During the early to mid-seventies, Hi Records were producing some of the best Southern Soul of that time. With Willie Mitchell producing, The Memphis Rhythm Section, Memphis Horns and legendary backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes, one great record after another was recorded at the famous Royal Recording Studios and Allied Recording Studios. Back then, Hi had a roster that included some of the most talented purveyors of Southern Soul. Their best known artist was Al Green, who released some critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, resulting in four of his albums certified gold, and one platinum. However, there was more to Hi Records than Al Green, with Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson all producing some stunning albums for Hi. Of these artists, Syl Johnson is often overlooked when people discuss Hi Records. In doing so, some wonderful Southern Soul goes almost unnoticed, because Syl released four albums for Hi, all of which feature some quality Southern Soul. Before I tell you about Sly’s first album for Hi Records, 1973 Back For A Taste of Your Love, which was recently rereleased by Fat Possom Records, I’ll tell you about Syl Johnson’s career up until them.

Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson in July 1936, in Holy Springs, Mississippi, the youngest of seven children. Two of his brothers like Syl, would go on to have careers as musicians. Mac Thompson and Jimmy Johnson would go on to have successful careers, with Jimmy becoming a famous blues guitarist. Later in life, Syl and Jimmy would record an album together, entitled Two Johnsons Are Better Than One, which was released in 2002. That was still to come. Before that, Syl would enjoy a long and successful career.

By the 1950s’ Syl, Mac and Jimmy were based in Chicago, and Syl was working with people like Junior Wells, Magic Sam and Eddie Boyd. His first recording session was playing guitar for Billy Boy Arnold in 1956 which was released on the famous Vee Jay label. During this period, Syl worked with the great and good of Chicago’s blues players, including Jimmy Reed. This was  a good  grounding for Syl’s solo career, when it began at King Records.

Syl’s first solo record contract was with King Records, and he recorded six singles on their Federal label between 1959 and 1962. These singles were a mixture of blues, soul and much more pop oriented material. However, none of the singles sold particularly well, despite being well promoted by his label. It was after recording with one of the best known producers of the day Sonny Thompson, that Syl decided to produce his own material. This he did for the two singles he recorded for the Zachron label. Like his singles on Federal, but apart from selling well locally, they too, failed commercially. After that, he recorded for TMP-Ting and Tag Ltd, and still he couldn’t make a commercial breakthrough. That would come at a new label based in Chicago, Twilight.

It would be 1967 before Syl issued a successful single, entitled Come On Sock It To Me, on the new Twilight label based in Chicago. He followed this up with Different Strokes and I’ll Take These Skinny Legs. In 1969 Syl’s released his most successful single and album both entitled Is It Because I’m Black? This was a a single and album that was socially aware and tapped into the social problems of the era. Suddenly, after years of trying, Syl had a first a hit single, and then a hit album. By now Syl was a star, and was also head of A&R at Twilight, which had now been named Twinight. As if this wasn’t enough, he started setting up Shama, his own label in 1968. Shama signed acts that Twinight decided not to sign, and to record sessions for his new label, Syl enlisted the musicians that played on all the Twinight recordings. 

In 1969 Syl decided to head south to Memphis to record sessions for his Shana label. The reason for the trips to Memphis was Syl wanted to change the label’s musical style, and admired the sound coming out of Memphis. Some of the sessions took place in the Hi Records studios. Once there, he realised that Willie Mitchell had put in place one of the best studio bands in music. When Shama and Twinight experienced financial problems, Syl decided it was now time to sign to Hi Records. This was the summer of 1971, and in the next seven years he’d release four albums for his new label.

Now signed to Hi Records, Syl began work for his new label. His Hi Records debut was Back For A Taste Of Your Love, released in 1971. Ten songs were chosen for the album. Syl cowrote three of them, the title-track Back For A Taste of Your Love, I’m Yours and Feelin’ Frisky, which he cowrote with Earl Randle. He wrote four tracks, including I Let A Good Girl Go and Anyway The Wind Blows. Along with three other tracks, they became Back For A Taste Of Your Love which was recorded at Royal Recording Studios, Memphis.

Producer Willie Mitchell brought in his A-Team for recording of Back For A Taste of Your Love at Royal Recording Studios, Memphis. The rhythm section included guitarist Teenie Hodge, bassist Leroy Holdge plus drummer Howard Grimes and Al Jackson Jr. Charles Holdges played organ and piano, while The Memphis Horns joined legendary backing vocalists Donna Rhodes, Charles Chalmers and Sandra Rhodes. As Rhodes, Chalmers, Rhodes, their sprinkling of musical magic was the finishing touch to what would become Syl’s Hi Records debut Back For A Taste of Your Love, which was released towards the end of 1973.

