When Syl Johnson died this month, at the age of 85—a mere week after his velvet-voiced, blues-guitar-slinging big brother, Jimmy, passed, at 93—Chicago wasn’t the only city singing the blues. Sure, Syl was a helluva singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, and bandleader throughout his life—his run a unique sonic thread in Black American music that stitched together blues, R&B, soul, funk, and rap as well as any of his peers, heavyweights like Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Taylor, and Al Green. Syl—standing tall in their shadows—could hang. But Syl Johnson was nothing if not a Champion Shit Talker. When it came to layin’ down verbal smack—twisting colorful pretzels of gossip, history, and musicology into poignant, shits ’n’ giggles Lessons on Life—his preeminence was O.G. His was an outlandish sense of humor that—like his music—was sprung from picking Mississippi cotton fields, forged in the projects of Chicago, honed along the chitlin’ club circuit, polished in the studio, and pressed pursuing bootleggers and hip hop producers “promoting” his beats. And though you might’ve wondered at times whether he was putting the “false” in “falsetto” in these high-pitched tales, you never questioned his love for the art. “I made my money off of crooked people in this business, made my money off of thieves,” Syl once told me. (I did a series of interviews with him between 2008 and 2010.) “But for them to steal, I had to make good music. So I give myself credit for making music so good that a motherfucker want to steal it.”
Fortunately, my mother (or anyone else) doesn’t have to resort to thievery to imbibe the plethora of original tunes Syl laid down for several independent (and now iconic) record labels—Federal, Hi, Delmark, and Syl’s own imprint, Twinight. Dive into any of his catalog’s soulful currents and the first thing to strike you is that distinct, fluttering voice, full of yearn and swagger, often detailing the chase of a woman or being ditched by one. Notorious wildman Johnny “Guitar” Watson nicknamed Johnson “Razor Throat” after hearing his bluesy lilt. “I know how to do a song with a falsetto,” Syl told me. “I know how to put drama in it.”
The drama of Johnson’s life began on June 1, 1936, in Lamar, Mississippi. Born Sylvester Thompson, to a large musical family, Syl was bit by the blues bug early. His father played a mean harmonica when not working the fields, and local, segregated-seating B.B. King concerts would suck everybody in. But domestic abuse split up the family, and eventually a teenaged Syl snuck away to Chicago, where his mother and other siblings had relocated. Inspired by seeing packed performances by folks like Little Walter and Big Mama Thornton, Syl woodshedded. His guitar and harmonica work got him his first club and studio gigs for Billy Boy Arnold and Junior Wells, but he aimed for more. “I played blues with the blues guys, but I wanted to play some other type of shit,” he informed me. “So I started learning about the relative minor. I liked the minor key; it’s got a deeper soul to it. The minor chord is a motherfucker, man—that’s where the gospel is.”
Syl’s not-so-minor surname change from Thompson to Johnson, stamped on his 1959 debut 45, “Teardrops,” didn’t appear to help any of the tunes he recorded for Federal gain traction, but he continued to stretch his craft, fronting a 13-piece house band at the popular Club Delisa. “People loved funky soul music then,” Syl remembered. “It caught on like black pepper.” In 1967, Syl’s minor-inflected, titillating lyrics and major-movin’ groove on “Come On Sock It To Me” (featuring brother Jimmy’s guitar intro) and “Different Strokes” hit the charts, the latter becoming a future hip-hop staple for Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, and many others. It was enough for Syl to quit his day job driving for UPS, but the regional hits were fleeting. He recorded another hit, “Dresses Too Short,” in Memphis the following year, at Royal Studios with a tight studio band, impressing Hi Records honcho Willie Mitchell enough to offer a fat recording contract. “It was me that came up with that groove ’cause before that they didn’t play that type of groove,” Syl lamented. “They all call it the ‘Al Green sound’ … Al Green was nowhere near Hi then.” Trouble is, Syl dilly-dallied on the offer, and by the time he accepted, it was too late—a fresh Al Green had taken his spot.
The missed opportunity was enough to make one sing the blues, but Syl instead turned to the funk, releasing “Is It Because I’m Black,” a seven-and-a-half minute stripped-down, hypnotic burner, its lyrics bluntly calling out America’s history of racism and social unrest—a year and a half before Marvin Gaye’s seminal “What’s Going On.” Nowadays, it’s probably Syl’s best-known tune and LP. “It went pop ’cause the white college kids loved it,” he explained. “But it was banned from a lot of stations then.” Syl would eventually return to Memphis to record several albums for Hi Records during the ’70s, and continue to write, record, and perform well into “retirement” age. A lush 2010 retrospective album, Complete Mythology, brought new adoration. Major hits might have eluded him, but when I asked how he wanted to be remembered, Syl didn’t sugarcoat: “This motherfucker was as good as James Brown—or any of them.
