“Listen and you’ll get a good story” Syl Johnson admonished me when I interrupted him as he related his music career from the beginning. It was like we were on the bandstand and I was in the band and he was the bandleader about to issue me a fine. So bear with me so I don’t have to pawn my laptop. This is a loose transcription of our phone interview. – Tee Watts
Blues Blast: Tell us how the music grabbed you as a child. How did it start for you?
Syl Johnson: Do you know of Matt “Guitar” Murphy? He was my older brother, Jimmy’s friend. He had a guitar that he would leave with Jimmy sometimes. When he would go to the field, he would tell me, “Boy don’t touch that guitar when I go to the field.” Of course, when he’d go to the field, I’d pick up that guitar. That’s how I made my first licks. They called Matt, MT Murphy at the time. He and my brother were older boys. I was a little boy. But shit, when I saw how they played, I wanted to play too. I got that guitar and learned how to play a song called Fodder And Corn. That’s what my daddy called it.
BB: Your daddy was a musician too, hunh? Didn’t he play harmonica?
SJ: And guitar.
BB: So you moved from Holly Springs, Mississippi to the promised land Chicago when you were about ten?
SJ: You got that right. Except I was about twelve.
BB: Was it like culture shock to you? Was it way different? Can you describe it?
SJ: Oh man, yes sir! When I looked at the tall buildings, I thought they might fall on me. I liked it though. There were a lot of things to see. Bright lights, all that type of stuff.
BB: You became neighbors to Magic Sam?
SJ: We moved right next door to him.
BB: How was Magic Sam’s playing at the time compared to Matt “Guitar” Murphy.
SJ: Magic Sam couldn’t play that good at that time.
BB: In 1959, you recorded with Jimmy Reed. Do you recall anything about those sessions?
SJ: Well, we’d get paid for 3 sessions cuz that son of a gun had to get drunk. After while, he’d get drunk and hit the tune, You got me runnin’…) You know you could only spend so much time on a session. Three hours per session times three is 9 hours.
BB: So, how many songs would you try to cut in one session?
SJ: We’ try to cut at least four. Jimmy was a slow worker cuz he drank too much. He had to be drunk to start the groove.
BB: So you were playing second guitar behind Eddie Taylor?
S J: Eddie Taylor played lead and me and Jimmy Reed played rhythm.
BB: At that point, were you signed with Vee-Jay or working as a session musician?
SJ: I was a session musician. I signed my first record deal later that year. I was supposed to sign with Vee-Jay. Me and Phil Upchurch were in the studio with Jimmy Reed who was out lookin’ for whiskey. Upchurch and I were jammin’. I was singin’ a song I had played on the bandstand the night before. Vivian Carter, the owner of Vee-Jay opened up the mics so she could hear what was goin’ on. She told her brother, Calvin, “That young cat in there can sing. I’d like to record him.” Later, Calvin Carter pulled me aside and said, “My sister wants to make a record on you.”
“No, she wants you to sing.”
“I don’t sing. I just mess around sometimes.” So, he kept after me. He asked me several times. Finally, I said, “Man, what should I do?”
“Write a song and bring me a dub.” So I wrote a song and went into one of those little booths where you could make an acetate, that they had in those days.
I got on the bus intendin’ to take the dub to Vee-Jay, but the bus didn’t stop on Michigan and I ended up getting off on Wabash. I tried to take a shortcut at 13th and Wabash, tryin’ to get to Vee-Jay. But, as I passed by King Records, I said to myself, “Let me go in here. I walked in there and Ralph Bass said, “Boy, what you want?”
“Is this a record company?”
“Yeah, this is a record company.”
“Well, I gotta dub.”
“Lemme listen to it.”
Damn, he took it into the back of the studio. I could see him through the glass. He’s noddin’ his head as if he likes it. He came back out and said, “Man, I like your record.”
I say, “Whoa yeah!”
He say, “Let me call my boss and let him listen to it.” He went in there and got his boss on the phone. I’m still watchin’ him as he played the record over the phone. He came back in and said, “Hey man, my boss loved it!”
I say, “Whoa yeah,” and asked him for my dub back.
He say, “No, we want to record you.”
“But, I’m supposed to go by Vee-Jay.”
“We’re bigger than Vee-Jay. We got James Brown, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard & The Midnighters. You come back here Thursday. I’ll get the band together and we’ll be rehearsin’ your song for recording.”
