to the River",[1] his biggest success, reaching number 7 on the R&B chart in 1975.[4] However, at Hi Records, Johnson was always to some extent in the shadow of Al Green, commercially if not artistically.[1] Mitchell also chose to use mainly in-house compositions rather than Johnson's original songs.[citation needed]

Reviewing one of his last albums for Hi, 1976's Total Explosion, Robert Christgau wrote in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981): "Johnson has tended to disappear in between Willie Mitchell and Al Green, but on this LP he takes his harmonica up to the microphone and stands clear as a lapsed bluesman. Good move. His voice is still shriller, and more strained than Green's, but that can be a satisfying distinction in the right context."[5]

1980s: RetirementEdit

After his years with Hi ended, Johnson produced two LPs for his own Shama label, the second of which, the soul/funk Ms. Fine Brown Frame (1982),[1] was picked up for distribution by Boardwalk Records.[6] The title track of that album was Johnson's last hit record.

Around the mid-1980s, Johnson mostly retired from performing,[1] making only occasional appearances at blues clubs.[7] At that time, he opened a chain of seafood restaurants,[1] and began investing in real estate.[8]

1990s: Return to musicEdit

In 1992, Johnson found out that his song "Different Strokes" had been sampled by several rappers, including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap, Hammer, and the Geto Boys. This stimulated his interest in making a comeback in the music industry.[7] He recorded the album Back in the Game, released by Delmark Records in 1994, which featured the Hi rhythm section and his youngest daughter, Syleena Johnson.

Johnson has been one of the most sampled artists, largely from "Different Strokes" and "Is It Because I'm Black". He feels passionately that taking music from an original artist without proper compensation constitutes theft[9] and has sued other artists for copyright infringement.[10][11]

Personal lifeEdit

Johnson is a brother of the blues guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson and the bassist Mack Thompson.[8]

Johnson appeared in an episode of the TV One reality series R&B Divas: Atlanta, in which he offers advice and encouragement to his daughter Syleena before she gives a live performances.

He and his family appeared on the American reality television series Iyanla: Fix My Life, by the request of his daughter Syleena, to help her mother's alcohol addiction.



