Syl Johnson never scaled the heights that his sometime label mate, Al Green, ascended. But the Mississippi-born artist was one of the greatest soul singers of the 1960s and ’70s, and the author of one of soul music’s greatest songs. This year, Chicago’s tiny-but-terrific reissue label, Numero Group, made him the subject of an exceptionally lavish, long-overdue box set.
Complete Mythology consists of four CDs and six LPs, and includes 28 of the 60-something singles Johnson recorded. If you’ve never heard Johnson’s heartbreaking 1969 masterpiece, “Is It Because I’m Black?”, you’re in for a serious treat—the song, a reply to Sly and the Family Stone’s “You Can Make It if You Try,” soars above its source material. Johnson, who cut his teeth with Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, and still delivers the occasional command performance, has a fantastically deep catalog. In that sense, at least, Complete Mythology is a complete misnomer. But it does include three hours and 40 minutes’ worth of Johnson’s best work; this collection, a beautiful object in and of itself, will open up at least a few musical worlds.
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