Since Chicago guitarist Syl Johnson released his comeback recording, "Back In The Game," in 1994, he has been actively performing and recording for several different labels. Last year, Johnson released "Bridge To A Legacy," an excellent recording and one that I liked even better than "Back In the Game." Whenever people talk about Syl Johnson, the question always arises as to whether he is a bluesman, soulman or an R+B singer. Johnson's new release on Delmark, "Talkin' 'Bout Chicago!" clearly suggests that Syl is probably all of the above and that is just fine with me. "Talkin' 'Bout Chicago!" is one of two Syl Johnson recordings released this year, the other being "Hands Of Time," a CD that was produced more specifically for African American audiences and released on the tiny Hep' Me Records label. Since I have not yet heard "Hands Of Time," I consider "Talkin' Bout Chicago!" to be Syl's follow-up to "Bridge To A Legacy."
"Talkin' Bout Chicago!" demonstrates Syl Johnson's ability to work in multiple music genres, offering the listener some blues, some soul and some R+B all in one package. Twelve of the fourteen songs on the record are originals by Johnson and a bevy of co-writers, most often including lyricist, Margaret Sampson. One song in particular, "All Night Long'" is an excellent cover tune and a tribute to the late Magic Sam who was a major influence on Johnson's work. In addition to Syl's distinctive vocals and guitar work, he offers listeners some nice harmonica on several songs and even a brief whistling solo at the end of "Trade Secret."
The songs on "Talkin' Bout Chicago!" run the gamut of blues, soul, R+B and even a little "Doo-Wop" on the song, "Caribbean Beach." The CD opens with a strong blues number entitled, "Come On With It," that reminded me a little bit of "You Upset Me Baby." This is followed by the mellow sound of a song entitled "Cheryl," featuring a smooth R+B sound. For "Sweet Dynamite," the style switches again to what I consider to be the classic Syl Johnson sound with lots of soul and nice female back-up singing by Theresa Davis and Diane Madison. Syl brings the funk out later on the CD with "Different Strokes," complete with horns and some guest guitar by Pete Nathan.
My favorites songs on the CD really were the bluesier tunes including the title cut, "Talkin' 'Bout Chicago!," where Syl talks about leaving Mississippi for the "land of opportunity," Chicago, Illinois. "I'm Back Into You," offers a riff that reminds me of the classic, "Take Me To The River," which is one of those songs that I love regardless of who performs it. "Surrounded" offers a hard, clean Chicago sound complete with horns and a nice sax solo by Chicago stalwart, Gene Barge. Also high on my list of favorites on the CD is the tune, "Finger Lickin' Good," which features a great mix of Syl on harmonica and excellent keyboard work by Charles Hodges.
Never let it be said that Syl Johnson would make a record that you couldn't listen to from beginning to end without enjoying everything that came out of your sound system. The final two songs are some of the best offerings on the entire CD. "All Night Long" shows lots of feeling and represents an excellent tribute to one of Syl's influences, Magic Sam. The grand finale, "Woo-Wee!," is a fantastic ending and as much of a joy to listen to as any song on the CD, with strong vocals and guitar by Johnson. There is no question why lyricist Margaret Sampson told me that she listens to "Woo-Wee!" a couple of times a day just to keep her in a good mood, because it is a great song.
I can safely say that "Talkin' "Bout Chicago!" is a fitting follow-up to "Bridge To A Legacy" and should help keep Syl Johnson in the spotlight that he so richly deserves. If you are a long time fan of Syl's, or of Chicago blues, this is a CD that you will want to have in your collection.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.