Chicago shaped Jimmy and Syl Johnson, and the brothers stayed grounded here even as they became global heroes. The singer-guitarists moved up from Mississippi after World War II and played blues and R&B, carving out their own spaces within those sounds. They had outwardly contrasting personalities and their careers took different paths; they worked together only occasionally. But their recent deaths—Jimmy on January 31 at age 93, Syl on February 6 at 85—reminded us of the best of what they shared.
Syl’s output included famously funky singles and a momentous soul concept album, and his recordings became crucial sources of hip-hop samples. Jimmy made his name playing straight-ahead blues in clubs, at festivals, and on records, including for Chicago-based Delmark and Alligator.
While Jimmy maintained a quiet, thoughtful demeanor, Syl was a tireless raconteur, and could take any casual conversation in myriad unexpected directions. About 12 years ago, when I introduced Syl to my parents at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a brief exchange of greetings turned into a monologue from Syl about the music industry; eventually he pivoted to the subject of his somewhat new teeth, and then engaged my dad in a discussion about the 1936 Olympics.
Below the surface, though, Jimmy and Syl had more in common than they probably admitted. Though their styles diverged, both were individualistic creators. They also seemed to treat everyone with genuine warmth. And Syl would occasionally answer you as directly as Jimmy always did—usually when facing the questions that mattered the most. When I once asked Syl what he was proudest of, he simply said, “Longevity.”
The brothers learned about working for the long haul growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi, back when they were known as James and Sylvester Thompson. They spent their youth laboring in the fields, but music surrounded them. One of their neighbors, Matthew “Guitar” Murphy, lent Jimmy his instrument; their father was an amateur singer; and another brother, Mack, would become a bassist. They left the south as soon as they could, around 1950—Jimmy first, then Syl not long after.
Not even the brothers themselves have been clear about the hows and whys of their change of professional surname to “Johnson,” and one claim that Syl used to make—that his biological father had been early blues musician Robert Johnson—isn’t backed by any documentation. Then again, as they built their lives in Chicago, a certain amount of reinvention was surely in order.
Not that migration made life easy. Jimmy was a welder by day until the 1960s, when he landed regular gigs playing blues, R&B, and pop in the city’s clubs. Syl drove a truck while recording for a series of independent soul labels, eventually becoming a singer and producer on Twinight Records (originally Twilight). In 1967 he released his first 45 with the company, which was also his first hit: the rambunctious party number “Come On Sock It to Me.”
On these singles for Twilight/Twinight, Syl sings with a mature inflection atop upbeat rhythms geared toward a young audience—listeners who would’ve known the dance crazes he names on “Come On Sock It to Me.” He may have had an ownership stake in Twinight, as suggested by the liner notes to the Numero Group’s essential 2010 retrospective box set, Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology. He also ran a smaller label of his own called Shama. By getting involved in the business side of his music, he strove to avoid becoming one of the industry’s victims.
“A musician is on the road, grinning with the fans and stuff, and unless you got Al Capone for a manager, he’s not protected,” Syl told me in 2010. “When a company, especially. . . . Let me explain it to you: Salmon spawn—boom, they jump up shore, they come in to lay their eggs. They’re coming upstream to clean water, right? And the bears are just sitting there: ‘Roar, I got you!’ So there were guys waiting for guys to come from Mississippi.”
Segregation had much to do with that institutionalized system of exploitation. Syl addressed such issues in his landmark 1970 album, Is It Because I’m Black. It’s his most important work, and he seems to have known that while he was making it: he avoided the boisterous horns that propelled his earlier records, and his drawling, despondent vocals combine with the title track’s stark guitar lines to make its question sound even more bitter and pained. “Concrete Reservation” delivers a vivid and unsparing perspective on public housing, but the album also conveys optimism, particularly on the lilting “Black Balloons,” which hopes for a harmonious interracial future. The record remains a piercing portrait of late-1960s urban America, and it foreshadowed LP-length statements from Syl’s contemporaries and descendants in the decades to come.
Syl spent the early and mid-1970s recording for Memphis-based Hi Records. He credited the label’s most famous producer, Willie Mitchell, for teaching him a more relaxed approach to his singing—he learned to take more time to slide into songs. Syl cut a slew of lovely romantic tunes that landed on the R&B charts, though the kind of crossover popularity achieved by labelmate Al Green eluded him. He made his last album for Hi in 1977, then started looking for other ways to earn a living—including what would become a food franchise.
Meanwhile, Jimmy had begun recording and performing more on the blues circuit, as opportunities to play live pop and R&B declined in the mid-1970s; he worked as a sideman for the likes of Jimmy Dawkins and Otis Rush. His first American album as a leader was the 1979 Delmark release Johnson’s Whacks, where his distinctive high-pitched voice played off his personal way of bending strings in a minor key.
