For much of the seventies, Hi Records was one of the most successful Southern Soul labels. This success was only derailed by the increase in disco’s popularity. Before that, Hi Records had gained a reputation as a label who released innovative Southern Soul. The man behind the Hi Records’ success story was producer Willie Mitchell. Originally, he joined the label as a recording artist. However, it was as a producer that Willie Mitchell made his name at Hi Records. 

Willie Mitchell’s successful career as a producer began when he first started working with Al Green. He would become Hi Records most successful artist, enjoying six consecutive number one US R&B albums. Four of these albums were certified gold and one platinum. However, there was more to Hi Records than Al Green. Much more.

Among the other names on Hi Records roster during the seventies were  O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and Don Bryant. They only enjoyed minor success. Ann Peebles was Hi Records’ First Lady, enjoying hit singles hit singles with I Can’t Stand The Rain and I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Then there’s Syl Johnson, who enjoyed ten hit singles between 1972 and 1976. During this period, Syl released a quartet of albums for Hi Records.

Syl’s time at Hi Records began with what was his third album Back For A Taste Of Your Love. Released in 1973, Back For A Taste Of Your Love was Syl’s Hi Records debut. A year later, Syl returned with Diamond In the Rough. His first album on Hi was Back For A Taste of Your Love released in 1973, which will be rereleased by Fat Possum Records on 24th March 2014. Before I review Diamond In the Rough, I’ll tell you about Syl Johnson’s career.

Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson in July 1936, in Holy Springs, Mississippi. He was the youngest of seven children. The Johnson family moved to Chicago in 1950. By then, Syl was a talented guitarist. Two of his brothers were musicians. One of the first artists Syl worked with was his next-door neighbour, Magic Sam.

Magic Sam was one of the first artists Syl worked with. Soon, he was accompanying Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf and Billy Boy Arnold. Syl sang and played guitar. His first recording section was playing guitar for Billy Boy Arnold in 1956. which was released on the famous Vee Jay label. Soon, Syl was working with the great and good of Chicago’s blues players, including Jimmy Reed. Then as the fifties drew to a close, Syl’s solo career began.

His 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. Syl’s debut was Teardrops, which was released in 1959. The followup in 1960, Syl released I’ve Got Love. Then in 1962, as Syl’s time at Federal drew to a close, Syl released Please, Please, Please and Little Sally Walker. Sadly, one of the singles sol particularly well, despite being well promoted by his label. With success eluding Syl, he left Federal.

For the next few years,  Syl released a handful of singles. He released Do You Know What Love Is on Special Agent Records. The same year, Syl released Falling In Love Again on TMP-Records. Then in 1966, Syl released Straight Love No Chaser for Zachron label. This was one of two singles Syl produced and released on Zachron. Just like the singles Syl released on Federal, they sold well locally, but didn’t make a commercial breakthrough nationally. Despite this, Syl signed to Twilight Records, where he’d spend the next three years.

It was on Twilight Records that Syl had his first successful single, Come On Sock It To Me. Released in 1967, it reached number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 100 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. Syl followed this up with Different Strokes, which reached number ninety-five in the US Billboard 100 and number seventeen in the US R&B Charts. His next single was Dresses Too Short, which was released in 1968. This was the title-track to Syl’s debut album. Syl’s third single reached number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts. However, this were about to get even better.

In 1969 Syl’s released his most successful single and album, Is It Because I’m Black? The single reached number sixty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts. Is It Because I’m Black became a minor classic. Just like so much of the album it was taken from, the lyrics were socially aware. They tapped into the social problems of the era. By writing about the world around him, Syl had just released the most successful single and album of his career. At last, Syl had made a commercial breakthrough. During this period, Syl founded his own record company.

During his time at Twilight, which had now been named Twinight, Syl found himself head of A&R. He also founded his own record label Shama. Often, they signed artists that Twinigight  decided not to sign. To record sessions for his new label, Syl enlisted the musicians that played on all the Twinight recordings. There was more to Syl Johnson than just singer, songwriter and musician. Now he owned a record label.

It was in 1969, that 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. He 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.