When I went back on Thursday, they were rehearsin’ my shit. Lester Bates was on guitar and I think Gene Redd was the drummer. Long Gone Sonny Thompson was the producer. They were rehearsin’ my song Teardrops. I could hardly stand up I was so nervous. I said, “God damn, what is this?”
So the next day, I went to Universal Studios, studio A and cut it. It didn’t do nothin’ though. I went on down to Cincinnati to record some more for King. It was the first time I was ever on an airplane. Syd Nathan told me I would be around for a long time. He’d pick me up every morning at the hotel and take me to the studio. He taught me the record business, start to finish.
One day we were in there and Charles Brown came in to cut Merry Christmas Baby. When they came into the studio, you had to leave. Mr. Nathan would take me back to the hotel.
He took the time to show me the recording process. He said, “First we cut the lacquer master. Tomorrow, we’ll make the silver mother. I’ll show you.” So we dipped it overnight in a solution of stannous chloride. The next morning we took it out and dried it off. When the assembly line girls came they would take one side of the silver mother and clamp it facing down and the other side would be facing up. When she would hit that machine arm and bring it down like a slot machine motion, pressing it into the wax, creating the A and B side of the record. The next lady puts a sleeve on the record. The next lady puts the record in a box. Boom! Syd Nathan said, “UPS will come get it this evenin’. Tomorrow it will be at radio stations and distributors all over the country.”
BB: Did Vivian Carter and her brother ever say anything to you about the fact that they promised you a deal and you never showed up?
SJ: Yeah, but I told them I got a better deal. Calvin Carter told me his sister Vivian was very disappointed. I did go on to record with other people for Vee-Jay though.
BB: So did you go all over touring in support of your early records or stay in the Midwest?
SJ: I didn’t tour the country for myself. I kinda stayed in the Midwest since I didn’t have a hit. I got married when I was very young. I married Hazel when I was a teenager. She was from Mississippi. I was a city boy by then. I got a day job and started playin’ in a band. My wife didn’t want me in the band. She wanted me to work. So I had to work five days a week and play in the band five nights a week. A lot of people sample my music today as a result of all that hard work. The Wu-Tang Clan just called my daughter the other day trying to reach me about the music.
Anyway, I got a job as a truck driver and by 1 pm, I’d be through, in the truck sleep. A twenty-minute nap for me is like two hours of sleep. I’d take my truck back to the barn and go home and go to sleep again, cuz I gotta hit the gig at about 9 pm and work till 1 am through the week. I drank no whiskey.
BB: What places were you playin’?
SJ: I played all over Chicago. Sylvio’s, Mel’s Hideaway, The Checkerboard, The Burning Spear, The Just Me Lounge, Lonnie’s Skyway–I played Lonnie’s Skyway with Etta James. Also L.C. Cooke, Sam Cooke’s brother. L.C. told us in rehearsal that they were after his brother. That he needed to go see about him.
At Lonnie’s Skyway, the bandstand was behind the bar. We were playin’ the last set after L.C. had done his show. He came out of the dressin’ room, waved his hand at us, “Y’all take it easy. I’m goin’ out to California to see my brother. That was right about the time Sam was killed. I didn’t hardly play with L.C. no more after that.
Little Willie John’s band was also backing Jackie Wilson. At some point, they left Jackie and my band started backing him. This was in the ’60s. Jackie would frequently be late, but boy could he draw a crowd.
BB: Man look, when I was sixteen years old, I saw Jackie Wilson at what was then called the Oakland Auditorium. At some point during the set, girls in the audience lined up from the stage all the way to the rear of the auditorium. There must have been a hundred or more. Jackie Wilson kissed every girl in that line while the band riffed Stop Doggin’ Me Around. I’m not talkin’ ’bout your everyday peck on the cheek. I saw this with my own eyes. I couldn’t believe it, man! It really affected me.
SJ: Where were you at?
BB: Oakland, California
SJ: That was my band. Wasn’t no name to the band. We just traveled with Jackie. Women would get worked up. I saw a woman kiss another woman who had kissed Jackie. Once in Minnesota Jackie kissed a woman and her date got offended. He ran up and pushed Jackie in the back. Jackie spun around and knocked him out.
BB: I know he used to box. When did you start touring to promote your own material?
SJ: I didn’t tour promoting my own stuff until 1967 after Come On Sock It To Me was released.