  1. "Dresses Too Short"
  2. "I Can Take Care of Business"
  3. "Different Strokes"
  4. "Soul Drippin'"
  5. "Fox Hunting on the Weekend"
  6. "Ode to Soul Man"
  7. "Come On Sock It to Me"
  8. "I'll Take Those Skinny Legs"
  9. "Try Me #2"
  10. "Same Kind of Thing"
  11. "I've Got the Real Thing"
  12. "Sorry 'Bout Dat!"
  • 1970: Is It Because I'm Black? (Twinight)
  1. "It Is Because I'm Black"
  2. "Come Together"
  3. "Together, Forever"
  4. "Concrete Reservation"
  5. "Black Balloons"
  6. "Walk a Mile in My Shoes"
  7. "I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom"
  8. "Right On"
  • 1973: Back for a Taste of Your Love (Hi)
  1. "Feelin' Frisky"
  2. "Back for a Taste of Your Love"
  3. "I'm Yours"
  4. "I Let a Good Girl Go"
  5. "Anyway the Wind Blows"
  6. "You Don't Know Me"
  7. "We Did It"
  8. "Wind, Blow Her Back My Way"
  9. "I Hate I Walked Away"
  10. "The Love You Left Behind"
  • 1974: Diamond in the Rough (Hi)
  1. "Let Yourself Go"
  2. "Don't Do It"
  3. "I Want to Take You Home"
  4. "Could I Be Falling in Love"
  5. "Stuck in Chicago"
  6. "Diamond in the Rough"
  7. "Keeping Down Confusion"
  8. "Please, Don't Give Up on Me"
  9. "Music to My Ears"
  10. "I Hear the Love Chimes"
  • 1975: Total Explosion (Hi)
  1. "I Only Have Love"
  2. "Bustin' Up or Bustin' Out"
  3. "Star Bright Star Lite"
  4. "Watch What You Do to Me"
  5. "Steppin' Out"
  6. "Take Me to the River"
  7. "It Ain't Easy"
  8. "'Bout to Make Me Leave Home"
  9. "That's Just My Luck"
  • 1979: Uptown Shakedown (Hi)
  1. "Mystery Lady"
  2. "Let's Dance for Love"
  3. "Gimme Little Sign"
  4. "You're the Star of the Show"
  5. "Blue Water"
  6. "Who's Gonna Love You"
  7. "Otis Redding Medley"
  8. "Respect"
  9. "Wholesale Love"
  10. "Snatch a Little Piece"
  11. "I Can't Turn You Loose
  12. "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)"
  13. "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"
  • 1980: Bring Out the Blues in Me (Shama 8001)
  1. "Brings Out the Blues in Me"
  2. "How You Need to Be Loved"
  3. "Last Night Was the Night"
  4. "Got My Eyes on You"
  5. "Liberated Lady"
  6. "Sock It to Me"
  7. "Is It Because I'm Black"
  8. "Crazy People"
  1. "Ms. Fine Brown Frame"
  2. "Keep On Loving Me"
  3. "They Can't See Your Good Side"
  4. "Groove Me"
  5. "Sweet Thing"
  6. "You Don't Have to Go"
  7. "It Ain't Easy"
  • 1983: Suicide Blues (Isabel 900.517)
  1. "If I Had a Hammer"
  2. "This Little Light of Mine"
  3. "Amen"
  4. "Baby Workout"
  5. "Before You Accuse Me"
  6. "Take Me to the River"
  7. "The Blues in Me"
  8. "Sock It to Me"
  9. "Got to Make a Change"
  10. "Crazy Men"
  • 1988: Foxy Brown, Volume 1, December 1988 (Shama 8003)
  1. "Tripping on Your Love"
  2. "Love Baby"
  3. "Here We Go"
  4. "Gimme Some (I Want a Taste of Fonk)"
  5. "Do You Know What Love Is"
  6. "Foxy Brown"
  7. "They Can't See Your Good Side"
  8. "Ms. Fine Brown Frame"
  1. "Lover Man"
  2. "Sweet Love Hang Over"
  3. "Keep On Loving Me"
  4. "I Needed Some Body"
  5. "They Can't See Your Good Side"
  6. "A Time for Us"
  7. "Sister"
  8. "Ms. Fine Brown Frame"
  9. "I'm Woman"
  10. "Trippin"
  11. "Different Strokes"
  12. "Piece of the Rock"
  13. "Here We Go"
  14. "Goodie Goodie Good Times"
  • 1995: Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's)
  1. "Who's Still in Love"
  2. "I Been Missin' You"
  3. "Half a Love"
  4. "Unconditional Love"
  5. "Midnight Woman"
  6. "Piece of the Rock"
  7. "I Don't Know Why"
  8. "Let's Get It On Again"
  9. "They Can't See Your Good Side"
  10. "Sexy Wayz"
  • 1999: Talkin' About Chicago (Delmark)
  1. "Cheryl"
  2. "Sweet Dynamite!"
  3. "Talkin' Bout Chicago"
  4. "Diff'rent Strokes (B.E.T.)"
  5. "I'm Back into You"
  6. "Different Kind of Man"
  7. "Surrounded"
  8. "Caribbean Beach"
  9. "Get Free – Call Me"
  10. "Trade Secret"
  11. "Finger Lickin' Good"
  12. "All Night Long"
  13. "Woo-Wee!"
  1. "Hands of Time"
  2. "Beyond the Finish Line"
  3. "Talk to Me"
  4. "Wake Up Cryin'"
  5. "Superwoman"
  6. "You're Number One"
  7. "Listen to Me Closely"
  8. "Touch of Your Love"
  9. "Funky Situation"
  10. "Bonus" / "Wake Up Cryin'"
  • 2002: Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evangeline) with Jimmy Johnson
  1. "Two Johnsons Are Better Than One"
  2. "Uncomplicated Life"
  3. "I Used to Be a Millionaire"
  4. "Is It Because I'm Black"
  5. "If I Wuz White"
  6. "I Feel the Pain"
  7. "Oprah"
  8. "Ashes in the Ashtray"
  9. "Dangerous"
  10. "Let Her Go"
  11. "Living the Life"
  12. "I Can't Survive"
  13. "Goodie Goodie Goodtime"
  14. "Bottoms Up"
  • 2003: Straight Up (P-Vine PCD-25004, Japan)
  • 2013: Syl Johnson with Melody Whittle, Featuring Syleena Johnson (Twinight 4086-CD2)
  • LP: My Funky Funky Band
  1. "Send Me Some Lovin'"
  2. "Try Me"
  3. "I Feel an Urge"
  4. "I Resign"
  5. "Love Condition"
  6. "Going to the Shack"
  7. "Don't Give It Away"
  8. "My Funky Band"
  9. Sockin' Soul Power"
  10. "Double Whammy"
  11. "Take Me Back"
  12. "I Take Care of Homework"
  13. "Let Them Hang High"


