Syl Johnson  

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"Mitchell's Hi Records continued in the Stax tradition of the previous decade, releasing a string of hits by Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson."--Sholem Stein

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Sylvester Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson; July 1, 1936 – February 6, 2022) was an American singer and record producer working in the soul and blues idioms. His most successful records included "Different Strokes" (1967), "Is It Because I'm Black" (1969) and "Take Me to the River" (1975).



Born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Johnson sang and played with blues artists Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf in the 1950s, before recording with Jimmy Reed for Vee-Jay in 1959. He made his solo debut that same year with Federal, a subsidiary of King Records of Cincinnati, backed by Freddie King on guitar.

He then began recording for Twinight Records of Chicago in the mid 1960s. Beginning with his first hit, Come On Sock It to Me in 1967, Johnson dominated the label as both a hitmaker and producer. His song Different Strokes, also from 1967, featured recently on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats breakbeat compilation.

Like other black songwriters of the period, several of his records at this time explored themes of African-American identity and social problems in songs including Is It Because I'm Black, which reached Number 11 in the R&B charts in 1969.

In 1971, Willie Mitchell brought Johnson to Hi Records, the two recording three albums which spawned a number of singles. Produced in Memphis with the Hi house band, these yielded music of power and enduring value, including the hits We Did It, Back for a Taste of Your Love and Take Me to the River, his biggest success, reaching Number 7 on the R&B charts in 1975. However, at Hi Johnson was always to some extent in Al Green's shadow commercially, if not artistically. Mitchell also chose to use mainly in-house material rather than Johnson originals.

After the Hi years ended, Johnson produced two LPs for his own Shama label, the latter of which (Ms. Fine Brown Frame, 1982) was picked up for distribution by Boardwalk Records and produced Johnson's last hit record, the title cut.

Around the mid-1980s, Johnson started a fast-food fish restaurant business, and became semi-retired from performing, only making occasional appearances at blues club gigs.

In 1992, Johnson found out that his classic song "Different Strokes" had been sampled by number of rappers including Wu-Tang Clan, Kool G Rap, Hammer, and the Geto Boys. Stimulated by this fact, he decided to make a come back in the music business. In 1994, he released the album Back in the Game on Delmark Records. The album featured the Hi rhythm section and his youngest daughter Syleena Johnson.

Blues guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson, and bassist Mack Thompson are his brothers.



  • 1968 Dresses Too Short (Twinight)
  • 1970 Is It Because I'm Black? (Twinight)
  • 1973 Back For A Taste Of Your Love (Hi)
  • 1974 Diamond In The Rough (Hi)
  • 1975 Total Explosion (Hi)
  • 1979 Uptown Shakedown (Hi)
  • 1982 Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Shama)
  • 1994 Back In The Game (Delmark)
  • 1995 This Time Together by Father and Daughter (Twinight) with Syleena Johnson
  • 1995 Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's)
  • 1999 Talkin' About Chicago (Delmark)
  • 2000 Hands of Time (Hep Me)
  • 2002 Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evangeline) with Jimmy Johnson


  • 1967 Come On Sock It To Me (Twilight) #12 R&B
  • 1967 Different Strokes (Twilight) #17 R&B
  • 1968 Dresses Too Short (Twinight) #36 R&B
  • 1969 Is It Because I'm Black? (Twinight) #11 R&B, #68 Pop
  • 1970 Concrete Reservation (Twinight) #29 R&B
  • 1970 One Way Ticket To Nowhere (Twinight) #24 R&B
  • 1971 Get Ready (Twinight) #34 R&B
  • 1972 The Love You Left Behind (Hi) #43 R&B
  • 1972 We Did It (Hi) #23 R&B, #95 Pop
  • 1973 Back For A Taste Of Your Love (Hi) #16 R&B, #72 Pop
  • 1974 Let Yourself Go (Hi) #54 R&B
  • 1974 I Want To Take You Home (Hi) #40 R&B
  • 1975 Take Me To The River (Hi) #7 R&B, #48 Pop
  • 1975 I Only Have Love (Hi) #15 R&B
  • 1982 Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Boardwalk) #60 R&B

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