BB: Was that about the time you got involved with Hi Records and Willie Mitchell?
SJ: No, this was before Willie Mitchell. Once I started making hits, Willie Mitchell came after me. Right about the time the Jefferson Airplane covered Different Strokes. The way Different Strokes came about was, we had recorded a track called Fox Hunting On The Weekend. My background singers were Fontella Bass, Minnie Riperton, and Jackie Ross. After we were done with that track, they were just sitting there. Then it hit me. The spirit moved me to record Different Strokes.
Baby you’re laughin’, but I’ll be around for a while, yeah, yeah, yeah
Can’t you dig it honey, by watchin’ my style now…
It was based on a true story. You see I was trying to make it with this cute little 19-year-old girl. A friend of mine since we were boys, the singer Garland Green, who made the R&B hit, Jealous Kind Of Fellow, gave me a Dexedrine tablet and told me, “Man, it will give you energy and you won’t get tired.”
I’m trying to make it with this girl and the Dexedrine made me impotent. I’m tryin’ to do this girl and I failed. I can remember the girl laughed me out of there. I was so embarrassed.
So bingo! When I was recording Different Strokes, I thought about it and decided to put in my grunt and Minnie Riperton’s laugh at the beginning of the track. I’d asked the background girls who could do the laugh and Minnie spoke up, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.!”
BB: So are you saying that you wrote the song on impulse in the studio while the girls were sitting around.
SJ: No, no. You’re not listening. Let me tell you what happened. My saxophonist, John Cameron had written the lyrics. I never told John Cameron about what happened with the girl and the Dexedrine. I would’ve been too ashamed. The girl’s name was Odessa and she was very fine!
I just put my grunt followed by Minnie Riperton’s laugh at the beginning of the track, based on the real-life experience with the girl, Garland Green, and the Dexedrine. Lord, have mercy. The spirit made it click that way. That turned out to be the greatest song ever.
When the rappers heard that, they had to have it. Minnie Riperton’s voice was removed to keep her people from coming after me. So my sampled grunt is the biggest thing that ever happened in the music business. Write that down! Bigger than White Christmas by Bing Crosby. Michael Jackson used my music on two albums and only paid me for one. Shaquille O’Neal used it also on a rap as did the Beastie Boys, Kid Rock, and The Fine Young Cannibals. Kanye West and Jay Z won a Grammy sampling my music. We settled out of court. I’m suing Eric B and Rakim right now for using it in 2018.
Now, the song Sock It To Me was a hook I stole from Chuck Jackson. When we were playin’ behind Chuck Jackson, he’d come on stage and do a lyric that had that phrase in it. My saxophone player, Jesse Anderson appropriated it. Singer/songwriter Jo Armstead helped me write the lyrics.
BB: Is Jackie Ross still alive.
SJ: Yes. But Fontella Bass and Minnie Riperton have both passed on. At the time I worked with her, Minnie Riperton was using the name Andrea Davis. She was a secretary at Chess Records.
BB: Didn’t you do something for Chess too?
SJ: Yeah, with different artists. John Lee Hooker was one.
BB: How did the Chess Brothers treat you?
SJ: When they’d see me, they’d pay me for the session. They were good people, man. Through the Chess Brothers radio station WVON became one of the most powerful in the world.
BB: Tell us about the equipment you use.
SJ: I play a Gibson ES-336. I use a Fender Twin Reverb amp and I like the Marine Band Blues Harmonica.
BB: Are you still accepting bookings?
SJ: Yeah, But I don’t do as many gigs as I used to. My booking agent is Miki Mulvehill at Heart & Soul Artist Management.
That’s not the end of the Syl Johnson story. On 12/22/19, Blues Blast reviewed the book he authored which was published the same month. He is now working on Part II of the book, which is titled, “It’s Because They Were Black: 100 Years of Fraud and Forgery.
The Blues Foundation will induct Syl Johnson into the Blues Hall of Fame on May 6, 2020, along with Bettye Lavette, Eddie Boyd, Victoria Spivey, Billy Branch, and George “Harmonica” Smith. And though an official announcement won’t be made until late February, there is a possibility that Syl Johnson will be feted along with other survivors of The Chess Record Era when the City of Chicago and the Chicago Blues Fest celebrates the 70th Anniversary of the founding of Chess Records in June of this year.