On Back For A Taste of Your Love’s release towards the end of 1973, the album sold well, reaching number nineteen in the US R&B Charts, the highest chart placing of any of Syl’s Hi albums. In total, three singles were released from the album during 1973. The title track Back For A Taste of Your Love, reached number sixteen in the US R&B Charts, while We Did It reached number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. The only disappointment was I’m Yours, which peaked at number sixty-eight in the US R&B Charts. Overall, Back For A Taste of Your Love,  Syl’s Hi Records career had been a success. You’ll realise why, when I tell you about Syl Johnson’s Back For A Taste of Your Love.

Back For A Taste of Your Love opens with the title0-track Back For A Taste of Your Love, which gave Syl a number sixteen US R&B hit single. With horns blazing ,the track swings into life. A driving rhythm section accompanies Syl’s sultry vocal. A guitar plays the same line repeatedly, while a Hammond organ wails and horns punctuate the arrangement. The arrangement just swings along, hooks aplenty during what’s a really catchy, swinging track. With the horns and rhythm section playing leading roles in the track’s success, your swept along for just under three minutes of this horn laden, driving track. You become caught up in this uptempo and uplifting track, with Syl’s joyful vocal sitting atop Willie Mitchell’s arrangement. 

I’m Yours was another of the three singles released from the album, but only reached a rather disappointing number sixty-eight in the US R&B Charts. This didn’t reflect the quality of the song, which again, sees braying horns, Hammond organ and punchy rhythm section open the track, before an emotive and confident Syl’s vocal enters. With Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes accompanying Syl throughout the track, their sweet, soulful harmonies help make a good track even better, and provide a contrast to Syl’s more powerful vocal. As the track progresses, horns constantly punctuate the track, while the Hammond organ and rhythm section provide the mainstay of the arrangement. They’re the perfect backdrop for a besotted Syl, whose smitten by his new love, willing to do anything to please her. Together, they combine to produce a joyous and emotive sounding track, with Syl sassy and confident throughout.

I Let A Good Girl Go, a very different sounding track to the two previous tracks. It’s slower and full of sadness and regret. It has a much more understated and lush arrangement with strings sweeping sadly and slowly, while the rhythm section play carefully and thoughtfully and guitars chime. Adding to the emotion and sadness is a heartbroken Syl whose full of regret at the girl he mistreated and let go. When a Hammond organ enters, it’s the perfect addition, helping to bring out the heartache and regret in the lyrics, and a perfect accompaniment for Syl’s desperate vocal. This is easily one of the album’s highlights, a track that you’ll never tire of hearing.

With horns blazing Anyway the Wind Blows, another Earl Randle track opens. The horns are joined, chiming guitars and rhythm section, before Syl’s soliloquy enters. He’s despairing, his girlfriend threatening to leave him, and has come to the conclusion he can’t stop her. He’s done all he can to make her happy, so if she chooses to leave, so be it. Against an atmospheric and emotive backdrop of stabs of Hammond organ, rasping horns, lush sad strings and rhythm section, a despondent, but realistic Syl’s voice rises and falls, pain and frustration in his voice ever-present. Here, the addition of the Hammond organ and strings is a masterstroke, adding to an already sad and despondent sounding arrangement, and by combining horns adds to the frustration and anguish in Syl’s voice. This is a classic Willie Mitchell arrangement. It suits the lyrics and Syl’s delivery of them. Willie’s arrangement and Syl’s vocal brings Earl Randle’s lyrics brilliantly to life, resulting a deeply moving and sad song, but one that’s quite beautiful and thoughtful.

You Don’t Know Me is another slow track, where swathes of strings, rhythm section and Hammond organ combine, before a despondent and thoughtful Syl enters. He’s unhappy, having let his chance of love pass him by, his love unrequited and unnoticed. While a heartbroken Syl sings, Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes add subtle and tender backing vocals, as the song meanders sadly along. The strings add to the sadness, as does the Hammond organ, while a thoughtful rhythm section provide the song’s heartbeat. This is a powerful and thoughtful combination, made all the better by the slow tempo and of course, Syl’s heartbroken vocal.

Feelin’ Frisky was co-written by Syl and Earl Randle. It’s a faster and much more uptempo track, with a more uplifting sound. Blazing horns, Hammond organ and rhythm section provide a swinging backdrop for another sassy vocal from Syl. As horns bray and rasp, the Hammond wails and punchy drums are occasionally joined by Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes. Together with Syl and the band, they combine to produce a great sounding track, albeit one where the lyrics don’t have the depth of some of the other tracks on the album.