Jimmy brought an understated sense of humor to such songs as “I Need Some Easy Money,” and because he’d cultivated an interest in jazz, the album includes a version of the Dave Brubeck Quartet staple “Take Five.” Even as he continued to learn about different idioms and instruments, he tended to be generous and self-effacing about his talents.
“When we played at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, [Jimmy] sat in on piano one night,” says singer and harmonica player Billy Branch. “And he said, ‘You get me for free tonight, but when I get good you’ll have to pay.’”
During the 1980s, Syl occasionally performed with Jimmy. He also dabbled in synthesizer-driven funk for the fun 1982 album Ms. Fine Brown Frame (Boardwalk). But he mainly spent his days and nights running a small chain of restaurants called Solomon’s Fishery, which he’d launched with a single Chicago location in ’84. Food choices always seemed as vital to Syl as musical ones. Years after closing his last Solomon’s franchises, he maintained a sizable organic garden outside his south-side home. Undoubtedly, his healthy diet contributed to his longevity, and he loved to pontificate on the subject.
The Johnsons continued their relatively low profile into the 1990s, but they both made endearing albums. Jimmy’s compositions are the highlights on his 1994 release I’m a Jockey (Birdology), primarily the forlorn ballad “My Ring.” Syl reunited with the Hi rhythm section and top Chicago players for the 1994 Delmark disc Back in the Game, which should’ve alerted more people to his achievements in classic R&B.
In 2002 the brothers joined forces for Two Johnsons Are Better Than One (Evidence). In a 2019 interview for Blues Blast Magazine, Jimmy complained that he didn’t like the project, and the silly double entendre in its title probably invited more groans than sales. The album does have its lively moments, though, along with a tribute to Oprah Winfrey—according to Syl, one of his best seafood customers. Around that time, Syl’s daughter, Syleena Johnson, started establishing herself as a contemporary R&B singer.
Commercial trends in music turned out to be in Syl’s favor, though, even if it didn’t necessarily mean people were buying his records. He began to hear pieces of his 1960s and ’70s songs sampled on hip-hop tracks dating all the way back to the 80s—the website whosampled.com has noted more than 400 such uses to date. Morris Jennings’s sharp drum break and Minnie Riperton’s laugh on his 1967 single “Different Strokes” proved especially lucrative: snippets can be heard in hundreds of tracks, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and EPMD’s “It’s My Thing.”
It took Syl a while to discover how widely he’d been sampled and work with a lawyer to settle the resulting rights issues, but by the 2000s he was getting his money—sometimes a lot of it. This success fed into the reception for the Numero set, which earned him a Grammy nomination. Then came a solid 2015 documentary film named after one of his Hi tracks, Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows. His walls were adorned with gold and platinum albums that had sampled his music, including releases by the likes of Raekwon and Eric B. & Rakim. He was especially happy with the way RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan treated him.
“RZA said, ‘Motherfucker, they didn’t promote you like they promoted Al Green,” Syl recalled. “We got all your motherfucking shit. We got all your shit in Europe. Every motherfuckin’ shit you made.’ When he said, ‘We’re gonna pay the fuck out of you,’ I called him ‘sir.’”
For the past few years, Syl mostly laid low, though in 2019 he published a short book he’d written about his family’s travails in the early-20th-century south and the destruction of Black generational wealth, titled It’s Because They Were Black: 100 Years of Fraud and Forgery. But Jimmy stayed more visible, though, and before COVID he was gigging in clubs and on big European stages; in 2019 he delivered a strong headlining set at the Chicago Blues Festival. Even after the pandemic shut down live music, he adapted to livestreaming and played intimate shows via his Facebook page.
In 2020, Jimmy returned to Delmark for the moving album Every Day of Your Life, which revisits his past and adds some new turns—including a version of “My Ring” with a reggae beat. The uplifting title track reflects on mortality and the importance of making the most of each day. But Jimmy delivered what may have been his defining credo in 2018, during an informal gig with Branch at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center cafe. “I can explain it pretty quick,” he said during a short conversation just before the set. “It’s the first thing that people miss: Be kind to everyone.”
An underappreciated soul great gets another chance.
Veteran DJ Vince Adams and nonagenarian bluesman Jimmy Johnson both took to livestreaming during the pandemic.
Jimmy Johnson—older brother of Syl—started out playing soul, but he came into his own as a bluesman in the late 1970s.
Blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson, still going strong at 91, released his newest album just four months ago.
Syleena Johnson became a force in mainstream R&B in the early 2000s, landing several chart hits and working alongside such figures as Busta Rhymes, Kanye West, and…
At 90 years old, Mississippi-born guitarist Jimmy Johnson is a walking master class in modern blues greatness.