The first album Syl released for Hi Records was Back For A Taste of Your Love released in 1973. It reached number nineteen in the R&B charts. Back For A Taste of Your Love also spawned three singles. The Love We Left Behind reached number forty-three in the US R&B Charts. We Did It then reached reached number ninety-five in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. The most successful single was the title-track. It reached reached number seventy-two in the US Billboard 100 and number sixteen in the US R&B Charts. For Syl, his decision to leave Twinight had been vindicated. However, would Diamond In the Rough replicate the commercial success of Back For A Taste of Your Love?

For Diamond In The Rough, some of Hi Records top songwriters would contribute tracks. This included Willie Mitchell. He cowrote Could I Be Falling In Love with Earl Randle and Keepin’ Down Confusion with Darryl Carter. Darryl cowrote Let Yourself Go, Don’t Do It, I Want To Take You Home (To See Mama), Diamond In The Rough and Music To My Ears with Charles Hodges. Earl Randle also cowrote Please Don’t Give Up On Me and I Hear The Love Chimes. Along with The Cate Brother’s Stuck In Chicago, these ten tracks became Diamond In The Rough at Royal Recording Studios, Memphis.

Producer Willie Mitchell brought in his A-Team for recording of Let’s Stay Together 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 Diamond In The Rough, was released in 1974.

On the release of Diamond In The Rough in 1974, it failed to replicate the success of Back For A Taste Of Your Love. Since then, Back For A Taste Of Your Love has been perceived as one of Syl Johnson’s most underrated albums. At least the singles fared better. Let Yourself Go reached number fifty-four in the US R&B Charts and then I Want To Take You Home (To See Mama) reached number forty in the US R&B Charts. This was a small crumb of comfort for Syl, who’d just released the underrated Diamond In The Rough, which I’ll tell you about.

Diamond In the Rough begins with Let Yourself Go. A piano play slowly and thoughtfully, before the rhythm section and organ enter. They transform the arrangement. It’s brighter and much more melodic. After that, Syl’s charismatic vocal makes an appearance. He’s accompanied by Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes and The Memphis Horns, who both occasionally punctuate the track in short, sharp bursts. Syl, meanwhile, is delivering a powerful, passionate and needy vocal. Occasionally, he kicks loose, with Willie Mitchell’s arrangement is perfect foil. The rhythm section and Memphis Horns drive the song along, never once overpowering Syl’s charismatic vocal. 

Guitars play at the start of Don’t Do It, before The Memphis Horns interject. They announce Syl’s introduction. When Syl sings, he’s got some explaining to do. He’s having to talk his girlfriend out of leaving him. He breathes life and meaning into the lyrics. Meanwhile harmonies, sweeping strings and rasping horns accompany him. The rhythm section provide the perfect backdrop for Syl’s tale of woe, with horns adding to the songs drama. However, Sly, plays the starring role, his pleading, needy vocal full of hope and guilt.

I Don’t Want To Take You Home (To See Mama) has a very different sound to the two preceding tracks. It bursts into life, horns blazing before Syl sings. His vocal is joyous. Throughout the track he’s accompanied by harmonies. Their voices rejoice sweetly and joyously. They’re the perfect accompaniment to Syl’s vocal. Similarly, horns play an important role. They punctuate the arrangement. Along with the harmonies, the horns play an important part in what’s one of the highlights of Diamond In the Rough.

An organ plays, giving the song a really sad, melancholy sound and is accompanied by drums, guitar and keyboards as Could Be Falling In Love With You unfolds. Sly delivers a heart-achingly beautiful rendition of the slowest song on the album. It’s made all the better with the subtle use of the backing vocalists and bursts of wistful horns. Throughout the song, the band play slowly. They allow Sly to take centre-stage, and do what he does best, deliver songs with emotion and passion. Syl’s vocal and the arrangement which, meanders along beautifully. The only time the horns play, is towards the end, where they make their presence felt and add to an already sad, emotive arrangement.

The tempo increases with Stuck In Chicago. where the guitar, horns and then rhythm section enters. When Syl sings, his voice is much stronger. He’s accompanied by sweeping strings bursts of horns. This results in a much fuller arrangement. It’s rueful, dramatic and atmospheric. Later, an organ adds to the already wistful, dramatic arrangement. No wonder, Syl is down out of money and out of luck, having been stood up by his girlfriend. Just like on other tracks, Syl’s dramatic delivery brings the lyrics to life, and you end up feeling sorry for him.

