Blues, funk and soul singer / guitarist Syl Johnson dies at 85

Syl Johnson
(Image credit: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Image)

US Blues, funk and soul singer / guitarist Syl Johnson passed away on 5 February at the age of 85. The Mississippi- born brother of bassist Mack Thompson and blues guitarist / singer Jimmy Johnson also worked as a producer. Jimmy had passed away just six days before Syl on 31 January, age 93.

Jimmy was best known for his 1967 hit Different Strokes, widely sampled by hip hop artists including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Hammer, Kool G Rap and the Geto Boys.

Johnson's other signature hit include Is It Because I'm Black (1969) and 1975's Take Me To The River.

Born in Holly Springs Mississippi, Johnson's family moved to Chicago in 1950 where their neighbour was celebrated bluesman Magic Sam. Johnson would go on to perform with him in the following decade, as well as Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Billy Boy Arnold. 

Johnson made his solo debut in 1959 with the Teardrops single on the Vee-Jay label, backed by Freddie King on guitar but by the mid 1960s he'd moved to fellow Chicago label Twilight/Twilight where he achieved success as both a recording artist and producer. 

On the 1969 classic, Is It Because I'm Black, he tackled African American identity and social issues head on, taking the single to number 11 on Billboard R&B chart. 

After recording for Hi Records with Willie Mitchell in the '70s Johnson moved to the released two albums on his own Shama label, with the funk title track to 1982's Ms. Fine Brown Frame proving to be his last hit single before he mostly retired from performing. 

After Different Strokes was sampled by a number of hip hop artists, Johnson was inspired to make a comeback to music in the '90s, releasing the album Back in the Game for Delmark Records in 1994.

In 2002 he joined with brother Jimmy for the album Two Johnsons Are Better Than One and worked with his singer daughter Syleena for his final album alongside Melody Whittle in 2013. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.