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Monday, May 15, 2006

Session 12: Syl Johnson in the house

Syl Johnson Namechecked by soul sorcerer Mr Fine Wine in his last show as head guide at the Ponderosa Stomp's Stax Museum Tours, Syl Johnson is one of those fine soul acts still going strong.

Possessed of a gravel wailing shriek the like of which is rarely heard, Syl arrived on the scene in 1956 as sideman to Chicago's own blues harmonica genius Billy Boy Arnold. It took 3 years of hoofing to reach the stage of cutting his first single, 'Teardrops' - has anyone heard it? - and another long wait until his signing to Twilight (Twinight) in '67 for Syl to actually make it.

Employing his talents on both sides of the studio wall, Johnson released 'Dresses Too Short' (a pounding bag of fine high octane good time soul beats) in '68, and also produced several local artistes.

Ideas of Black empowerment and their associated backlash/suppression were heavy in the air in the dying years of the '60s. Like so many of King of Bongo favourite artists from this period, Syl's acute sensibilities created notably fine musical interpretations of what it was like to be Afro-American in the belly of the Beast at this time.

In 1970 he released 'Is It Because I'm Black?', an uncompromising selection of songs exploring many aspects of the lives of Syl and his family, friends and acquaintances. The classic title song encapsulated Syl's central message - you can hear the true ache in his voice when he sings

"Something is holding me back. I wonder: is it because I'm Black?"

A heart as big and clever as Syl Johnson's drives its owner to look at issues from more than one angle, and he gives us a taste of the joy of his life as well. Hearking back to the opening cut, today's selection, 'Right On' (Right on sister, right on brother), is a groovy, positive slice of sheer, throbbing, joyful funk. Syl tells us

"We can do anything that we wanna do, don't want nobody to tell me what to do."

Surely overlooked as one of the earliest examples of funk, 'Right On' is 7 minutes of unadulterated pleasure - Syl didn't spend 14 years in soul music up to this point to not want to exercise his musical power over the masses.

Listen to the last third, where he does his thing - the trademark wail, it cracks first time, which he duly makes up for by doing it twice more in scintillating, reverberating style. 'Right On' - a crucial cut.

Syl's biggest hit was yet to come, the 1975 classic 'Take Me to the River,' climbing to #7 in the R&B charts, and he still churns out a few collaborations with other members of the musically gifted Johnson family. Take some time out to get to know Syl Johnson, you won't be sorry.

Ladies and Gentlemen, King of Bongo humbly presents:
Syl Johnson: Right On (1970) [mp3 | 7:10 mins | 192 kbps | 10.1 MB]

Dresses Too Short/Is It Because I'm Black Buy "Dresses Too Short/Is It Because I'm Black" by Syl Johnson from Amazon
File under: Wail On Soul
[Click on the link and you’ll be taken to yousendit where you can download the track. First come first served people, only 7 days and/or 25 downloads allowed!]

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