Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black, 1969-1971 (2006)
I have had some requests for a repost of this record since the old link appears to be dead. The songs that make up the original album that gives this disc its title are just excellent. (Unfortunately packaged in a very confusing way and with a jumble of songs of dubious origins in terms of source tapes.. see original post below). The record opens with “Right On Sister” which owes a heavy debt to the Isley Brothers and James Brown, a nice long jam that references The Funky Chicken so you know it must be good. The next song is the bomb, though – “Is It Because I’m Black?”. Unfortunately some overpaid pundits (see reference to AMG in the original post, below) have been dismissive of Syl Johnson and insinuated that this record was an attempt to be contemporary with people like Marvin Gaye by incorporating social critique in his music. Without dissing Marvin Gaye at all, I have to say this is a ridiculous statement. “Is It Because I’m Black?” is a pretty damn courageous song and much more in the mold of “deep soul” than Motown, a slow southern burner laden with blues. When they first hit that minor-seventh right around 1 minute and 25 seconds, it just makes my backbone tingle. The lyrics tackling racial politics in the US are far more direct and confrontational than anything coming from most mainstream soul artists, with observations guaranteed to make white folks uncomfortable, today just as much as in 1970. The album has a fair share of cover tunes (Walk A Mile In My Shoes and Black Balloons both fit nicely thematically, Get Ready and especially Come Together.. not so much). But the real treasures for me are these two originals – the title track and “Concrete Reservation”, yet more biting, acid social critique but also a seriously huge song.
Near the end of this disc there is a weird remake of “Is It Because I’m Black” that references Wu Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Michael Jackson, followed late with a line of “Gimme My Money… I want to get paid.” !!. Basically he is castigating the people who famously sampled him and presumably neglected to pay his royalties. It’s kind of funny and sad at the same time, like the liner notes described below.
A classic album in a dubious reissue from an artist who never got his due and seemingly won’t be getting it anytime soon…
So 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” (edit: I’ve deleted that review that was in the original post, because AMG is staffed with idiots..) 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 flaming roach on of the master reels or something along those lines. The CD also contains no information 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 some of all this. There are no specific credits besides what is listed in the image above. 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 or in need of some cash or all of the above, 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.
Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black? 1969-71 (2006) in 320kbs em pee tree
Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black? 1969-71 (2006) in FLAC LOSSLESS AUDIO