Singles and EPsEdit

  • "I've Got Love" / "Lonely Man" (7") (1958)
  • "Please, Please, Please / I'm Looking for My Baby (7")
  • Little Sally Walker / I Resign from Your Love (7")
  • Lulu Reed / Syl Johnson, Rhythm & Blues Volume Four, Blue Beat Style (7" EP)
  • "Do You Know What Love Is" (7")
  • "Falling in Love Again" / "I've Got to Get Over" (7")
  • "Straight Love No Chaser" / "Surrounded", 5 versions
  • "She's All Right" / "I Know" (7")
  • "Come On Sock It to Me" / "Try Me", 2 versions
  • "Ode to Soul Man" / "I´ll Take Those Skinny Legs", 3 versions
  • "Sorry Bout Dat" / "Different Strokes", 5 versions
  • "Is It Because I'm Black" / "Let Them Hang High", 4 versions
  • "Take Me Back" / "I Take Care of Homework", 2 versions
  • "Dresses Too Short" / "I Can Take Care of Business", 2 versions
  • "Going to the Shack" / "Don't Give It Away" (7")
  • "One Way Ticket to Nowhere", 3 versions
  • The Syl Johnson & Pieces of Peace – "Concrete Reservation" / "Together, Forever" (7")
  • "Annie Got Hot Pants Power", 2 versions
  • "We Do It Together" / "Thank You Baby", 2 versions
  • "The Love You Left Behind" / "Anyone But You", 2 versions
  • "Get Ready" / "Same Kind of Thing" (7")
  • "That's Why" / "Everybody Needs Love" (7")
  • "We Did It" / "Any Way the Wind Blows", 2 versions
  • "I Wanna Satisfy Your Every Need", 2 versions
  • "Back for a Taste of Your Love" / "Wind, Blow Her Back My Way", 5 versions (1973)
  • "Please Don't Give Up on Me" /"Let Yourself Go", 2 versions
  • "I Want to Take You Home (to See Mama)" / "I Hear the Love Chimes", 6 versions
  • "I'm Yours", 3 versions
  • "Goodie-Goodie-Good-Times" / "Love Baby", 6 versions
  • "Take Me to the River" / "Could I Be Falling in Love", 8 versions
  • "Bout to Make Me Leave Home" / "It Ain't Easy", 2 versions
  • "I Only Have Love", 2 versions
  • "Star Bright, Star Lite" / "That's Just My Luck", 4 versions
  • "Let Yourself Go" / "Please Don't Give Up on Me" (7’’ single)
  • "Can't Nobody Stop Me Now" / "Let Me Love You" (7")
  • "Fonk You" / "That Wiggle" (7")
  • "Stand by Me" / "Main Squeeze", 2 versions
  • "Otis Redding Medley" / "Mystery Lady", 2 versions
  • "Mystery Lady" / "Let's Dance for Love" (7")
  • "Brings Out the Blues in Me" / "How You Need to Be Loved" (7" single)
  • "Ms. Fine Brown Frame", 12 versions
  • "Steppin" (7")
  • "I Got Your Beef" /"John, Muddy, Bob & Marvin" (7" single)
  • "I Been Missin' You" / "Sexy Wayz" (7" single)
  • Labi Siffre / Syl Johnson – "I Got The" / "Is It Because I'm Black?" (12" promo)
  • "Different Strokes / Is It Because I'm Black (7" single)
  • "All I Need Is Someone Like You" / "Do You Know What Love Is" (7" RE)
  • Syl Johnson / Kendra Morris – "Everybody Needs Love" / "Seaside" (7" promo)
  • "I Wanna Know" / "Well Oh Well" (7")
  • "Send Me Some Lovin'" / "I Resign" (7" single)
  • Syl Johnson / E Rodney Jones & Friends, "Is It Because I'm Black" / "Soul Heaven" (7" single)
  • Syl Johnson / Notations – "Come On Sock It to Me" / "I'm Still Here" (7")
  • Mellow-D with Sil-J's New Old Soul / Syl Johnson – "Half of Love" / "Lovin' on the Run" (7" single)
  • Syl Johnson / Charles Mann – "I've Got to Get Over" / "Hey, Little Girl" (7" single)
  • "I Feel an Urge" / "Try Me" (7")



