Chicago Blues and Soul Star, Syl Johnson, Dead at 85

Syl Johnson performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 3, 1997.

Photo by Clayton Call for Redferns via Getty Images.

Syl Johnson was an integral piece of hip-hop’s Golden Era source code.

The family of Syl Johnson, a Chicago blues and soul mainstay, announced his passing over the weekend. Johnson was 85-years-old. “He will truly be missed by all who crossed his path. His catalog and legacy will be remembered as impeccable and a historical blueprint to all who experience it. To his fans around the world, he loved you all. A lover of music and a Chicago icon, Syl Johnson lived his life unapologetically,” his family wrote in a statement for Pitchfork. A cause of death has not been disclosed.

Born in Holly Springs, MS, in 1936, Johnson spent his early years battling the pains of poverty in the Jim Crow South. In 1950, Johnson and his family moved to Chicago, where he was embraced by the city’s blues tradition under the wing of guitarist Magic Sam, who happened to live next door. Eventually, Johnson made his way into the city’s circuit, performing with Sam, Howlin Wolf, and Junior Wells throughout the decade. In 1959, Johnson cut his first solo single, “Teardrops,” backed by a young and hungry Freddie King.

In the mid-60s, Johnson recorded for Twilight/Twinight and slowly became one of Chicago imprint’s most successful acts as both a songwriter and producer. In 1967, he began a string of hits with “Come On Sock It to Me.” Later that year, Johnson released “Different Strokes,” which went on to define his career as well as an entire era of another genre 30 years down the line. Likely due to its inclusion on a volume of Ultimate Beats and Breaks, “Different Strokes” became an integral piece of hip-hop’s Golden Era source code, sampled on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shame on a N****,” Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” Eric B & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul,” EPMD’s “It’s My Thing,” Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded,” and literally hundreds of other classics.

Over the course of his career, Johnson recorded more than a dozen studio albums. In 2010, Numero Group collected Johnson’s work in a retrospective box-set titled, Complete Mythology, which earned him his first Grammy nominations. His daughter, Syleeena Johnson, is also an accomplished singer, who was recently featured on Kanye West’s DONDA.




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