2010: Emerson Dameron
and it might sell three or four million in two days!”
In the epic liner notes for Complete Mythology, the accompanying write-ups and interviews, even on Numero Group’s Twitter feed, Syl Johnson comes across as one ace bullshit artist. The Chicago soul legend can’t make it through 100 words without changing the subject. He distorts his past until he seemingly loses track of his own story. At one point, he claimed to be Robert Johnson’s bastard child. And he greatly overstates his own nonetheless remarkable skill and significance. (“More soul than Marvin. More funk than James.”)
In 2010, everything seems to be going his way. The Numero Group has a rep for resurrecting lost R&B material from unstable geniuses, researching it to fuck and back, and presenting it with its rough edges intact, and the Syl box is by far its best work. At 81 tracks deep, it compiles his bluesy early singles, two solid LPs in toto (Dresses Two Short and Is It Because I’m Black), and pretty much everything else the man so much as thought about in the years 1959-71. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with much interest from people who could easily be his grandchildren. He’s playing live again and apparently loving it. He’s finally getting some of the recognition he’s always known -- for an absolute fucking certainty -- he deserved.
But Syl Johnson’s music thrives on the same sort of deep-seeded pain and frustration that drives his constant shit-talking. And a big part of that resulted from his constant struggle to start a proper showbiz career.
Before Complete Mythology, Syl Johnson could be fairly described, in the icy words of a rare mixed (and weirdly backhanded) review, as an “also ran.” Although a versatile, emotive singer, he was never as smooth as Marvin, not to mention Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. He was a great showman and a natural comedian, but was never as flamboyant or unhinged as JB. His labels, like most of the ones that have piqued Numero’s interest, weren’t very good at the music business.
Basically, Syl Johnson sucked at brand management. He never had a consistent backing band; thus, no real “sound.” He experimented with various genres, sometimes realizing halfway through a session that he was outgrowing his own material. The aforementioned review describes him as a “trend spotter” and “hit-chaser,” but that didn’t result in a steady stream of hits. For every single that connected (“Come On Sock It To Me,” “Different Strokes”), four more flopped bitterly. And unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never crossed over to Top 40 radio, something that obviously ate at him.
In the liner notes, his envy and anger bleed through as he ditches his wife and three kids, makes paranoid remarks about James Brown, and repeatedly revises his own history. And he didn’t really hit his artistic stride until that anger, that class frustration, became a focal point for his music.
Again, Syl’s pipes can’t shout like Brown’s or serenade like Gaye’s. His special skill, even on his throwaway novelty numbers (generously represented here, as there is much to be learned from hearing a genius at his worst), is communicating a heavy, world-weariness. He’s undisputedly soulful and yet defiantly enigmatic. His is a unique, mysterious and fascinating language for sadness.
In July of ’69, he recorded what would become the title track for Is It Because I’m Black, a slow-burning lament for those already losing sight of the civil rights era’s promise as society frayed and the dismal Nixon years loomed. The album is his most resolute work; predating Gaye’s What’s Going On?, it’s described as “the first black concept album,” which seems fair enough -- it’s at least a damned strong one. Even the cover tunes, for which Johnson always had a penchant (they comprise a fat fraction of Complete Mythology), blend in seamlessly, whether Oscar Brown’s “Black Balloons” or the Beatles’ “Come Together.” And yet, this album, too, flopped, evading both the black intellectual audience Syl had in mind and the white college kids. Problems can inspire great art, but great art doesn’t always solve the problems.
In and out of the music scene ever since, Syl Johnson has made some scratch from all those samples, and from a short-lived chain of seafood joints. According to Numero and various journalists who’ve caught up with him since the reissue campaign began, he’s not the easiest guy to get in touch with, to talk to, to bring around to one’s way of thinking. He’s been burned by the business, and by life. But he’s still funny, he still puts on an great show… he’s still got it. He knows he’s still got it. And he’s having a blast playing the old stuff, much of which, upon first encountering Numero, he barely remembered recording.
2010 was the worst year of my adult life. By New Year’s Day, I had lost a job I loved. I searched fruitlessly for work (I’m amazed that I still hear the word “overqualified”), struggled to keep things together on my meager unemployment benefits (on weeks they weren’t unceremoniously cut off because of a GOP filibuster), and fell into sporadic fits of depression as bad as I’ve ever had it. It bit, hard.
Yet, I considered myself privileged to spend the second half of the year poring over Complete Mythology. Syl Johnson’s music brought me great comfort on shitty days. The deep stuff is as powerful as soul music gets, and the frivolous stuff is never less than good times. And this, I must reiterate, is Numero’s coup de grace. It’s an artifact for the ages. Aside from 81 tracks on four CDs and a 50-page, 12” x 12” booklet, you get Dresses Too Short and Is It Because I’m Black on vinyl, along with four imaginary LPs compiled from the non-album singles and packaged with amusingly anachronistic artwork and liner notes. That’s so much to parse, it makes a man happy to be jobless.
The more I learn about Syl, the more I like him. A man in continual flux? An artist particularly at home with sadness and frustration? A loose cannon, always talking shit and prone to lashing out aimlessly and destructively? Can’t get a career off the ground? Neglected, rejected, disrespected, and curious to understand the forces holding him back? All the music on Complete Mythology came out decades ago, obviously. But Syl Johnson gets my nomination for 2010’s man of the year.
By Emerson Dameron