For casual soul and funk fans, Syl Johnson's career began in 1967 with the funky, oft-sampled "Different Strokes" and was followed by the burning socially conscious anthem "Is It Because I'm Black." In the 1970s, Johnson's name became synonymous with Hi Records in Memphis -- "I Hear the Love Chimes" was immortalized in Quentin Tarantino's film Jackie Brown. But his story begins many years and labels before, in 1959 to be exact. He cut "Teardrops" and "They Who Love" for King Records' subsidiary Federal, based on the strength of a demo he walked in off the street with -- on his way to a Chess session! Johnson recorded a slew of singles for Federal between 1959 and 1962, before leaving and recording for a series of labels that included Cha Cha, One-derful!, TMP-Ting, Zachron, Twinight, and P-Vine, all but the last cut before moving to Memphis and Hi in 1972. The story told here reveals that Johnson -- despite his off-the-chart talent as a guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer -- never quite got over in the way that peers James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green did.
The evidence is collected convincingly on Complete Mythology, a massive 80-track, six-LP, four-CD set (the CDs mirror the LPs) that is the crowning achievement in archival music freak label Numero Group's catalog thus far. Johnson's career is documented chronologically, from "Teardrops" all the way through to "All I Need Is Someone Like You" (an elegant, Philly soul-inspired duet with wife Brenda), "Annie Has Got Hot Pants Power" (which directly inspired Brown's "Hot Pants"), and "Let's Start All Over Again." None of the Hi material is documented here; it needn't be because it's available elsewhere. This is Johnson's Chicago output before and after Memphis, during the first decade and a half of his career, the vast majority of it for Twinight, a label he helped to found. Johnson is no ordinary soul singer as the sounds here attest: they range from R&B-laced Chicago blues and soul to hard, edgy, jazzy uptown funk that rivals Brown's, to latter-day soul. Along the way are Johnson-penned originals as well as the hits he chased by other artists -- "I'll Take Those Skinny Legs" was written and recorded in response to Joe Tex's hit "Skinny Legs and All." There are even innovative covers of some Motown nuggets recorded in Detroit! There are seven unreleased tracks included in the package, too. In addition, as with all things Numero, the box features an exhaustively researched and annotated book with indispensable liners by Bill Dahl and loads of photos. While Johnson is known for creating myths surrounding his long career -- at 74 he's still going strong -- this set reveals the truth about his true worth as an artist, adding weight and heft to the story, thereby creating a new, and more than likely enduring, mythology.