Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Syl Johnson: Burning Bridges (1998)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Syl Johnson, the sixty-two-year-old soul man most famous for R&B hits like "Different Strokes," "Is It Because I'm Black," and "Take Me to the River," does not--repeat, does not--want you to buy his new album, Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's).

It seems that after Johnson, a Chicago resident since 1952, finished recording and producing the album at the Chicago Recording Company in mid-'97, the higher-ups at Antone's Records thought that three of the tracks could use more commercial oomph. So they arranged for the producer David Z to remix them in Nashville. After Z'd finished, the Antone's folks inserted his mixes into the final product, confident they'd improved on the Johnson-produced originals.

"At first I thought it was a good idea," Johnson admits, "because David Z was going to mix the single. But he didn't even put his name on the cover, and he messed up the tracks besides."

The single to which Johnson refers is "I Been Missin' U," his duet with the teen blues phenomenon Jonny Lang. So far, neither it nor the other two Z-produced tracks have crossed over to pop radio, and Syl Johnson wouldn't like them even if they had. "On 'I Been Missin' U,' [David Z] left the guitar player out," says Johnson, referring to the rhythm guitarist Corey Giles. "He's a baaad guitar player! He's twenty-two, he's a white boy--he's good man!--and they took him out. I haven't felt good since."

Johnson doesn't feel good about the Z's mix of "Unconditional Love" either. "They used parts of the scratch vocal! And Gene Barge, the saxophone player, was just tuning up! He was just jacking off, getting ready to do his thing. But Dennis [Tousana], the engineer, picked that shit up and put it in the mix. We don't want that in there!"

Then there's the Z's mix of "Half a Love," Johnson's duet with his daughter Syleena. Johnson is willing to concede that the track "turned out pretty good," but there's still the matter of his guitar ("too loud") and the B3 organ ("too low"). "The B3," Johnson grumbles, "That's '60s shit. They don't even know what the fuck that is."

The obvious question is, why did Johnson--who considers Bridge to a Legacy and not his 1994 Delmark album Back in the Game his official comeback album--surrender so much creative control? Furthermore, why did Antone's question the judgment of a man with a proven forty-year track record of success as a writer, performer, and producer?

According to Johnson, the majority of the blame lies with two women: Miki Mulvehill, his manager, and Christie Warren, the head of Antone's Records at the time he was recording Bridge to a Legacy. He cites their relative youth (thirty-four and twenty-eight respectively) and their collective inability to resist industry peer pressure as the main reasons for their refusal to carry out his wishes. "You know what happens? They hang around at the blues fests and all that shit, and critics start asking them, 'Why are you putting Jonny Lang's name so big on the cover?' Fuck the critics, man! They ain't going to buy no records.

"Anyway," he adds, "Even if critics say it sucks, people will say, 'Well, let me hear and see if it sucks.' Any publicity is good publicity."

Johnson had also hoped that the cover would prominently feature the names of both David Z and Jonny Lang. Instead, Z's appears on the inside only (in tiny print), and Lang's, although it appears on the front, is printed in a faint, almost illegible font. As far as Johnson is concerned, the printing gaffes combined with the remixing ones are proof positive that Antone's doesn't know how to sell records.

"You can't see Jonny Lang's name!" Johnson exclaims. "Can you imagine the kind of fans that kid can give me, man? You can not imagine! And they muted his name out. What kind of idiot is that! I said, 'Why'd you mute his name out?' 'Well, we didn't want 'em to think that we were trying to use him to sell the album.' Does that make sense? That's exactly what we were trying to do!"

Despite all the negative vibes surrounding the new album, there is a Sylver lining. First, seven of the album's ten songs have survived in their original versions, including an ace remake of George Jackson's "They Can't See Your Good Side" and a new Johnson original called "Sexy Wayz," which like so many rap songs over the last ten years samples "Different Strokes."

Even better news for Johnson aficionados with international connections is that the copy circulating in Scandinavia features the original Johnson mixes all the way through. Johnson thinks Antone's may eventually issue the original mixes in the United States as well. "They have the real version in Europe and Scandinavia," says Johnson. "That's why it's doing really great there. I've got a lot of fans up there, and they ain't gonna like no bullshit, now."

Johnson's fans don't like "no bullshit" because for almost thirty years he trained them to expect anything but. After spending the late '50s and early '60s touring with Junior Wells and recording singles for the Vee-Jay Records subsidiary Federal, Johnson signed with Twilight--later Twinight--Records and kicked off a string of national R&B hits that in their hard, soulful funkiness rival the classic sides James Brown was waxing at the time.

The comparison with Brown is fitting. Johnson's powerful, brooding "Is It Because I'm Black" came out in 1968, the same year as Brown's "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud," bookended by "Dresses Too Short" and its answer record "Let Them Hang High," soulful celebrations of leggy ladies that preceded Brown's "Hot Pants" by several years.

In some ways, Soul Brother Number Two was a role that Johnson seems born to play. As the '60s ended, so did his Twinight contract, leaving him free to sign with Willie Mitchell's Hi Records, where, despite continued R&B success, he spent the '70s in the shadow of Al Green.

Still, Johnson not only accepted his backup role, he relished it. "One time I did almost a hundred days with Al Green," Johnson recalls. "He was drawing big crowds. Oh, my God! He drew people like you wouldn't believe, like blackbirds coming out of the fields. He was making a hundred thousand every night, and I was making two. But I made lots of money with just the two, and I kept saving the two."

By the early '80s, the fruits of Johnson's business savvy had begun to exceed the fruits of his musical skills, so he retired from music and concentrated on his chain of Solomon's Fish restaurants, and for several years his professional decisions were vindicated with financial prosperity.

Then the bottom fell out. His wife sued him for divorce, and his restaurant franchises began to default on their loans. When the legal dust had settled, Johnson was broke. "That knocked me completely out the box," he remembers. "All I had was a bed and a TV."

It was then that the rappers began to go mad for "Different Strokes." "Everybody sampled it," Johnson laughs. "I made all the money back that I'd lost, and then some. It started with the Geto Boys, and the Wu-Tang Clan--God! What a wonderful bunch of people! And Whodini paid me really good too. I got about $40,000 from them."

Johnson cannot say the same for MC Hammer, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Michel'le, NWA, Sister Souljah, Public Enemy, EPMD and Erick Sermon, and Tone-Loc, each of whom sampled him and each of whom paid him little or nothing. "TLC, and En Vogue, I'm still chasing them," Johnson says.

It was this new wave of attention that re-whetted Johnson's appetite for performing, and despite his disappointment over the American version of Bridge to a Legacy, he intends to make the follow-up albums that his Antone's contract calls for. "I'm just going to try to work with them, man, and see what the fuck I can do with them."

For the first time in his career, with neither James Brown nor Al Green providing any serious competition, the R&B spotlight may finally be Johnson's for the seizing. If the best parts of Bride to a Legacy are any indication, Soul Brother Number Two intends to spend his twilight years moving on up a little higher.

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