Syl Johnson


photograph of Syl & Jimmy Johnson

2 Johnsons Are Better Than One
US release date: 21 May 2002
UK release date: available as import
by Barbara Flaska - PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Hailing from Holly Springs, Mississippi and raised in Chicago, the Johnsons are called the real live blues brothers. Syl and Jimmy Johnson have finally recorded together after spending the last 40 years playing to completely different audiences. Syl moved towards soul and made his music for the R&B crowd. He hit the R&B charts hard in 1967 with "Come on Sock It to Me" before his version of "Take Me to the River" sparked his career. He's still got the touch, offering up an engaging R&B delight on this disc with "Dangerous", a Motown-sound love/dance tune sung and played just like we used to love them.

Jimmy studied blues from his next-door-neighbor Magic Sam and began hitting his stride playing blues in Chicago just as the clubs began folding in the late '60s and it became almost impossible for a blues man to get a record out in Chicago. While entertainment was traditionally regarded as one of the career paths then wide open to blacks, both Johnsons have spent a lifetime beating their heads against the wall just to carve out respectable careers for themselves in music. On this joint outing, they blend their talents and come up with blues-soul.

The year was 1969, and in the middle of the Black Power movement, Syl had another hit with "Is It Because I'm Black". Rather than the fierce rhetoric made popular on the television news of the period, this facing up to thwarted ambition takes the form of soulful personal self-examination. Such self reflection can't help but weigh whether disappointments in life are the result of personal failings (having the wrong goals in life, or making a bad choice) or are somehow the combined total sum (the limited options of diminished opportunity) when racial stereotyping draws the line. A pensive reflection on the heartbreak of unrealized dreams ("The dark brown shades of my skin / Only add color to my tears"), Syl revisits the topic again after all these years because it is not at all outdated. Redone as a jazzy thoughtful introspection, the song deliberates about some of life's disappointments and the feelings of not having accomplished as much as he had originally hoped and dreamed. To be honest, he is obliged to ask himself the inevitable "why": "Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew / Wondering why my dream never came true" and "Something is holding me back / I wonder is it because I'm black".

Continuing this contemplation, the coin is flipped with "If I Wuz White", where Syl asks a series of forthright and direct questions: "If you saw me in a magazine / Would I look different if I was white / If you saw me on the street / Tell me how would you greet me if I was white". Syl's singing is of the earthy soul-testifying style, and the groove is a punchy ska-like sound, but the words ask for answers to obvious questions that are deserving of consideration and answer: "Would my load be a little bit lighter / If my skin was a little bit brighter".

Some black people from small country towns in Mississippi manage to hit it big in show business in the Windy City, which others can take pride in and use for inspiration. One such entertainer's phenomenal success (for years the highest earning entertainer in the world) is celebrated with a Johnson-penned R&B tribute to their now famous "soul sister" and fellow Chicagoan. The deep bass steps bubble underneath, a girl chorus is poised and ready to add their sweet harmonies, when Syl kicks in with the soul sound:

"All right, she's all right!

Tell me who sees life from a woman's point of view
Who will tell you 'Don't let problems get the best of you'

And she has been faithful to us through all these years
She's loving, she's touching, she's warm and sincere

(She's Oprah. That's Oprah)"

No doubt these brothers honestly dig Oprah, appreciate her positive messages, and their tribute is in no way a bid to cash in on her fame in any way. But whether the song is picked up, or locals are invited on to sing praises or perform, or whether or not the stuff going on in Chicago neighborhoods right outside the studio doors is ignored or commented upon, that will also be because "She's Oprah. That's Oprah".

— 27 September 2002 Read more about Syl Johnson on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.

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