One of the more interesting — and extravagant — reissues in music last year was Complete Mythology by Syl Johnson, a collection quite unlike no other: six vinyl albums and four CDs, plus a 52-page booklet, all housed inside a lavish hard-bound box. This was such an impressive package that it was nominated for two Grammy Awards this past year: in the strangely re-named “Best Historical Album” category, and for “Best Album Notes.”
I had heard Syl Johnson before — most notably his 1969 smash “Is It Because I’m Black” and a few songs on some Hi Records compilations — but other than those few tunes, I was woefully ignorant about his other recordings. I wasn’t keen to splurge on the mammoth boxed set, mainly because I have absolutely no use for vinyl records at this point in my life, so I settled for The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, a two-CD compilation.
There are times, listening to this set, that you could swear you were hearing Al Green, or his long-lost soul twin. But that’s not such a far-fetched illusion: Willie Mitchell produced both singers for the famous Hi Records label and his trademark “sound” infects those recordings. But such a musical infection is a glorious thing in this case, and when you are finished listening to the music on these discs, you are left to wonder why Syl Johnson was never a bigger success. Of course, the Al Green comparisons are inevitable, but it would be unfair to call Syl Johnson a “poor man’s Al Green” or some sort of second-rate soul singer. He’s definitely got his own style and when he is able to slip out of the Willie Mitchell production shadows, his vocals take on a grittier, bluesier edge, but without losing their soulful luster.
The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, as its title indicates, covers Syl Johnson’s entire tenure at the label; four albums and 45 tracks. Not surprisingly, since it isn’t just a “Best of” collection, it does contain a bit of fluff; some songs are slathered with too much disco-era gloss, the cover of “Stand By Me” doesn’t yield anything special, and hearing yet another medley of Otis Redding hits was not such a hot idea either. While it may require a bit of wading through the musical mud to get to the goodies, it’s worth the effort. For the most part this collection serves as a fine introduction to a woefully neglected singer.
Syl Johnson’s music has also been very influential among the Hip-Hop community in recent years. “Is It Because I’m Black” may have been his biggest chart hit, but several other of his compositions, most especially his 1967 song “Different Strokes,” have been sampled numerous times by artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West, Run DMC, and Wu-Tang Clan. In some cases, Syl Johnson had to sue certain artists in order to get paid for those samples. Those early songs, however, are not to be found on the Hi Records compilation. For those goodies, you’ll have to either get another compilation, Twilight and Twinight, or splurge for the boxed set.