It’s so hard to see a man ponder on the coulda, woulda, and shoulda’s, literally all within the space where the mistake was made.
To honour the passing of Syl Johnson earlier this year, I’m looking at Any Way the Wind Blows, the story of an unsung RnB hero and sickeningly sampled vocalist. This documentary tells the tale of a man with missed opportunities, bad timing and dashed dreams. It’s a crushing concept to consider, especially being a performer myself: the what-may-have-been, the right time or place, the perfect network and the human hankering for success. To base a documentary on this premise gives it an undeniable rawness I certainly applaud.
For the many of you who don’t know this man, his name was Syl Johnson, a kid growing up on the Mississippi cotton fields with a voice that danced between grizzly and smooth tones, he was so often mistaken for James Brown. He released countless RnB and soul records, performed on Soul Train and yet in this film is displayed as never getting his dues, he is the underdog, the underrated, the one that didn’t make it. Tracks like “Is it Because I’m Black” and “Take Me to the River” could ring-a-ding-ding a couple of mental bells for you.
Syl’s heyday was really in the late 60s/early 70s with his track ‘Come On, Sock it to Me’ but as he changed from Twinight to Hi Records (we see Hi-Records in present-day, mummified exactly as it was in 1968), his success began to dwindle. Syl tells the crushing tale of Hi Records wanting him to sing ‘Take Me To The River’, a classic we all know and cherish. With poor timing and miscommunication, it was then handed to Al Green instead. It’s so hard to see a man ponder on the coulda, woulda, and shoulda’s, literally all within the space where the mistake was made. “I was successful coming up in here” Syl slaps a leather glove against his leg and follows with, “I think I could have done more”. It’s a moment that embodies disappointment, disillusion, and the destruction of his dreams. In 1974 ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’ was his biggest track, as soon as I hear it the wind blows between the hairs on my legs. In the documentary they do a direct comparison of this track and Al Green's I'm Still in Love With You, placing the record covers alongside one another felt somewhat childish to me on the editors behalf but it all ties in with the tarnished dream plot-line.
Now you must be feeling bouts of melancholy, perhaps even empathy for Old Man Syl but it’s not all crushing mishaps for the protagonist. We croon along Jazzy J’s vinyl library, a cascading wall of records “As soon as you put it on, it would be hyping everybody. It was meant to be discovered, it was just destiny”. You hear the legendary Turntablist scratching Syl’s soulful grunts over icons and loved ones as they talk about how unknown this legend really was. These grunts represent the misfortunes of Syl’s career yet it’s also a groove you can’t help but jerk your head to. The song is ‘Different Strokes’ written in 1968, the intro begins with an exchange of girlish tickling giggles and filthy yet powerful grunts of Syl. This intro became an anthem for the hip hop/turntablist community though credit was not paid to Syl by so many of the artists “One of the top ten sampled records of all time” - “Breakbeat Lou” Flores reminisces.
'Different Strokes' sample list:
Whodini - Funky Beat (1986)
EPMD - It’s My Thing (1988)
Run DMC - Beats To The Rhyme (1988)
Beastie Boys - Desperado (1988)
Geto Boys - Scarface (1989)
Boss - Recipe of a Hoe (1993)
The Beatnuts - Strokes (1997)
Now I’m no copyright lawyer but the battle of sampling and original songs often perplexes me. What is a tribute and what is thievery? How can we give credit where it’s due? How can smaller artists be inspired but without stealing? This is what I found so fascinating about Syl, he realized how much he had been sampled and set a beat-driven “bounty” out into his community, $100 offered to any person who could find a record that he was sampled on. Fortunately, a lot of big record labels were happy to pay off settlements to Syl instead of dealing with lawsuits. We hear from RZA of how The Wu-Tang Clan came to understand the gravity of this issue and sent Syl money. What Syl gave back was an entire hearty Syl discography to use for future tracks. You can now see how the Wu-tang catalog is painted with the colours of Syl’s sounds like Shame on a N****, Hollow Bones, Heaven & Hell and Black Opera. The interviewer tells RZA about how Syl even calls his home “the house that Wu Built”.
So in this harrowing tale of Syl, it is not all bitterness and heartbreak. There is struggle for our protagonist but there is also recognition, copyright claim success, nominations and credit given to this soulful hero. Syl Johnson’s music touched many hearts, even if they were unaware of it. This documentary seeks out to share those trials and tribulations because without those we cannot bask in the glory of his triumphs that came later in life. This movie rates on the Film Condition Board (see below) as Near Mint, something for the soul lovers, old school hip hop fans, and for anyone rooting for the underdog. It has nominations and awards under its chunky gold belt, it plucked my heartstrings and it will be available to view once at Melkweg this month on Wednesday March 23rd. In the spirit of this documentary let us pay credit where it's due, check out Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows, tickets available here.