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Syl Johnson, Chicago Soul Legend Heavily Sampled by Hip-Hop Artists, Dead at 85

I, Sumori, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Chicago R&B legend Syl Johnson, whose soulful response to the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped make him a star, is dead at age 85.

“It is with extreme sadness that our family announces the passing of Soul & Blues Hall of Fame legend Syl Johnson,” his loved ones confirmed in a statement to the music site Pitchfork Sunday. “Dad, Brother, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Uncle, Friend & Artist, he lived his life as a singer, musician, and entrepreneur who loved black music.”

The family did not release a cause of death for the artist, whose demise comes less than a month after his brother and fellow musician Jimmy Johnson died at the age of 93 on Jan. 31, according to a statement on his website.

Born Sylvester Thompson in Mississippi, Johnson rose to fame in the 1960s. His releases for Twinight Records, originally named Twilight Records, and Hi Records made him a prominent member of the Chicago soul scene.

It was 1969, "Is It Because I'm Black," a song inspired by the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that would become Twinight's biggest hit and make him a star — reaching No. 11 on Billboard's R&B chart.

"I didn't want to be a militant," Johnson told The Los Angeles Times in 2012 of writing the song. "I didn't want to make something that alienated the white audience that I played for a lot." 

The poignant piece solidified his legacy, but it was a previous release that would preserve it for future generations. 

The hit song, "Different Strokes" from Johnson's 1968 debut album "Dresses Too Short," has become one of the most widely sampled pieces of music in hip-hop. Jay Z and Kanye West ("The Joy"), Public Enemy (“Fight the Power"), and Wu-Tang Clan  ("Shame on a N***a") are just some of the artform's heavyweights to employ his music in their craft. 

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