Another of the three singles released from the album was We Did It, which reached number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. Here, the tempo increases, with swirling, sweeping strings joining rasping horns, piano and rhythm section before Syl makes his entrance. It’s a happy, joyful Syl we meet, happy that his relationship has lasted, and that they’ve made it through the bad times. With Rhodes, Chalmers and Chalmers sweetly yet soulfully accompanying him, the arrangement sweeps along, with a Hammond organ accompanying the punchy, growling horns and swirling strings that play a key role in the arrangement. When all this is combined with the quicker tempo and Syl’s joyous vocal, the result is a much better track than the previous one, thanks to the joyous, uplifting lyrics.

Earl Randle wrote Wind, Blow Her Back My Way which straight away, you realise has a classic Willie Mitchell arrangement. A Hammond organ and rhythm section combine to produce heartbreaking arrangement, even before a despondent Syl or the saddest strings enter. Add to this rasping horns and you’ve one of the saddest and emotive arrangements on the albums. Stabs and flourishes of the Hammond add to the sadness, as Syl sings about who he told his girlfriend to leave, and is now desperate for her return. Willie Mitchell provides one of his stunning, trademark Southern Soul arrangements, perfect for a despondent and inconsolable Syl. Although just two and half minutes long, it’s one of the best and saddest tracks, Syl ever recorded for Hi.

I Hate I Walked Away has similarities with the previous track, with swathes of the lushest strings, a wailing Hammond organ and slow rhythm section combining before Syl’s vocal enters. He’s full of regret and despair, having left his girlfriend, and realizing his mistake wants her back. As the emotion results in his voice rising, Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes enter, their harmonies swoop in, sympathetically accompanying Syl. With the strings sweeping and swirling, sometimes adding drama, the Hammond adds to the atmospheric slightly bluesy sound. Full of remorse and regret, Syl pleads forgiveness, his voices soaring as he apologises. This is hugely effective and seems so realistic, that you almost start to get caught up in the scenario, hoping that Syl will be forgiven. That’s testament to both Syl’s vocal and Willie Mitchell skills as a producer.

Back For A Taste of Your Love closes with The Love You Left Behind, which Syl released as a single in 1971, reaching number forty-three in the US R&B Charts. Bursts of braying horns punctuate the arrangement, while the rhythm section add drama, before Syl’s powerful, roaring vocal enters. WIth Rhodes, Chalmers and Chalmers accompanying him, their subtle backing vocals provide a welcome contrast to the power of Syl’s vocal. Throughout the track, punchy, growling horns, Hammond organ and rhythm section combine, playing quickly, matching the passion displayed by Syl. Although it’s a track laden with drama and passion, it has a slightly different sound to the other nine tracks. Whether this is because it was recorded at a different time, or just because Syl and the band kick loose, it seems somewhat out of place. However, given the passion displayed and a punchy, blazing arrangement, it’s a good way to end the album.

Syl Johnson’s music is often overlooked when the music of Hi Records is mentioned.  During his career, he recorded for a variety of labels, with one of his best albums 1969s Is It Because I’m Black? A close second must come Back For A Taste of Your Love which features Syl at his very best. No wonder. He was accompanied by some of Memphis’ best musicians. Among them are The Memphis Horns, the Memphis Rhythm Section and Memphis Strings, with Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes adding backing vocals. Add Willie Mitchell as producer and some great material, and you’ve the recipe for a commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, Back For A Taste Of You’re Love, which was recently rereleased on vinyl by Fat Possom Records.

That was the case with Back For A Taste of Your Love. It reached number nineteen in the US R&B Charts, giving Syl his most successful album of his Hi career. Of the four albums he recorded for Hi Records, they all featured some of the finest Southern Soul Syl ever released. None of the other three albums were as complete as Back For A Taste Of You’re Love. Each of the ten songs feature Syl at his best, bringing a song to life. Whether it’s heartache and despair or happiness and joy, Syl brings the lyrics to life. On each song, he launched himself into it, making the lyrics come alive, so much so, that it made you believe in the characters. This is similar to a good book or film. That Syl could do this, is testament to his talent and versatility as a singer. If you’ve never heard the music of Syl Johnson, Back For A Taste Of You’re Love is the perfect place to start. Back For A Taste Of You’re Love just so happens to be the best and most successful of the four albums Syl Johnson released for Hi Records and is the perfect introduction to one of Southern Soul’s best kept secrets. Standout Tracks: I Let A Good Girl Go, Anyway the Wind Blows, Blow Her Back My Way and I Hate I Walked Away.




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