Syl Johnson digs deep for his soul.
Last month I visited the global rhythm and blues singer at his home, studio and garden on the south side of Chicago.
I’ve known Syl for 30 years and have great memories of his late 1980s days as owner of Solomon’s Fishery, a chain of soul fish restaurants in the Loop, west suburbs and Gary, Ind.
Syl was likely the first African-American chain restaurant owner in downtown Chicago and no one has disproved that statement.
Syl will tell you that when he appears with his big band in two sets starting at 8 p.m. Sept. 12 at The Promontory , 5311 S. Lake Park in Chicago. “I’m not African-American,” he declared in his living room that is adjacent to a kitchen with an autographed picture of Oprah Winfrey. “I am black, a descendant of the slaves.”
Last month Syl was tending to cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, butternut squash, zucchini squash and watermelon in his garden.
He started his garden four years ago in a vacant lot (50 feet by 125 feet) directly south of his home. He grows year round by deploying a canopy. Syl usually is working in his garden during the morning hours.
“I didn’t want anybody to build on the land next to me,” he said. “So I cut it down with a Bobcat (compact tractor). I get the topsoil, dig a hole, stick a plant in there, about ten inches in diameter and ten inches deep. The topsoil holds the moisture and you don’t have to put in fertilizer.” He keeps his garden healthy by watering with rain water.
Syl is truly growing organic.
He does not sell his produce. He gives away his food, and indeed, handed off cucumbers to me and my photographer as we arrived at his house. He should be performing at Farm Aid this weekend. “Good God almighty, I grow more than I need,” he said. “I give some to the lady neighbors but the senior citizens don’t want nothing. I give some to my musician friends.”
Syl once catered a lunch at Harpo studios on the near west side of Chicago.
“I think about the business and songs when I am in my garden,” said Syl, who is 78 but looks like he is a healthy 48. “Want a watermelon?”
He suddenly looked down at a scarred cucumber. “Black ass crows pecked them when I was in Japan,” he said. “That’s why I put up the (artificial) owl. He don’t like that. The wind blew down my scarecrow.
Syl was interested in the book on civil rights and soul food that I had just wrapped (due October, 2015 on Chicago Review Press with portraits by Paul Natkin). Syl even wanted to write a song about the topic.
He is no stranger to such fare. In 1969 he recorded the scorching 7 1/2 minute jazz-blues anthem “Is It Because I’m Black” which peaked at number 11 on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. The hypnotic arrangements were done at the Chess Studios by the late Donny Hathaway who used a similar motif for his own hit “The Ghetto, Part 1″
In 2013 Syl released the song-story “Carry On for Trayvon,” which he recorded with his daughter Syleena two days after the George Zimmerman acquittal was handed down in the Trayvon Martin trial.
“Let me tell you where soul food came from!,” he said. “The freedom riders. White people were hungry. They went down the street and found good food down at the ‘soul’ place. White folks named it soul food. It was just food. They had good black-eyed peas and neck bones and chitterlings. But soul people didn’t know anything about nutrition. They just cooked.”
Syl cooked up his own fish recipe from the Saturday night fish fries in his native Holly Springs, Miss. There is no starch and little cholesterol in the Johnson family recipe. The fish are basked in celery, garlic, onion and pure vegetable oil, using liberal amounts of whole- wheat flour and meal with “secret” health ingredients.
“Most doctors will tell you the oil from the salmon is the healthiest fish oil in the world,” he said. “Don’t take my word. We don’t cook with white flour, we cook with wheat flour. We don’t cook with corn meal.” Syl once told me he named his chain Solomon’s because he didn’t really want to name it Salmon’s.
Syl was excited about his Hyde Park gig and figured people will have a whale of a time.
“I don’t like playing with small bands anymore,” he said. “I’ll have five horns, four rhythms and three background singers at Hyde Park. This way I can put on a show. My songs are R&B not just blues.”
In the 1970s, when Syl was recording for Hi Records in Memphis, James Brown spun a hit off of Syl’s 1971 dance tune “Annie Got Hot Pants Power.” Foghat covered Syl’s “Back For a Taste of Your Love,” more recently tackled by Jonny Lang and in 1975 Syl had his own hit with a deep blues version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
His down-to-the groove 1967 tune “Different Strokes” has been sampled by at least 50 artists including the Beastie Boys (“Desperado”), Michael Jackson (“Blood on the Dance Floor”), and Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”).
Expect to hear the new Bob Jones composition “I’m the Roots to the Blues” (now available on iTunes), which Syl sings in falsetto Marvin Gaye “Trouble Man” era tones. He recorded the tune in July, backed with a nine-piece horn section.
Syl’s garden is true to his roots. He lives in the same neighborhood where he landed in 1950 when he came to Chicago on the City of New Orleans train. He was 16. He still hosts an annual summer reunion fish fry with his brother, Chicago blues great Jimmy Johnson. The event takes place at his home, close to his heart.
“Here’s my story,” he said as he leaned over from his favorite living room chair. “If you pull a tree out of the ground, the limbs, the branches and the roots look the same don’t they? But cut the branches and tree blossoms out and they are beautiful again. Cut the roots?
“ Dead tree.”