Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson in rural Holly Springs, Mississippi. Young Syl spent his days picking cotton alongside his brothers and sisters, and his nights on the front porch learning the blues from his father and his uncles. His family moved to Chicago in the second wave of the ‘Great Migration’ and Syl quickly made a name for himself as a sideman for blues legends including Junior Wells and Magic Sam.
By the late 1960s, Syl was local Chicago label Twinight Recordsâ€™ biggest star.Â When that small label shut its doors, he left town and tried to hit it even bigger. But after spending the1970s in Al Greenâ€™s shadow at the legendary Memphis label Hi Records, Syl failed to break through to a wider audience.
Syl went back to Chicago, retired from music and founded Solomonâ€™s Fisheries, a popular fried fish chain frequented by local politicians and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. But that success didnâ€™t last any longer than his earlier career in music. By the early 1990s Solomonâ€™s went out of business and Sylâ€™s second wife filed for divorce. For a brief time, Syl was homeless.
And thatâ€™s where a lot of people thought the story ended, but Syl was just getting his second wind. He started hearing some very familiar sounds on the radio and MTV.
Sounds he hadnâ€™t heard since back when he was appearing on Soul Train and American Bandstand in the heyday of his career. He recruited kids from his neighborhood to help find Hip Hop artists who’d sampled him and the royalty checks started pouring in.
Today many of Sylâ€™s peers are dead or just done with music. Heâ€™s not. He canâ€™t stop. Syl canâ€™t stop fighting for what heâ€™s owed (a bunch of royalties from 40 years ago, if you ask him).
He canâ€™t stop reminding the world that heâ€™s responsible for sounds in todayâ€™s pop music that are directly taken from his pioneering recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. And he canâ€™t stop performingâ€“on the stage and off.
The reissue labelÂ Numero GroupÂ has been instrumental in relaunching Syl’s career and keeping him active. They organized his first major headlining tour in decades and released the ‘Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology’Â box set, which earned him his first ever Grammy nomination.
‘Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows’,Â is a documentary in the making. TheÂ film follows Sylâ€™s life from 2009 through today, incorporating interviews, animation and archival material to illuminate his life and music. With a propulsive soundtrack spanning Sylâ€™s half-century career, ‘Any Way The Wind Blows’Â offers a window into the artistic rebirth of a nearly forgotten legend.
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