The soul-lacious Johnson brothers have both died within a week of each other. Jimmy died on January 31, 2022 and Syl died on February 6, 2022. Jimmy died at the age of 93, whilst Syl died at the age of 89.
The Johnson family made a statement regard each brother’s passing.
“Our Dad (Syl Johnson) has gone on to heaven to be with him and many of his loved ones and fellow musicians who have passed as well. The world has lost two musical giants,” the family continued, “They came up the hard way, and they blazed a trail with hits and [became] major forces in music.”
The two were both born as James and Sylvester Thompson in Holly Spring, Mississippi. Inside a packed household of 10 children, the Thompson brothers sought to live a more independent life. They were working endlessly as kids until both brothers made a move to go their separate ways for the time being. Since James was the eldest and first son of the family, he got his independence first. At the ages of 16, Sylvester moved to Chicago and Jimmy moved to Memphis.
James’ move to Memphis four years prior was filled with more work and odd jobs. When Sylvester got to Chicago, his career in the music business grew exponentially. He started recording songs with the Federal label. Former music executive Syd Nathan gave Sylvester Thompson a new name after printing his new stage name on his first record, “Teardrops”. Syd Nathan liked the sound of Syl Johnson more than Sylvester’s real name. From that moment a legend was born, as Syl ran with the new name.
Syl once detailed the time when he brought his new stage name home to his family.
So when I got my record, it was ‘Syl Johnson,’
I took it to show my mother. I said, ‘Mama, my name is through! I got a new name! My entertainment name is Syl Johnson!’
1. Syl Johnson – Teardrops
During this time period, James left Mississippi and joined his brother in Chicago to build on the success him and his family were making.
Syl was building a music catalog and James was working as a construction worker and part-time musician. James didn’t pick up an instrument until he was 28 years old. Luckily for James, he lived next to blues legend and guitarist Magic Sam. It also helps that Magic Sam is also a Mississippi product trying to find a better life in Chicago. After James’ first show, he was hooked on the blues and the newly reformed Jimmy Johnson was shortly fired from his construction job.
For Syl, he soon left Federal Records to start recording songs with the Twilight/Twinight label in the mid-60s. The hits all started with 1967s “Come On Sock It To Me”. What soon followed after was Syl’s most successful album, and one heck of a debut, Dresses Too Short.
The album featured several songs that rose within Billboard’s Top 20 in the R&B charts and Hot 100 in the Pop charts. “Come On Sock It to Me” (12), “Different Strokes” (17) and “Dresses Too Short” (36) were certified hits. Way after it’s inception, “Different Strokes” is one of the most sampled songs of all time with 330 samples. Artists from LeVert to Jay-Z and Kanye West have used the song to amplify whatever they had going on. It’s hard not to see the sample-ability of the track.
2. Syl Johnson – Different Strokes
3. Syl Johnson – Dresses Too Short
The two brothers’ music careers continued to blossom through the 1970s.
Off the strength of his 1969 hit record, “Is It Because I’m Black?”, Syl left Twilight/Twinight for Hi Records. The move was largely because of widely known Mississippi producer Willie Mitchell. During his time there he got to perform his most successful record, the Al Green penned, “Take Me to the River”. Syl was frustrated with the attention his counterparts including Al Green got over him. It led him to take a break from music. It really wasn’t a break at all as he ended up creating 10 more albums by 2013. Anyway, that initial break led him to opening Solomon’s Fishery, a fish restaurant in Chicago. It later became a big chain.
According to the last label he signed to, Numero Group, Syl Johnson said the following about his situation with music career.
I made my opportunities, but I never got the breaks I should have gotten. I was a jack-of-all-trades.
More soul than Marvin, more funk than James. If I’d gone pop, you’d be talkin’ about me, not them.
I rate right at the top, though I’ve been underrated all my life.
While Syl was going through a hard time in the late 70s and in the precipice of his “retirement” from music, Jimmy was still trucking on as a blues man. Jimmy had worked with legendary blues artists including Otis Clay, Denise LaSalle, Garland Green, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. 7 of those 9 artists are from Mississippi by the way. From 1977 to 2019 he released 12 albums as a solo artist.
4. Jimmy Johnson – Tobacco Road Album
The Johnson brothers actually collaborated with each other after years of making music back in 2002.
They created a whole album together on the aptly named Two Johnsons Are Better Than One.
5. Syl and Jimmy Johnson – Uncomplicated Life
In the later years of their careers, Syl ended up with 17 albums to Jimmy’s 13 albums.
In 2010, Syl was nominated for his first two GRAMMYs for the re-release of his works. He didn’t win in the Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes categories, but he won something better in the later half. Syleena Johnson, who is best known for her feature on Kanye West’s “All Falls Down”, is his daughter. A loving father and daughter relationship was formed. As her music career rose, Syl was there to help and build. They even found the time to record two albums together. In 2015, Syl got a documentary made about his life in music titled Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows. It was selected at various film festivals.
6. Syl and Syleena Johnson – Unconditional Love
7. Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows
Jimmy recorded his last album, Every Day of Your Life, in 2019.
Jimmy was a 90-year-old man still out there shredding. He played live shows in Chicago when he was feeling good.