  • 2000: The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records (Demon, UK)
  • 2010: Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology (Numero Group)
  • 2012: Backbeats Artists Series: Syl Johnson: Mississippi Mainman (Backbeats)[12]

Chart singlesEdit

Year Single Chart Positions Label
US Pop[13] US
1967 "Come On Sock It to Me" 97 12 Twilight
"Different Strokes" 95 17
1968 "Dresses Too Short" 36 Twinight
1969 "Is It Because I'm Black" 68 11
1970 "Concrete Reservation" 29
"One Way Ticket to Nowhere" 125 24
1971 "Get Ready" 34
1972 "The Love You Left Behind" 43 Hi
"We Did It" 95 23
1973 "Back for a Taste of Your Love" 72 16
1974 "I'm Yours" 68
"Let Yourself Go" 54
"I Want to Take You Home (to See Mama)" 40
1975 "Take Me to the River" 48 7
"I Only Have Love" 15
1976 "Star Bright, Star Lite" 89
"Bout to Make Me Leave Home" 94
1977 "Goodie-Goodie-Good Times" 93 Shama
1982 "Ms. Fine Brown Frame" 60 Boardwalk

Any Way the Wind BlowsEdit

The 2015 documentary Any Way the Wind Blows, directed by Rob Hatch-Miller, premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival.[15] It takes its inspiration from events in the life of this mostly forgotten soul singer from the 1970s seeking a second attempt at a career. While his records were being sampled by artists from Wu Tang Clan to Kid Rock to Jay-Z and Kanye West, Johnson often found himself with no credit and no money.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1303. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ Ward, Ed (August 25, 2011). "The 'Complete Mythology' of Syl Johnson". NPR. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
  3. ^ Pruter, Robert (March 28, 1992). Chicago Soul. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252062599 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Whiteis, David G. (May 1, 2013). Southern Soul-Blues. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252094774 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: J". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved February 27, 2019 – via
  6. ^ "Vinyl Album: Syl Johnson - Ms. Fine Brown Frame (1982)" – via
  7. ^ a b Pruter, Robert. Liner notes to the album Back in the Game.
  8. ^ a b "A Big Box for an Overlooked R&B Career," The New York Times, December 2, 2010.
  9. ^ Hoffer, Jason; Syl Johnson. "Interview Continued With Blues/Soul Legend Syl Johnson – Come on, sock it to me S02Ep01 (2 of 3)" (.mp3 audio). 12:25: Going Thru Vinyl. Retrieved June 16, 2012.CS1 maint: location (link)
  10. ^ Gardner, Eriq (October 17, 2011). "Kanye West and Jay-Z Sued for Allegedly Sampling Syl Johnson". Billboard. Retrieved June 16, 2012.
  11. ^ Mlynar, Phillip (December 1, 2010). "Interviews Q&A: Soul Singer Syl Johnson Prefers Money to Women, Loves Being Sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan, and Is Sorry He Had to Sue Cypress Hill". The Village Voice. Retrieved June 16, 2012.
  12. ^ a b c "Syl Johnson Real Name: Sylvester Thompson". Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  13. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955–2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 365. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
  14. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–1995. Record Research. p. 231.
  15. ^ shamz. "Pass The Popcorn: Syl Johnson Doc To Premiere At Chicago International Film Fest". okayplayer. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  16. ^ Marcus, Greil. "Where the Song Leaves You". barnesandnoble. Barnes And Noble. Retrieved September 16, 2015.

External linksEdit