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Vinyl Cave: The Complete Mythology box set by Syl Johnson

Christmas came early to the Vinyl Cave this year... on November 9, to be exact. That's the day the best reissue project of the year hit store shelves: the six-LP Complete Mythology box set by Chicago soul and blues singer/guitarist Syl Johnson.

Most readers right now are probably saying "What?!" for a couple different reasons. Some are likely looking up information on how to get a copy of the set, while many more are likely wondering who Syl Johnson is and why someone would take the potentially quixotic step of dedicating a huge box set to his work.

Johnson hit the R&B charts 19 times between 1967 and 1982, making him fare more than a one- or two-hit wonder, and also crossed over into the lower reaches of the pop Top 100 a number of times. His biggest hit was a R&B Top 10 cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," but one is far more likely to hear the Talking Heads' or even Green's album cut on the airwaves than Johnson's scorching hit version.

If that doesn't seem like enough justification for such a massive project, an even shorter take on how this box set came about can be made with just two words: Numero Group. The Chicago-based label has been unearthing and archiving undeservedly obscure music -- most often soul or R&B -- since 2003, with each release gaining more attention from the world at large. Only a couple years back, the label gave a huge gift to Windy City soul aficionados with a four-LP set chronicling the Twilight/Twinight record label. However, that set was noticeably missing any tracks by Syl Johnson, the label's hitmaker and de facto in-house producer.

The release of Complete Mythology has overwhelmingly fulfilled my hopes that Numero had further plans for Mr. Johnson. The set not only includes all his recordings for Twinight, it also reaches backwards in time for some independently-released singles and unreleased material recorded for other Chicago labels, as well as his first recordings for King Records' Federal subsidiary. For the already-converted, this is a goldmine of material that has been mostly unavailable since its original release, and in some cases it's near-impossible to find those original records. For newbies, Complete Mythology will be very entertaining listening for soul fans. The set is also a mini-tour of how blues and R&B of the 1950s and early '60s morphed into soul and funk in the latter half of the '60s.

While the title may be a bit of a misnomer -- Johnson has made many more recordings past the set's main cut off date of 1971 -- the material not included has for the most part been ably compiled elsewhere or is still not too hard to find in its original form.

As detailed in the extensive liner notes, Sylvester Thompson was born in Mississippi in the mid-1930s. By 1950 Syl had joined in his family's gradual migration to Chicago, where he and brother Mack continued learning to play their guitars and absorbing blues music. Come mid-decade, he was backing up local bluesmen such as Eddie Boyd, Billy Boy Arnold and Junior Wells in clubs or on records, and by 1959 was working with Jimmy Reed. Reed's label, Vee Jay, encouraged Thompson to work up some material of his own for a possible single release, but it would be the King offices up the street where he would first pitch the songs and be signed to a contract -- as Syl Johnson.

Johnson would release six singles on Federal through 1963, none of which made an impact commercially. The earlier numbers aim for the sort of pop-R&B hybrid Sam Cooke was riding high on the charts with at the time. When those didn't gain much attention, Johnson and the label switched it up with some bluesier material and even a James Brown cover. No matter the style, both his voice -- a flexible instrument sometimes wielded with a seemingly speaker-shredding sharpness -- and the answering slashes of his guitar work are there from the start.

While his early singles may not have set the world afire, Johnson was making some noise on the live circuit in the Chicago area. After his Federal contract was allowed to expire, he worked on refining his band from old-school blues into soul, cut several more local singles, and began to build a following. The songs on LP two find Johnson settling on a harder-edged Chicago sound than, say, what The Impressions were up to in the mid-1960s, combining the grit of Johnson's days as a blues sideman with soul horn charts and the relentlessly danceable beat of Motown hits.

By the time the third disc rolls around the songs begin to appear a bit out of chronological order, but for good reason -- to reproduce Johnson's first album, Dresses too Short, which included the title hit and also the two R&B Top 20 hits that launched Twilight/Twinight: "Come On Sock it To Me" and the much-sampled "Different Strokes." The album also contained a preview of the future, as along with the proto-funk of his first two hits were some tracks from Johnson's first trip to record with Willie Mitchell's Hi Records house band at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis.

Around the same time Johnson's longtime bandmates drifted away at the end of the '60s, the rival Brunswick label's house band was losing their patience with being eternally uncredited. They decamped for Twinight, changed their name to Pieces of Piece and got down to business collaborating with Johnson's in-house music factory. Some of the best results emerged as the crowning achievement of Johnson's first decade-plus of recording, the Is It Because I'm Black album from 1970, presented here on LP five.

It's this era that introduced me to Johnson's work, when a friend played me one of his Twinight dance groovers. After that, the slow burn of "Is It Because I'm Black" was all I needed to hear next to become a fan for life. The album shows Johnson riffing on the socially conscious themes heralded by the hit title song with a loosely conceptual set, including another hard-hitting single, "Concrete Reservation," and a startling re-arrangement of Joe South's "Walk a Mile in My Shoes."

The other two LPs in the box wrap up the remaining Twilight/Twinight recordings, including unreleased material and some sides finished several years later. Singles continued to appear until the label collapsed not long after Johnson decamped to sign with Hi, where he recorded four LPs in the shadow of the label's main breadwinner, Al Green. There's a lot of good material from that era, but the hard-hitting Chicago style and funkily unique dance groove of Johnson's earlier work was subsumed by the commercially winning formula that producer Willie Mitchell most often stuck to at Hi. The best album of that era is Total Explosion, where a bit more Syl personality slips through the Hi formula in the form of some old-school Chicago blues harp played by Johnson.

As usual with a Numero Group release, the music is only part of the story. Complete Mythology is one of the label's most elaborate releases, including both an LP-sized book and the complete set duplicated on four CDs. The box also contains separate covers for the six LPs reproducing the graphics of Johnson's two Twinight LPs and featuring period-appropriate re-creations of what could have been. These sleeves also thankfully include track listings, which has at times been missing on past Numero releases.

Six albums may seem like a lot to absorb by one artist, but the excitement level rarely wanes on Complete Mythology. And it's also exciting to see a unique singer's long-neglected early works finally collected properly. (Numero, 2010)

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