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Much-Sampled Soul, Funk And Blues Performer Syl Johnson Dies At 85

Johnson’s 1960s and 1970s hits were sampled endlessly by Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Public Enemy and many more.

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Syl Johnson photo: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images
Syl Johnson photo: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Soul, funk and blues performer Syl Johnson, whose work became among the most-sampled in hip-hop history, died yesterday (6) at the age of 85.

“He lived his life as a singer, musician and entrepreneur who loved black music,” wrote his family. “A fiery, fierce, fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice as it related to his music and sound, he will truly be missed by all who crossed his path.”

Johnson was a notable recording artist on Twilight in the 1960s, with hits such as “Come On Sock It To Me” and the Civil Rights-era signature “Is It Because I’m Black,” then in the 1970s at Memphis soul label Hi. Here, he struggled for full career advancement in competition with their most valuable star, Al Green; ironically, Johnson had his biggest soul hit when a cover of Green’s “Take Me To The River” reached No.7 in 1975.

Different Strokes

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He became more noted in later years for the vast number of samples of his work in the burgeoning hip-hop field, to his continuing ire. Chief among these was his 1967 R&B Top 20 hit “Different Strokes,” the brass line of which was used by the Wu-Tang Clan, while its vocals were appropriated by Kanye West and Jay-Z on “The Joy.” The track also formed part of De La Soul’s “The Magic Number,” Eric B & Rakim’s I Know You Got Soul” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

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The bluesy, uncompromising “Is It Because I’m Black?,” a No.11 soul hit in early 1970, attracted samples by Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, and Cypress Hill. The latter’s allegedly uncleared use of it promoted Johnson to sue, but he lost the case in 2008 and again on appeal three years later. In 2012, he did reach a settlement with West and Jay-Z over their use of “Different Strokes.”

Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson on July 1, 1939 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He moved to the south side of Chicago in his teens, and first recorded for Federal in 1959. It was 1967 before “Come On Sock It To Me” provided his first national recognition. He went on to amass 19 R&B chart entries over the next 15 years, including later stints at his own Shama label, and at Boardwalk.

Johnson retired in the late 1980s to develop a fried fish restaurant, Solomon’s Fishery, which became a chain, chiefly in the Chicago area. But he made a comeback a few years later and recorded with his daughter Syleena Johnson, a collaborator of West’s. The Chicago-based Numero Group’s reissue of his album catalog in 2010 led to two Grammy nominations. Johnson was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2019.

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A documentary about his life, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows, directed by Rob Hatch-Miller, has been made available on demand for the first time exclusively on Vimeo. In it, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA notes: “A lot of people may not have known the name of this man, Syl Johnson, but they know his music.”

The Numero Group posted a tribute that reflected both Johnson’s feisty character and their deep affection for him. “If any single artist could be considered a mascot for Numero, Mississippi-born soul man Syl Johnson was it,” they wrote. “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.”

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