Syl Johnson, Grammy-nominated Chicago blues artist, dies at 85

Mr. Johnson’s death is the third big loss for the Blues industry in the last eight days and comes less than a week after the death of his brother and fellow musician Jimmy Johnson.

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Syl Johnson performs at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2010.

Sun-Times file

Chicago soul treasure Syl Johnson, known as one of the most sampled artists ever thanks to his track “Different Strokes,” which has been used by a slew of notable hip-hop artists, has died at the age 85.

His family announced the news in a statement Sunday, though they didn’t reveal his cause of death.

“It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame Legend, Syl Johnson,” his family said. “Dad, Brother, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Uncle, Friend & Artist, he lived his life as a singer, musician, and entrepreneur who loved Black music.”

Mr. Johnson’s death is the third big loss for the blues community in the last eight days.

His older brother, Blues Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Johnson, died Monday at his home in Harvey at age 93; and drummer and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sam Lay died Jan. 29 at 86.

“Our Dad has gone on to heaven to be with him and many of his loved ones and fellow musicians who have passed as well. The world has lost two musical giants,” his family said.

The Johnson brothers and Lay will be remembered for breaking drown barriers and bringing people together with their music, according to Mr. Johnson’s friend and known music publicist Lynn Orman Weiss.

“They came up the hard way, and they blazed a trail with hits and [became] major forces in music,” she said.

Born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the Grammy-nominated singer adopted the name Syl Johnson after the record company printed his name as that on his first record, according to Chicago-based archival record label Numero Group, which produced Syl’s “Complete Mythology.”

The label reported that music executive Syd Nathan liked the sound of “Syl Johnson” more than the blues artist’s real name.

“So when I got my record, it was ‘Syl Johnson,’” Mr. Johnson reportedly said. “I took it to show my mother. I said, ‘Mama, my name is through! I got a new name! My entertainment name is Syl Johnson!’”

Mr. Johnson made opportunities for himself but believed he “never got the breaks I should have gotten.”

“I was a jack-of-all-trades,” Mr. Johnson said, per Numero Group. “More soul than Marvin, more funk than James. If I’d gone pop, you’d be talkin’ about me, not them. I rate right at the top, though I’ve been underrated all my life.”

Mr. Johnson, one of 10 children, moved to Chicago when he was 16 and recorded with the Twilight/Twinight label, with whom he first made a name for himself in the 1960s. His early hits include “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Is It Because I’m Black,” a song written after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

Decades after its 1967 release, Mr. Johnson’s song “Different Strokes” became a favorite of dance DJs and grew to be one of the most sampled songs ever.

In “Any Way the Wind Blows,” a 2015 documentary about Mr. Johnson’s life, the blues legend reflected on his impact on hip-hop — and his efforts to be compensated for the source material that helped define the genre.

“You’ve gotta pay me for using my sound, my style,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t need your tribute. I can work my own music. ... Use my music and you make a hit, pay me. If you didn’t make any money, it’s all right. But they made big hits.”

Still, he acknowledged: “That’s how I got really paid.”

The list of rappers who used samples of Johnson’s music serves as a who’s who of music royalty, though in many cases he had to file lawsuits to get the money he was owed. The list of artists he went after includes a host of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees: Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Run-DMC, N.W.A. and Jay-Z.

The Rza, a pioneering hip-hop producer and the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, explained in the documentary that he negotiated an agreement to purchase the rights to multiple songs of Mr. Johnson’s amid a dispute over the group’s hit “Shame on a N---a,” which includes a prominent sample of Johnson’s song “Different Strokes.”

“I told them ... let’s write him a nice check and not forget about this artist,” Rza said. “Let’s help this artist.”

As a result, the Wu-Tang Clan’s sprawling discography of group and solo records includes multiple Johnson samples, including Raekwon’s seminal “Heaven and Hell,” which samples Johnson’s “Could I Be Falling in Love.”

“I just was happy that his music was [an] accessible library to us and we could help him as an artist because I know in those days a lot of artists didn’t get their just due,” Rza said.

Mr. Johnson referred to his two-flat home in Bronzeville as “the house that Wu built,” according to the Numero Group. Orman Weiss said Mr. Johnson would also remind her that his house was built on the royalties of people using his tracks.

“I would pick him up to go out... and he’d say, ‘Lynn, see those bricks in my house? That’s from sampling,” she recalled, with a laugh.

Mr. Johnson used the adjacent lot to his home for gardening. Orman Weiss said he and his brother hosted annual summer parties serving up soul food.

“Every summer, it was my favorite thing in the whole world,” she said.

Mr. Johnson — who’s biggest hit came in 1975 as a cover of “Take Me to the River,” co-written and first recorded by Al Green — moved away from the music industry in the 1980s and cast his line in a new direction, opening Solomon’s Fishery, a chain of soulful fish eateries that were one of the few Black restaurant franchises in the city and Gary, Indiana. 

In 2017, Mr. Johnson produced “Rebirth of Soul,” an album covering ’60s and ’70s songs by his daughter, singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson.

“My dad’s a perfectionist, so it was challenging in that respect,” she told the Sun-Times then, “but it’s also because he comes from that era of music that makes him very judgmental about these particular songs. The music on this record was very precious to him, so he was very judgmental on how I approached it. But it was good, because, in a way, it was a learning experience for me. It was awesome to be able to reinterpret those artists for our time today.”

At the 2017 Jus Blues Music Foundation event, at which he was being honored, Mr. Johnson took the stage and said: “The blues is the root [to all music]. And as long as the root is alive, the blues is alive.”

Numero Group tweeted Sunday: “If any single artist could be considered a mascot for Numero, Mississippi-born soul man Syl Johnson was it. He was the first major artist to give our humble Southside Chicago operation a shot—even if he did threaten to sue us in that first conversation.”

One of Mr. Johnson’s wishes was to have a portion of Calumet Avenue — the name of the street he grew up on in Mississippi and most recently lived on in Chicago — named after him, Orman Weiss said.

Mr. Johnson’s family shared a message to the late singer’s fans, saying, “He loved you all.”

“A lover of music and a Chicago icon, Syl Johnson lived his life unapologetically,” the family said.

Contributing: Darel Jevens

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