Syl Johnson, much-sampled blues, funk and soul singer, dies aged 85
Syl Johnson, the blues, funk and soul singer whose work was much sampled in US hip-hop, has died aged 85.
No cause of death was announced by his family, who said of Johnson: “He lived his life as a singer, musician and entrepreneur who loved black music … 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.”
Born in Mississippi in 1936, Johnson was raised in Chicago where he remained throughout his life. He released his first solo material in 1959, and wrote genre-straddling work that led him to describe himself as “a jack-of-all-trades. More soul than Marvin [Gaye], more funk than James [Brown]”.
He had his biggest hit in 1975 with Take Me To the River, the song by labelmate Al Green that would also be recorded by Talking Heads. It reached No 7 in the US R&B chart and crossed over into the Top 50 of the pop chart.
Perhaps his most famous song, though, is Different Strokes, sampled by dozens of hip-hop artists: its catchy brass line was used by the Wu-Tang Clan while Kanye West and Jay-Z used Johnson’s energetic exclamations on their track The Joy. It also appears on classics such as De La Soul’s The Magic Number, Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Eric B & Rakim’s I Know You Got Soul.
Another key Johnson track was Is It Because I’m Black?, a slow, disconsolate ballad that is among the most affecting of the civil rights era. It too was frequently sampled, once again by Wu-Tang Clan and also Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill. Johnson attempted to sue the latter group, arguing their sample wasn’t cleared, but lost in 2008 and on appeal in 2011. Johnson reached a settlement with West and Jay-Z over their use of Different Strokes in 2012.
“I’m not Bill Gates, but I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers,” he said in 2010.
After releasing 10 albums, Johnson retired in the late 1980s, but returned to music in the mid-1990s. He recorded with daughter Syleena Johnson, an R&B singer best known for her guest vocal on Kanye West’s hit single All Falls Down.
His albums found a new audience after they were reissued by the label Numero Group in 2010 – their box set of his work earned him two Grammy nominations. The label said in tribute: “Sock it to ‘em wherever you end up next, old friend.”
Photo: provided by The Guardian