Reviewed by Thomas Fawcett, Fri., Dec. 17, 2010
Syl JohnsonComplete Mythology (Numero Group)
Syl Johnson may not have reached the top of the charts, but he never doubted his own talent. The guitarist declared himself "more soul than Marvin, more funk than James," and like most of Johnson's occasionally outlandish claims, a boast like that is only a shade or two from the truth. Beginning in the Windy City's late-1950s blues scene, performing with Jimmy Reed and Junior Wells – an influence apparent on the bluesy R&B sides he recorded for Federal from 1959 to 1962 – Johnson first made his mark on the Twinight/Twilight labels, cracking Top 20 on the R&B charts in 1967 with "Come On Sock It to Me" and "Different Strokes." The latter proved Johnson's financial stability three decades later when Wu-Tang Clan mined the song's wicked grunts, drum breaks, and staccato horns. Two years later, in 1970, Johnson's artistic peak came with Is It Because I'm Black, a masterpiece protest album and song released well before Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Even omitting Johnson's later Hi recordings, this behemoth is impressive by the numbers alone: 81 tracks of Johnson's early career appear both on six LPs and four CDs while nearly 50 pages of liner notes and archival photos unravel the twisting tale of the would-be soul superstar. As the man himself puts it: "This is more than just a box set to me. This is the history of a masterful artist whose time has just arrived."