Syl Johnson, heavily sampled soul singer and guitarist, dies aged 85

Syl Johnson
(Image credit: Syl Johnson)

Blues, funk and soul icon Syl Johnson, one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop, has died aged 85.

The news was confirmed in a statement issued by Johnson’s family to Pitchfork, which read, “It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame Legend, Syl Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, MS).

“Dad, Brother, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Uncle, Friend and Artist,” it continued, “he lived his life as a singer, musician, and entrepreneur who loved black music.”

The statement went on to describe Johnson as a “fiery, fierce, fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice as it related to his music and sound”, and said, “His catalog and legacy will be remembered as impeccable and a historical blueprint to all who experience it.”

“He will truly be missed by all who crossed his path,” Johnson’s family continued. “To his fans around the world, he loved you all. A lover of music and a Chicago icon, Syl Johnson lived his life unapologetically.”

Fiery and fierce are apt words for the soul maestro, who was born in Mississippi in 1936 and found early musical exposure by working with Chicago bluesman Magic Sam in the 1950s. It was a formative decade for Johnson, who, by the end of the ‘50s, had played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed.

His solo career took flight in the ‘60s, after Johnson took his indelible tone to the studio for his solo debut Teardrops in 1959. His sound – characterized by its irresistible swagger and ultra-smooth guitar tones – quickly fell on admiring ears, and Johnson soon found himself working with Chicago's Twinight label from the mid-’60s onwards.

1968 saw the arrival of Johnson’s debut LP, Dresses Too Short – a seminal offering that included Different Strokes, a track that would go on to become on the most well-known soundbites in hip-hop.

Different Strokes went on to be sampled by some of hip-hop’s biggest names, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Hammer, Kool G Rap, Kanye West, Jay-Z and the Geto Boys.

Tracks such as Come On Sock It To Me and Is It Because I’m Black built Johnson's reputation as a hit-maker and producer, and he joined Hi Records in the early ‘70s, where he continued his trend of producing hit singles.

It was during his tenure with Willie Mitchell’s Hi that Johnson penned his three biggest hits – We Did It, Back For A Taste Of Your Love and Take Me To The River – the latter of which sat at number seven on the R&B Chart.

After releasing his last album with Hi in 1979, Johnson established his own label, Shama, where he went on to release two albums – 1980’s Bring Out The Blues In Me and 1988’s Foxy Brown, Volume 1 – before effectively semi-retiring.

The increased interest in Different Strokes by the turn of the ‘90s saw a re-energized Johnson return to music and release his comeback record, Back In The Game, in 1994. His last studio LP, Syl Johnson with Melody Whittle capped off a prolific music-making career that saw the soul icon produce roughly a dozen records, including Bridge To Legacy, Hands of Time and Suicide Blues.

In 2015, Johnson’s career was honored in a documentary titled Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, featuring interviews with Jonathan Lethem and RZA, among others. After news of Johnson’s passing broke, the documentary was made available online for the first time via Vimeo.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.