So, I *believe* that the first 8 tracks of this CD make up what is a stone-soul classic of an album, a lost classic of Chicago soul at that. It really is nothing short of amazing, so forget about Richie Uberbooger’s characterization of “minor soul singer” Syl. Originally released in 1970, this album is long overdue for a deeper critical assessment. It should have made Syl Johnson into a household name. Unfortunately this reissue, put out by the Twilight Label (which, I think, is Syl Johnson’s own) presents the music well enough, but falls short of doing it justice. The “liner notes” tell us nothing about this landmark album, such as who plays on it or where it was recorded. For some odd reason the songs ‘Kiss By Kiss’ and ‘Get Ready’ sound like they were sourced from Mp3s Syl found on the internets (not here, I promise!), or was just mangled by Sonic Solutions No-Noise for No-Good reason, but are sandwiched between ‘Black Balloons’ and ‘Talk bout Freedom’ which sound great. No idea what is going on here but probably somebody dropped a roach on party of the master reels or something along those lines. The CD also contains No Info whatsoever on the TEN (that’s right, TEN) extra tracks appended to the album, which seem to have been recorded at various times and restored from even less-than-stellar sources that the two mentioned above, probably at least a few from worn-out cassettes. The song “Ms. Fine Brown Frame” appears to be the song from an album in 1982, although there is no info here to prove it… What we DO get in the insert is a rambling account of how Johnson has been cheated out of his royalties much like his grandfather was cheated out of his land. Which is all good and well and no doubt true, but he could have had somebody proofread the thing first — It’s poorly written and filled with misspellings and typos. In fact its kind of a disgrace, detracting from the seriousness and high quality of writing of the title song, which has been covered by more people than I can shake my stick at. As much as I’d like to give him my money rather than some label that’s ripping him off, this is a sub-par package for what deserves a memorial edition release.
From what I can tell, Willie Mitchell and the gang at Hi Records had a huge hand in the original album. There are no specific credits besides what is listed in the image below. Songs from his first album (“Dresses Too Short”) are also thrown on here.. All in all, this CD should have been a celebration, instead it’s a mess. In fact, the liner notes almost make me think that old Syl (at 70 years now) may be a bit drug-addled or absent-minded and in need of some cash, because the whole thing is a pretty shoddy product. I’m glad I picked it up, because the music is incredible when the audio fidelity lets it shine through, but I’ll continue my search for the original LP or the old Charly pressing, which usually have pretty amazing mastering in spite of their no-frills presentation.
Review by Richie Unterberger
Johnson’s first album (Dresses Too Short) was fairly innocuous good-time soul, but he’d obviously been doing some thinking about the world around him in the interim between it and his second release. Is It Because I’m Black is characterized by socially conscious songwriting, especially in the seven-and-a-half-minute title track, an elongated, serious statement of black pride with a sad funk-blues groove. It wouldn’t be fair to call Johnson a bandwagon jumper; this was before Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On had made realistic ghetto songs chic, and it was a fairly gutsy move for a minor soul singer such as Syl to put such material to the forefront. While nothing else here matches that lost mini-classic, there are some good cuts along similar lines in which Johnson pleads for tolerance and justice, including covers of jazzman Oscar Brown’s “Black Balloons,” and Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” and, less successfully, the Beatles’ “Come Together.” The album was reissued in conjunction with 1968’s Dresses Too Short on a single disc by Kent in 1997.