Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Syl Johnson

  • Back for a Taste of Your Love [Hi, 1973] B
  • Diamond in the Rough [Hi, 1974] B-
  • Total Explosion [Hi, 1976] B+
  • Uptown Shakedown [Hi, 1979] C
  • Ms. Fine Brown Frame [Boardwalk, 1982] B+
  • Back in the Game [Delmark, 1994] Dud

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Back for a Taste of Your Love [Hi, 1973]
Note label, imagine formula. A good one, of course--as the horns ascend over bass and drums you half expect him to break into "You Ought to Be With Me" or "Here I Am." Unfortunately, the voice is too narrow and nasal to take full advantage of such a smooth approach--good thing he gets gritty now and then. Mistake: Jerry Vale's (and Ray Charles's) "You Don't Know Me," which sounds like something Al thought better of. B

Diamond in the Rough [Hi, 1974]
At its best this is competent-plus Memphis uptempo. Which is fine, but it's no accident that the best tune is the only one that didn't come out of Hi. It's the Cate Brothers' "Stuck in Chicago," and maybe he should have stayed there. B-

Total Explosion [Hi, 1976]
Johnson has tended to disappear in between Willie Mitchell and Al Green, but on this LP he takes his harmonica up to the microphone and stands clear as a lapsed bluesman. Good move. His voice is still shriller, and more strained than Green's, but that can be a satisfying distinction in the right context. A comparison of his unexceptionably dynamic rendition of "Take Me to the River" to Green's sublime original, however, renews one's understanding of what divine spark might be. Although I wish the folks at Hi would let him sing just one Junior Wells song, say, they've done him proud. B+

Uptown Shakedown [Hi, 1979]
Some worthy soul veterans turn disco into commercial or even artistic regeneration. Others don't. For Johnson, who here abandons the rough, bluesy intensity of Total Explosion, disco means compromised semi-contemporaneity. "Mystery Lady" (she wears a mask) and "Let's Dance for Love" affect post-hustle hipness but don't achieve it, lyrically or musically, which may be why the Otis Redding medley and the Brenton Wood cover sound so half-assed. C

Ms. Fine Brown Frame [Boardwalk, 1982]
Johnson has the rep and pedigree of a down-home treasure, but like so many of his fellow workers both renowned (Johnnie Taylor) and obscure (O.V. Wright), he's rarely better than his material if almost never worse. Having released bluesy soul records out of sweet home Chicago since the dissolution of his '70s label, where his final album was a dismal piece of out-of-it disco, Johnson here constructs his best collection since 1975's Total Explosion and his best side ever on the firm foundation of the title track, a superb piece of out-of-it disco. And may well have something equally interesting to show us in another seven years. B+

Back in the Game [Delmark, 1994] Dud