Monday, May 11, 2009

Diamond Geezer

A long time ago now it seems I said this in one of my posts: “… I could hear in my head …. Alexis Korner’s voice introducing yet another fantastic piece of soul music by…well wait and see my next post”.

So five posts later here is this “next post”!

The track Alexis Korner introduced on his show way back when that stuck with me was “Don’t Do It” by Syl Johnson. It comes from Syl’s 1974 LP “Diamond In The Rough”. As the BBC Alexis Korner Blues & Show first graced the airwaves in 1977 this was evidently not a new release at the time he played it. It’s possible he spun it together with a track from Syl’s LP “Total Explosion” which would have, at a stretch, been a new release then (in the UK at least). All I know is that since sometime in the 70s I have been the proud owner of both of these albums and I’m sure I have Alexis Korner to thank for that. Which record emporium I found them in I know not, now, but I’m guessing I bought them at the same time and my only regret is that whichever shop it was most probably didn’t have his 1973 album “Back For A Taste Of Your Love” in stock (either that or I couldn’t afford all three albums at once and had to leave one in the rack).

Syl Johnson joined the Hi party in 1971 but he was no new kid on the block having started his musical career in the fifties playing and singing on the Blues circuit with the likes of Howling Wolf and Magic Sam. In the sixties he enjoyed a number of hits on the Twinight label. Indeed he was very much the dominant artist on that label. As I said, Johnson joined Hi around 1971. This coincided with the new hit phenomenon at the label that was Al Green. Johnson must have found it a bit strange to no longer be the ‘star’ artist. It seems all the artists at Hi were destined to perform in the shadow of Al Green. (Even now I often see Ann Peebles referred to the as the female Al Green. Ann was having sizeable R&B hits at Hi a couple of years prior to Al Green’s first success, and continued to have main chart action through the seventies parallel to that of Green’s. Perhaps Al Green should be known as the male Ann Peebles.)

Of the two Syl Johnson albums I have “Diamond In The Rough” is my favourite. It’s full of really strong songs, many of which were written by one D Carter – that’s Darryl Carter (see my previous post. I have realised recently that Darryl Carter = quality). The trademark 70s Willie Mitchell sound is prevalent but it’s far from production line fodder. There are nuances aplenty in the arrangements be they from strings, horns, organ, or the background singers. Most songs clock in at under three minutes (on the short side for 1974), but each feels perfectly formed. Syl’s voice may not caress you like Al Green’s but the whole package works a treat. “Total Explosion” takes on a bluesier edge with Syl adding his harmonica skills to a number of the tracks. The album includes “Take Me To The River” an album track only for Al Green which Syl Johnson subsequently took into the top 10 singles chart. During this recent interview Syl remembers being in a London hotel when Willie Mitchell called him to tell him he had a song for him (“River”) that was going to be a monster hit. This album never grabbed me in quite the same way as “Diamond” but having said that listening to it again for the first time in a long while I’m thinking I need to give it another chance.

At 72 Syl Johnson is still out there performing and is very much a soul survivor.

From Diamond In The Rough:

Syl Johnson – Don’t Do It 1974

Syl Johnson – Stuck In Chicago 1974

Syl Johnson – I Hear The Love Chimes 1974

From Total Explosion:

Syl Johnson – Bustin’ Up Or Bustin’ Out 1976

All three of Syl Johnson's Hi Albums are available on this CD. That is fantastic value for 7.98GBP !!


Anonymous said...

He is brilliant. The wufe and I saw him in New Orleans last year at the Ponderosa Stomp and he put on a great show. W.

Raggedy said...

Some music never gets old ... I love all of them.