Sly Johnson

Complete Mythology Boxset Review
 

 April, 2011

   

 

 

  

It's no small feat to put together a box set for a musician whose career spans over half a century. The best way to pay homage to a musician with an illustrious career is to focus on a specific time period of the musician. It gives a clear focus and limits the chances of oversight. It also will not overwhelm the listener.

This is the approach Numero Group used when they put together the Syl Johnson Complete Mythology box set. The set focuses mostly on Syl's period with the Twilight/Twinight label, before he joined Hi Records in Memphis. Over the last few years, Numero Group has been reissuing a lot of unsung soul music that history seems to have forgotten. Twinight in Chicago, originally known as Twilight was no exception. Numero Group had previously released a Twinight compilation, but it did not focus on the music of the label's main attraction, Syl Johnson.

Syl Johnson, whose real last name is Thompson, started out as a blues musician in the 50s, playing with the likes of Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf and Magic Sam to name a few. His older brother is the blues musician Jimmy Johnson. Syl began recording for Twinight in the mid 60s. Syl used to describe himself as "soulful like Marvin (Gaye) and funky like James (Brown)", however, make no mistake, he wasn't a copycat. Syl was, and is a definite star. He just had the unfortunate luck of being stuck in a time period of immense creativity. A time period of Motown and Stax. Many lesser known labels who had talented acts just could not compete. Syl eventually left Twinight for Hi Records. Unfortunately for Syl, Hi Records had a budding younger star named Al Green, so he was relegated to the sidelines while Al Green rose to fame.

Syl took a sabbatical from the music industry in the early 80s, only to return in 1994. Unbeknownst to him, his work was being heavily sampled by hiphop artists. With the newfound interest in his material, and not to mention the checks from sampling, he came out of retirement. His new material, in addition to the sampling of his old material sparked an interest in his earlier material, and this is where this box set comes in. Prior to the present, the only way to get this material was via the original pressings that were quite rare and very expensive. The "Is it because I'm Black" LP routinely commanded upwards of $400-$500 depending on the condition.

 

 

The music in this set is simply breathtaking. There are 81 tracks in total, so while it's certainly voluminous, it's not overwhelming so. The set itself has to be one of the most fabulously packaged sets I've seen in recent years. The contents of the box are 6 LPs, 4 CDs, a 52 page coffee table book with a lot of previously unpublished photos, notes and tidbits all housed in a hard, sturdy box. Numero Group really went above and beyond with their presentation. While the music here is first rate all the way, and that should be all that matters, it isn't all that matters to everyone. It would be remiss if I didn't address the audio quality. Given the age, and most likely less than stellar studio mastering, it is quite good. The audio quality between the LPs varies from fair to very good. What is noticeable on some titles is slight surface noise. This doesn't detract from the music, because it's inaudible when the music is playing. It's only audible in the pauses between tracks. It wasn't an issue for me, but it is there on occasion. For the most part, the LPs are silent. The CDs are CDs. While they are fine, they simply do not hold a candle to the LPs in terms of dynamics and punch. Nevertheless, they are great to have.

This box set highlights the range of Syl's music. From the vulnerability, pain and anguish in his voice on the song "Is It Because I'm Black", to the boastful funk driven track "My Funky Band", to his earnest cover of "Come Together" by The Beatles; It's quite clear that he's not a one dimensional musician. He's capable of evoking the whole gamut of human emotion. That's a trait that many musicians lack. I can't recommend this box set enough. Apart from just being great music, it's a historical artifact. You will not be able to get all this music anywhere else, and certainly not at the MSRP of this set. It might be called "The Complete Mythology", but there is no myth here. This is the real deal, and it's as real as it gets.

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