Chicago soul legend Syl Johnson started out as a blues guitarist, working with such greats as Magic Sam, Junior Wells, and Elmore James. But he soom immersed himself in the youthful, affirming cadences of soul music: his first major hit, “Straight Love, No Chaser,” showcased his brash, slightly hard-edged way with a melody. Then in 1967 he came out with the side that catapulted him to national recognition, “Come on Sock It to Me”–a propulsive, guitar-laden gem tailor-made for both the extravagant optimism of the times and Johnson’s keen, wailing vocal style. Since then, Johnson’s recorded output has remained consistently outstanding–especially his series of LPs and singles for Willie Mitchell’s Hi label in the 70’s–and his clear, high-pitched voice has lost none of its sizzling intensity. My only criticism of Johnson is his apparent unwillingness to cool down and show some vulnerability–even his most eloquent personal and social commentaries tend toward the defiantly aggressive, rather than the meditative or compassionate. But as a purveyor of hard-core soul, with a soaring exuberance that at once embraces and transcends the anger that bore it, Johnson is a master. Friday and Saturday, Checkerboard Lounge, 423 E. 42nd; 642-3240.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.