A 75-year-old might be considered easy prey in a voracious music industry, but if there’s one thing American soul and R&B legend Syl Johnson won’t do, it’s go down without a fight. On the August 23, Johnson’s label Numero Group – which last year released a four-disc box set of the legendary Chicago native’s songs – released a statement accusing Kanye West and Jay-Z of illegally sampling Johnson’s 1967 hit Different Strokes on their recently released Watch The Throne record.
The accusation flew around the globe, landing Johnson in the media spotlight yet again for going after rappers who have used uncleared samples of his R&B singles from the 60s, which include Come On Sock It To Me and Is It Because I’m Black?
One of the most widely reported cases of a Johnson song being used illegally was in Cypress Hill’s 1993 album, Black Sunday. Other acts, like Wu-Tang Clan and Kid Rock, have paid for their samples, but an incensed Johnson estimates there to be “about a hundred” rappers who he’s still planning to chase for payments, including Kanye and Jay-Z.
“They need my permission to do that shit,” he says of the pair. “And they come to me after I catch ‘em and tell me what they’ll pay me? No… Wu-Tang paid me $110,000 for Different Strokes and sampled a whole bunch of other [tracks] and paid me for that. I paid for this house that I’m living in with that money.”
If Johnson, who is in his Chicago home preparing for a television news broadcast when we call, is keeping tabs on where songs he recorded some 40 years ago are being used, it’s more than understandable. While he’s often overshadowed by singers like Al Green (who was a label-mate at Memphis imprint Hi Records through the 70s) in the soul history books, being rightly credited by rappers for using his tracks is a matter getting the proper recognition he deserves.
Not that Johnson sees it entirely that way. When it’s suggested that the media attention surrounding the Watch The Throne sample (in the song The Joy) is at least good publicity for his live shows, the veteran offers a swift rebuke. “I don’t care about no publicity. I’m gonna sell out anyway!”
Indeed, when Johnson made his first visit to Australia in 2009, his tour was a huge success. Backed by Melbourne band The Bamboos, Johnson showed he still had the pluck to own a stage – to play the bombastic soul leader – and he certainly still has the pipes (as an impromptu and frankly amazing rendition of his 1975 song I Only Have Love down the phone line attests).
Johnson returns in September, again playing with The Bamboos. In 2009 Johnson and the band had only one day to rehearse together, and despite nailing their Corner Hotel set, Johnson says, “We gonna be better this time. By now they know me pretty well, so we gonna be good.”
On finding young musicians to play with, Johnson adds, “My heritage and my style and my sound has been passed on to the younger generations of people – black and white. The organic sound from the 60s, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, all the local musicians play the 60s music.”
One thing that hasn’t been passed down is a coherent history of Johnson himself. His past is awash with contradicting facts and tales, to the point where even his age is up for debate. As something of a homage to their elusive star, the Numero Group even titled his recent box set Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology. At one point, there was talk – though it seemingly came from Johnson himself – that he was the son of blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
“It was the right time. I could have been,” he says with a laugh, then tells the story of his grandfather, Wallace, who was a slave in Mississippi before his four sons bought the plantation he worked on. None of those sons were named Robert.
“I’m trying to be straight up with you now because I’m older,” Johnson says with another laugh. “I just used to talk shit, man. But you know what you do when you talkin’ shit – you just talkin’ shit and that’s that.”
Syl Johnson and The Bamboos play The Hi-Fi on Saturday September 17 (postponed from the 10th). Doors from 8.30pm.