The title-track is another dramatic sounding track. Drums crash, before keyboards and braying horns combine before Syl sings. His vocal is strong and loud. Behind him, the rhythm section and The Memphis Horns especially, concentrate on producing a dramatic sounding arrangement. Later, strings sweep in, their sound lush, in contrast to the brash sounding horns. Together, the rhythm section, horns and strings succeed in producing one of the most dramatic sounding arrangements on the album. Syl meanwhile, matches their efforts, producing a vocal that’s emotive and dramatic. 

Just  drums, Hammond organ and sweet sounding harmonies combine as Keepin’ Down Confusion reveals its secrets. Syl’s charismatic vocal brings meaning to the lyrics. While Syl sings, a Hammond organ and The Memphis Horns add to the emotion and drama. So do Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes, Hi’s legendary backing singers. The slower arrangement seems to add to the dramatic sound and feel of the track. Here, a combination of a slower arrangement and charismatic vocal from Syl prove a winning combination.

It’s an organ and The Memphis Horns that dramatically, accompany an almost pleading, Syl at the start of Please Don’t Give Up On Me. Harmonies and stabs of growling horns add to the drama when they accompany Syl. So does the rhythm section. They set the scene for Syl’s needy, pleading vocal. He lets loose his emotions, begging his girlfriend not to give up on him. Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes backing vocals’ add the finishing touches to the this emotional roller coaster as Syl’s desperate vocal tugs at your heartstrings.

A piano plays at the start of Music To My Ears, but doesn’t give you any indication of what’s to come. What follows is the rhythm section and The Memphis Horns combining before Syl sings joyously. Behind him lush sounding strings sweep in. Horns punctuate the arrangement and backing vocalists compliment Syl’s vocal. The quicker tempo sweeps you along. Soon, you’re captivated by Syl’s joyous vocal. Add to this a melodic, hooks-laden arrangement and it’s another reason why Diamond In the Rough is perceived as an understated album.

Diamond In the Rough closes with I Hear the Love Chimes. It has a subtle introduction with keyboards, drums and guitar playing, before a short burst of braying horns announces Syl’s entrance. Here, his vocal is much more restrained. He relies less on power. Behind him, the rhythm section and Memphis Horns combine to produce a dramatic slice of Southern Soul. It’s punctuated by horns, and a Hammond organ that adds to the slow, atmospheric arrangement. Harmonies interject, singing sweetly in unison. The result is a melodic song full of contrasts that’s a satisfying way to close Diamond In the Rough.

Sadly, Diamond In the Rough didn’t build on Syl Johnson’s debut album Back For A Taste of Your Love. It reached number nineteen in 1973. However, Diamond In the Rough failed to chart. Granted the two singles charted in the US R&B charts. This was just a small crumb of comfort for Syl. Ironically, Diamond In the Rough was one of the best albums Syl recorded for Hi Records.  Although Diamond In the Rough oozes quality, it failed to chart. Since then, Diamond In the Rough has been seen as a hugely underrated album.

On Diamond In the Rough Syl demonstrates his versatility as a vocalist. He’s equally comfortable delivering heartbreaking ballads or joyous, uptempo tracks. Throughout Diamond In the Rough, Syl adjusts his voice to suit each song. They come to life. You’re captivated by Syl’s delivery as he and Hi Records’ all-star band fuse Southern Soul, R&B, funk and blues.

Just like his first album for Hi Records, Back For A Taste Of Your Love, Willie Mitchell produced it. Willie brought onboard the Hi Records A-Team. It featured The Memphis Horns, The Memphis Strings, and of course, the legendary Hi rhythm section. Then there’s backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes. They all played their part in making Diamond In the Rough’s such a good album. Sadly, despite its quality, Diamond In the Rough failed commercially.

Forty years later, Fat Possum Records will rerelease Diamond In the Rough on 24th March 2014. This will allow a new generation of music loves to discover a musical hidden gem. Hopefully, second time around This Diamond In The Rough will find the audience it deserves. Standout Tracks: I Don’t Want To Take You Home (To See Mama), Could Be Falling In Love With You,  Please Don’t Give Up On Me and I Hear the Love Chimes. 


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