This second of three underrated releases for Hi finds Syl Johnson slowly but surely transforming from a credulous loser into a standup guy no one messes around with. Diamond in the Rough could be viewed as a creative bridge between the slightly formulaic Hi approach of 1973's Back for a Taste of Your Love and the more bluesy and rewarding Total Explosion from 1975. Different from the southern soul belter which distinguished fellow Hi second leaguers Otis Clay and O.V. Wright, Johnson's unique feat lies in his earnest yet sometimes ironic take on love and relationships. Exemplary are "Keeping Down Confusion" with its rolling organ and "Don't Do It," where the singer drives home the ultimate cliché of "I was just doing my job/Working overtime," convincing listeners of wrongfully being accused of cheating on his better half. Singing at the top of his register unintentionally added to Johnson's well-timed delivery and was perfected for Total Explosion's closing track "That's Just My Luck." Not a dry eye in the house as Johnson's seemingly guilty conscious ("What am I doing here/With another man's wife/I'm shaking in fear/But I'm having the time of my life/I'm a fool/To put myself in jeopardy/But I can't help myself/She makes sweet love to me") makes for an adultery song which holds up with the likes of Don Covay's "I Was Checkin' out She Was Checkin' in." Diamond in the Rough has its own surprises, for instance in the minor R&B chart success of "I Want to Take You Home to See Mama." Initially coming on too joyfully honest for its own good, its credibility easily supersedes Al Green's "Let's Get Married." As ballads like the unfairly overlooked first single "Please Don't Give up on Me" stand out, the albums best song remains the driving "Stuck in Chicago." The only song not written by Willie Mitchell and his gang, it paved the way for Total Explosion's tougher approach where the former Chicago bluesman would let it loose on his harmonica. His reading of "Take Me to the River" gave the author and Hi superstar he was often compared to a run for his money. Like Big Mouth Billy Bass miming the song to Tony Soprano in one of the television series' episodes, Johnson did have the last laugh as "getting stuck in Chicago" would lead to his biggest hit.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Quint Kik