Syl Johnson – 1970 – Is It Because I’m Black
This album is one of the best ever soul albums to come out of Chicago – and it may well be one of the best soul albums to ever come out of the 60s! Syl Johnson mixes west side bluesy soul with some great Chicago soul arrangements by Jimmy Jones & The Pieces Of Peace – and the result is one of the heaviest soul albums you’ll ever hear – hard-hitting and funky one minute, sweeter and more groovy the next – a wonderful portrait of the depth of Chicago soul at the time.
A1 Is It Because I’m Black? 7:35
A2Come Together 3:15
A3 Together, Forever 2:50
B1 Concrete Reservation 2:27
B2 Black Balloons 2:36
B3 Walk a Mile in My Shoes 2:47
B4 I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Freedom 3:35
B5 Right On 7:10
Review by Soulmakossa
Predating Marvin Gaye‘s seminal ‘What’s Going On‘, Sly and the Family Stone‘s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘ and Funkadelic‘s ‘Maggot Brain‘, Syl Johnson‘s ‘Is It Because I’m Black‘ may well be the very first complete, politically inclined black concept album.
The man with the anguished, blues drenched and gospelfide voice – who had delivered delicious, hard socking soul jams since 1967 – stretches out on the moody, minor keyed blue-soul title-track, philosophically putting it down. A pleading, non-preachy, down-to-earth hypnotizing groove that certainly stands as one of the most poignant black protest songs ever recorded.
A schizoid take on The Beatles’s “Come Together” blends in perfectly, especially with its jaunty guitar and brooding Hammond. It also makes perfect sense regarding Johnson’s overall message on this LP: not ‘Black Power’, or ‘Black Segregation’, but harmony and full INTEGRATION of all the races.
The lovely “Together, Forever” further enhances Syl’s plea. The delicate beat and swirling strings form the musical background to more of Johnson’s heartfelt, sincere lyrics on the brotherhood of man.
But the man wasn’t blind to reality: “Concrete Reservation“, much like the title-track, rightfully points at the plight of his people and what is really ‘holding them back’. The dead-on story-telling on everyday ghetto life, riding a thundering, funky groove, is every bit as heavy as Marvin Gaye’s “Innercity Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”.
“Black Balloons” is another clever track, stressing the beauty of blackness over a mid-tempo, jazzy groove. The same goes for the low-fi, beautifully arranged “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Freedom“, while a frantic take on Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” considerably picks up the pace.
Nonetheless, it’s the album’s energetic closer, “Right On“, that pulls out all the stops. An indescribable monster of a funk tune, on which Syl’s group, The Pieces of Peace, seriously get down. The looseness, wildness and sheer funkiness of this gem is perfectly displayed by the ‘fluff’ that’s left in: when Syl goes for another one of his trademark Jackie Wilson-style high pitched yelps, his voice breaks. Syl: “I cracked this time… but I still got a good thing!” And make no mistake, he cranks out two fully successful howls before the rhythm riot ends.
An essential album, and one which really set the standard, in my opinion. Shamelessly underrated, this is as thought provoking as ‘What’s Going On‘, as funky as ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘ and as wild and free as ‘Maggot Brain‘.