Syl Johnson is the honey badger of R&B in that he doesn’t give a s**t. Never heard of him? Me neither. It turns out that is the best way to watch director Robert Hatch-Miller’s dynamite music documentary Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows. Born Sylvester Robertson in 1936, he grew up picking cotton in Mississippi before escaping to Chicago. The young man got there right when Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf were making music history, getting to hang with the icons.
The musician was given his stage name, Syl Johnson, by his label on his first single in 1959. He proceeded to record some great songs in the 60s, but his mid-level label didn’t promote them enough. So he moved to a bigger label but was overshadowed by label mate Al Green. Johnson recorded and released songs throughout the 70s, appearing numerous times on Soul Train but never hitting it big. Then, in the 1980s, he quit music to open a fried fish chain that blew up and fizzled out.
Over the years, Syl Johnson became one of the most sampled artists in Hip Hop, especially his hit “Different Strokes.” The artist had no idea until female rapper The Boss sent him her cassette and his first royalty check for the sample. Johnson immediately started hunting down rappers who had sampled his songs and sued them and their labels. He didn’t give a s**t how big they were. Case in point, Syl Johnson sued Michael Jackson. He would hand out $100 bounties to neighborhood children to find tapes sampling his work at the record store. Johnson refers to sampling as stealing. He points out criminals don’t break into cars just to sample what’s inside. The rest of the film goes into the rediscovery of this artist’s work and him finally getting his due.
“…Syl Johnson became one of the most sampled artists in Hip Hop…”
Like the music of its subject, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows is a marvelous work of art overdue to be discovered. It hit festivals in 2015 but remained unreleased until now, as it is currently available on VOD. Even with the challenges of marketing a documentary where the point is barely anyone has heard of the person at its center, I am surprised it took so long for the movie to get distributed. Johnson is one of the best subjects since Ginger Baker, except instead of busting your face with a cane, he’ll sue you.
Johnson is crotchety to the hilt and repeatedly doesn’t give a s**t on camera. He is a swirling mixture of bitterness and gratitude. You can’t blame him. He is very down to earth, at one point laughing with his neighbors over the notion that the film crew thinks he is some kind of superstar. However, he is deeply proud of his art and is grateful for the appreciation he has now received. He also still slaps on the guitar and mic at 80 years old.
Hatch-Miller follows the traditional rock-doc format, but it serves the subject handsomely. I do not understand complaints about the classic talking head, birth-school-work-death structure of documentaries. There is a reason why the format keeps working so well. Besides, the filmmaker includes some nifty animated sequences.
The massive kick here of discovering a whole piece of music history is as potent as the one delivered by the greatest music doc of all time, Blokes You Can Trust about the Cosmic Psychos. Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows is a remarkable movie about an artist’s dedication to his craft finally seeing the recognition he always deserved. It’s an inspiration to anyone who creates any form of art. It goes to show that the old school still has plenty of lessons left to teach everyone. This is a stone groove dripping with electricity.
To learn more about Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows, visit its official site.
"…a marvelous work of art..."