Syl Johnson, revered and oft-sampled soul singer, dead at 85

Syl Johnson, the Chicago soul singer and blues artist whose 1967 track “Different Strokes” became one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history, has died at the age of 85.

Johnson’s family announced his death on Sunday; no cause of death was provided. The singer’s death comes just days after his older brother, Blues Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Johnson, died at the age of 93, CBS Chicago reports.

“It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame legend Syl Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, MS). father, uncle, friend and artist, he lived his life as a singer, musician and entrepreneur who loved black music,” the family said in a statement.

“A fiery, fierce fighter, always standing up for the pursuit of justice when it comes to his music and sound, he will be truly missed by all who crossed his path. Its catalog and its legacy will be remembered as impeccable and a historic model for all who experience it.

Born in Mississippi, Johnson was the star performer on the Chicago label Twilight/Twinight in the ’60s, enjoying moderate success over the course of his career with singles like “Come On Sock It to Me” and “Is It Because I ‘m Black”. After moving to Memphis-based Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in the ’70s, Johnson had his greatest success as a singer with his 1975 cover of “Take Me to the River.”

However, his most lasting impact on music would come in the form of his 1967 song “Different Strokes”, part of which ended up on the fourth volume of the pioneering sampling compilation. Ultimate Breaks and Rhythms.

Elements of “Different Strokes” would later be heard in “Fight the Power” and “Fear of a Black Planet” by Public Enemy, Kanye West and Jay-Z. Look at the throne bonus track “The Joy”, “Shame on a Nigga” by Wu-Tang Clan, “Criminal Minded” by Boogie Down Productions, “Talk Like Sex” by Kool G Rap and Polo G, songs by Tupac Shakur, NWA, the DOC, Das EFX and countless other rappers.

However, Johnson – despite being self-proclaimed “the most sampled artist of all time” – rarely saw his song’s royalties sampled, leading to a notable $29 million lawsuit against Cypress Hill. and as well as another lawsuit against West and Jay-Z, which eventually settled their lawsuit with Johnson in 2012. party stopped recording. “I’m sitting in the house that Wu-Tang built with their money,” Johnson joked. New York Times in 2010. (That house also had platinum and gold plaques adorning the walls, sent to Johnson by numerous rappers who sampled “Different Strokes,” the Chicago Reader reported.)

Archival label Numero Group, which released the first retrospective of Johnson’s work, tweeted On Sunday, “If only one artist could be considered a mascot for Numero, Mississippi-born soul man Syl Johnson was it. He was the first major artist to give our humble Southside Chicago operation a chance, even though he threatened to sue us during that first conversation. The label added a quote from Johnson, “I created my opportunities, but never got the breaks I should have had. I was a jack of all trades. More soul than Marvin, more funk than James. If I had done pop, you’d be talking about me, not them. I rank high, even though I’ve been underestimated my whole life.

Johnson told the New York Times in 2010, when the Numero anthology came out, “At the time, I hadn’t had the good luck, like a lot of people; I didn’t have the luck that I have now. But I didn’t give up on my dreams, and now these people have come back and picked it up and said, ‘It’s gold in here, man, you missed the gold.’ And I think once you check it out, you will like it.

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