Syl Johnson, much-sampled blues, funk and soul singer, dies aged 85

Singer’s upbeat and socially conscious songwriting appears on tracks by Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy and Kanye West

Syl Johnson, the blues, funk and soul singer whose work was much sampled in US hip-hop, has died aged 85.

No cause of death was announced by his family, who said of Johnson: “He lived his life as a singer, musician and entrepreneur who loved black music … A fiery, fierce, fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice as it related to his music and sound, he will truly be missed by all who crossed his path.”

Born in Mississippi in 1936, Johnson was raised in Chicago where he remained throughout his life. He released his first solo material in 1959, and wrote genre-straddling work that led him to describe himself as “a jack-of-all-trades. More soul than Marvin [Gaye], more funk than James [Brown]”.

He had his biggest hit in 1975 with Take Me To the River, the song by labelmate Al Green that would also be recorded by Talking Heads. It reached No 7 in the US R&B chart and crossed over into the Top 50 of the pop chart.

Perhaps his most famous song, though, is Different Strokes, sampled by dozens of hip-hop artists: its catchy brass line was used by the Wu-Tang Clan while Kanye West and Jay-Z used Johnson’s energetic exclamations on their track The Joy. It also appears on classics such as De La Soul’s The Magic Number, Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Eric B & Rakim’s I Know You Got Soul.

Another key Johnson track was Is It Because I’m Black?, a slow, disconsolate ballad that is among the most affecting of the civil rights era. It too was frequently sampled, once again by Wu-Tang Clan and also Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill. Johnson attempted to sue the latter group, arguing their sample wasn’t cleared, but lost in 2008 and on appeal in 2011. Johnson reached a settlement with West and Jay-Z over their use of Different Strokes in 2012.

Performing in Chicago in 2015.
Performing in Chicago in 2015. Photograph: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

“I’m not Bill Gates, but I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers,” he said in 2010.

After releasing 10 albums, Johnson retired in the late 1980s, but returned to music in the mid-1990s. He recorded with daughter Syleena Johnson, an R&B singer best known for her guest vocal on Kanye West’s hit single All Falls Down.

His albums found a new audience after they were reissued by the label Numero Group in 2010 – their box set of his work earned him two Grammy nominations. The label said in tribute: “Sock it to ‘em wherever you end up next, old friend.”


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Betty Wright, US soul, funk and R&B singer, dies aged 66
Singer with remarkable vocal range had been sampled by generations of hip-hop and R&B artists, including Beyoncé and Mary J Blige

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

10, May, 2020 @6:50 PM

Article image
Andre Williams: farewell to R&B's raunchiest raconteur
The midwestern singer, who has died aged 82, worked with everyone from Berry Gordy to thrash punks – and arguably invented rap music

Garth Cartwright

19, Mar, 2019 @10:37 AM

Article image
Yvonne Staples, singer-manager with the Staple Singers, dies aged 80
Mavis Staples’ sister joined the family band in 1971 and sang on their biggest hits, such as Let’s Do It Again and I’ll Take You There

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

11, Apr, 2018 @9:32 AM

Article image
Anderson .Paak: Malibu review – breezy blend of R&B, funk, soul and pop
(Steel Wool)

Tim Jonze

22, Dec, 2016 @9:15 PM

Article image
Aretha Franklin, 'the queen of soul', dies aged 76
Regarded as one of the greatest singers of all time, Aretha Franklin has died of advanced pancreatic cancer

Laura Snapes and Ben Beaumont-Thomas

16, Aug, 2018 @2:36 PM

Article image
Hip-hop and funk producer Ras G dies aged 39
Afrofuturist producer was an influential figure on LA alternative hip-hop scene and co-founded the Brainfeeder collective

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

30, Jul, 2019 @8:47 AM

Article image
Bland on Blonde: why the old rock music canon is finished
The 1970s brought about the idea that rock was important – and needed a canon of greatest albums to match. But in a digital age, is definitive musical excellence a ridiculous notion?

Michael Hann

29, Aug, 2018 @10:35 AM

Article image
William Hart, Delfonics lead singer and songwriter, dies aged 77
Hart was the primary songwriter for the Philadelphia sweet-soul group, who recorded with Thom Bell and were covered by Prince and Aretha Franklin

Laura Snapes

15, Jul, 2022 @4:05 PM

Article image
Jamila Woods: 'I want to pass down the power to speak on how you should be treated'
On her new album, Jamila Woods namechecks everyone from Sun Ra to Zora Neale Hurston to champion black artistry – and to give her the strength to confront violence in her home city of Chicago

Jesse Bernard

08, May, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Lamont Dozier, Motown songwriter, dies aged 81
As one third of Holland–Dozier–Holland, the Detroit musician was responsible for some of Motown’s biggest hits of the 1960s

Michael Cragg

09, Aug, 2022 @9:27 AM