A few days after Syl Johnson left us, another undersung pillar of Black American music and culture—Betty Davis—died, at the age of 77. “I was ahead of my time,” Davis told me in a 2008 interview, no hint of hubris in her deadpan voice, one that sounded like it had been suffering a lifetime of fools always trying to put her in a box (including the very one she was talking to at that moment: me). It’s a statement that gets bandied about much too casually, but in her case, was right on. With her glamorous beauty, risqué fashion sense, and electric persona, Betty Davis transfixed and spurred many legends of her day—folks like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Hugh Masekela, and, of course, her famous husband, Miles Davis. In the late ’60s, she became Miles’s muse—hippifying his dress code and introducing him to the electric, psychedelic sounds of rock and funk—and thus launching him into a new stratosphere that would later be called “fusion.”
So, if Betty Davis had never recorded her own music, her impact on pop culture would still have been a worthy footnote. But, luckily for us, she wrote, sang, and produced some of the rawest, hardest-hitting tunes a vinyl platter could bear. Heavy blues, rock, and, especially, gut-slappin’ funk were slathered across four 1970s albums that drop-kicked the familiar pop music script which had often portrayed female vocalists as passive and pining for “that man.” Not this Betty. “I’ll make you pocket your pride,” she sang on “Anti Love Song,” while teasing, “I’m gonna do it til the cows come home,” on “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him.” Betty Davis songs were no-holds-barred sexual taunts and tales, told from a powerful and witty female perspective, all the while girded by rhythms as bombastic and bold as her lyrics. Her vocals were more grit than range, a squeezed melange of Big Mama Thornton, Tina Turner, and Nina Simone, with an overt pander that Prince and Rick James would later cop. Many stars since—from Grace Jones to Madonna, PJ Harvey to Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse to Doja Cat—owe her a nod.
“I’d just be washing the dishes, helping my mother, and I’d start writing little jingles,” Davis recounted to me. “I always knew I was going into music.” Betty Davis was born Betty Mabry, in 1945, in Durham, North Carolina, a long way from the epicenter of hip. “My grandmother had a farm I used to stay on,” Davis recalled. “She was an avid music lover, and [we]’d talk about music, especially the blues: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins—people like that.” Her mother exposed her to gospel music, and Davis sang in her Baptist church’s choir. When the family relocated to Pittsburgh, she became interested in fashion, and as a teen enrolled in NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology. A few years later, she landed a prestigious gig at the Wilhelmina modeling agency. She continued writing songs amidst the city’s burgeoning hippie scene, often checking out shows at the Apollo Theater and the Electric Circus, which is where she caught the attention of the Chambers Brothers, whose downtown-meets-uptown aesthetic seemed a natural fit: “When I saw them, I automatically knew I had a song for them.” That song, the soulful dance number “Uptown (to Harlem),” appeared on the Brothers’ eventual 1967 smash LP, The Time Has Come.
She’d been dating trumpeter Hugh “Grazing in the Grass” Masekela, but Betty Mabry soon found herself in the throes of love with another, older horn player—Miles Davis—whom she had met at a club. Her marriage to Miles would be brief and intense. The 24-year-old graced the cover of his ’68 album Filles de Kilimanjaro (which included the song “Mademoiselle Mabry”), and she introduced the trumpeter to the music and fashion of Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Sly Stone. Miles saw her potential and helmed a recording project for Columbia involving Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Larry Young Jr., and Hendrix bassist Billy Cox, but it was shelved. “It was very progressive, very funky,” Betty recalled. After the couple split, a revitalized Miles went on to fame with jazz/funk/rock gems like Bitches Brew (the original “Witches” allegedly changed to “Bitches” upon Betty’s suggestion) and Tribute to Jack Johnson. Betty continued to model and—encouraged by friends like Clapton and Marc Bolan—write. The Commodores enlisted her songwriting to help them land a Motown deal. Davis, however, declined to join Motown’s songwriting stable, instead accepting a deal with Woodstock Festival impresario Michael Lang’s new Just Sunshine imprint. “At first I signed as a writer, not as an artist,” she told me. But, with the connections and production help of Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, Davis soon found herself surrounded by the crème de la crop of San Fran musicians—including Sly bassist Larry Graham, Santana guitarist Neal Schon, Grateful Dead collaborator Merl Saunders, and the Pointer Sisters—and spent the year writing, arranging and honing a fiery sound and style that would become her debut long-player, Betty Davis. Hitting the streets in 1973, the album sported a cover featuring the sexy, afroed Betty in daisy dukes and thigh-high silver platform boots (“Eric Clapton’s idea”) that provoked nearly as much as the grooves within. “The music was very simple,” Davis told me.
They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal followed, in ’74 and ’75, utilizing the same “simple” mix of head-bangin’ funk and heated stanza—a body of work that at its best could outplay an Ohio Player and outfunk a Funkadelic. Though some scratched the R&B chart and garnered insider acclaim (“Huey Newton was a fan of mine”), none took off. Backed by her band, Funk House, her live show became notorious. For some, however, she was simply too much. Religious groups and the NAACP tried to ban her. “They just said it wasn’t cool,” she remembered. “Especially ‘If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up.’ The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People … Well, I’m colored and they’re stopping my advancement!” Record labels didn’t know what to do with her, so by the close of the decade, Betty Davis had basically had enough—and disappeared. Fortunately, in 2007, with Light in the Attic Records reissuing her hard-to-find catalog, Davis resurfaced for another quick turn in the spotlight and—though she didn’t return to the stage—was kind enough to suffer a few more fools. ❖