Born Sylvester Thompson
in Holly Springs, Mississippi, United States, he migrated with his family to Chicago in 1950; blues guitarist Magic Sam was his next-door neighbor. Johnson sang and played with blues artists Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf in the 1950s, before recording with Jimmy Reed for Vee-Jay in 1959. He made his solo debut that same year with Federal, a subsidiary of King Records of Cincinnati, backed by Freddie King on guitar.He then began recording for Twinight Records of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Beginning with his first hit, "Come On Sock It to Me" in 1967, Johnson dominated the label as both a hitmaker and producer. His song "Different Strokes", also from 1967, featured on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats
breakbeat compilation.Like other black songwriters of the period, several of his records at this time explored themes of African-American identity and social problems as in songs including "Is It Because I'm Black", which reached Number 11 in the US Billboard
R&B chart in 1969.In 1971, Willie Mitchell brought Johnson to Hi Records, the two recording three albums which spawned a number of singles. Produced in Memphis with the Hi house band, these yielded the hits "We Did It", "Back for a Taste of Your Love" and "Take Me to the River", his biggest success, reaching Number 7 on the R&B chart in 1975. However, at Hi Records, Johnson was always to some extent in Al Green's shadow commercially, if not artistically. Mitchell also chose to use mainly in-house material rather than Johnson originals.After the Hi years ended, Johnson produced two LPs for his own Shama label, the latter of which (Ms. Fine Brown Frame
, 1982) was picked up for distribution by Boardwalk Records and produced Johnson's last hit record, the title cut.Around the mid-1980s, Johnson started a fast-food fish restaurant business, and became semi-retired from performing, only making occasional appearances at blues club gigs.In 1992, Johnson found out that his song "Different Strokes" had been sampled by number of rappers including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Kool G Rap, Hammer, and the Geto Boys. Stimulated by this fact, he decided to make a comeback in the music industry. In 1994, he released the album Back in the Game
on Delmark Records. The album featured the Hi rhythm section and his youngest daughter Syleena Johnson.Johnson has become one of the most sampled artists, largely from "Different Strokes" and "Is It Because I'm Black"; he feels passionately that taking music from an original artist without proper compensation constitutes theft and has sued for copyright infringement. Adding to Syl's famous family are his brothers, Blues guitarist and singer Jimmy Johnson and bassist Mack Thompson.Syl Johnson recently appeared on an episode of TV ONE's "R&B Divas," which starred his daughter Syleena Johnson. In the episode Syl is giving Syleena advice and words of encouragement before one of her live performances.