In a statement, Johnson’s family called him “a legend.”
“It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame legend Syl Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson in Holly Springs, MS). Dad, Brother, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Uncle, Friend & Artist, he lived his life as a singer, musician, and entrepreneur who loved black music.” Johnson was 85 years old.Johnson was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1936. He made his name in the 1960s and ’70s with Chicago label Twinight, which issued his 1968 debut Dresses Too Short. That album featured “Different Strokes.”The song would eventually be sampled by Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”), Wu-Tang Clan (“Shame on a N***a”) Eric B. & Rakim (“I Know You Got Soul”), Jay-Z and Kanye West (“The Joy” [ft. Curtis Mayfield]), De La Soul (“The Magic Number”), among others. WhoSampled cites over 300 songs that use portions of Johnson’s cut.Johnson was protective of his work. He filed a lawsuit against JAY-Z and Kanye West in 2011 for using portions of his song in “The Joy” without proper clearance. The suit was settled. Johnson also sued Michael Jackson, Cypress Hill, and others for sampling his music without permission.
Johnson was prolific, released a dozen albums of R&B during his career, including Is It Because I’m Black, Back for a Taste of Your Love, Uptown Shakedown, Suicide Blues, and Bridge to Legacy.