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
Come Together 3:15
Together, Forever 2:50
Concrete Reservation 2:27
Black Balloons 2:36
Walk a Mile in My Shoes 2:47
I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Freedom 3:35
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’.

  • Ryan
    Posted at 00:01h, 24 May 2011 Reply

    Wow. Thank you so much! Can’t wait to listen to this.

  • Phil
    Posted at 08:20h, 24 May 2011 Reply

    Classic soul music! A true gem.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 18:27h, 24 May 2011 Reply

    A Big Album.
    There’s a version of “Is It Because I’m Black” by a group called FRIENDS. Does anyone have it. I would Like that version.

    Big Up!@!

  • rich
    Posted at 20:32h, 24 May 2011 Reply

    great album post nikos

  • Goran
    Posted at 23:12h, 24 May 2011 Reply

    This guy had an awesome voice!

  • Natalia
    Posted at 11:53h, 25 May 2011 Reply

    Have to send big love out to you & thanks for as always having all the tunes that move me.

  • Ben
    Posted at 18:40h, 25 May 2011 Reply

    One of the best Soul voices ever and one of the best records of the seventies

  • (dot)ILL
    Posted at 02:02h, 26 May 2011 Reply

    Many thanks for so many fresh cuts! You mentioned on an older post that you get so many visitors, and so few comments. I think you are right, and up until now I haven’t really taken the time to say: THANKS! It means the world to this one 29 year old guy discovering some old classics (and SHOULD BE CLASSICS) for the first time. Because of blogs like this, I have found several groups whose vinyl I have sought out. I owe you a million thanks, and I’ll make sure to show some more appreciation every time. 1

  • Andrew
    Posted at 09:25h, 26 May 2011 Reply

    Another blast from the past. Thanks so much for this album.

  • Zion
    Posted at 18:42h, 26 May 2011 Reply

    Solid stuff!! Many, many thanks for this great post!

  • justme
    Posted at 20:56h, 26 May 2011 Reply

    Just finished playing it all the way through and it is a GREAT album! The title track is monumental! Thanks!

  • Sean
    Posted at 09:07h, 27 May 2011 Reply

    Perfect Soul music! A great voice.

  • Billy
    Posted at 18:41h, 27 May 2011 Reply

    what a classic!

  • Mel
    Posted at 10:44h, 28 May 2011 Reply

    Thank you for sharing this album, No doubt a great album.

  • Philly_Soul
    Posted at 16:14h, 28 May 2011 Reply

    What a tune “Black Balloons” is, and as you say the whole LP is killer. I already have it, but a great share and decent work as ever from the FMS boys. Cheers

  • Gary
    Posted at 10:18h, 29 May 2011 Reply

    Many thanks for another dope album!

  • Peter
    Posted at 08:30h, 30 May 2011 Reply

    A great LP of the Black Music history..

  • Janet
    Posted at 13:34h, 30 May 2011 Reply

    I used to play this on the jukebox, so many great memories.

  • Angel
    Posted at 23:20h, 30 May 2011 Reply

    wonderful tune, the real groove !

  • Paolo
    Posted at 08:28h, 31 May 2011 Reply

    splendido disco

  • clark
    Posted at 10:38h, 02 June 2011 Reply

    here’s a song I made sampling this record:
    Let’s see if anyone can find it…

  • Tim
    Posted at 11:02h, 02 June 2011 Reply

    classic! classic! classic!

  • Jerry
    Posted at 23:24h, 02 June 2011 Reply

    One of the best Lp’s ever posted here.

  • karl
    Posted at 12:33h, 04 June 2011 Reply

    Just listened to the album….FANTASTIC!….Thanks very much

  • whoknows
    Posted at 20:39h, 04 June 2011 Reply

    I’ll never pass on some Syl…big ups Nikos!!!

  • Jay
    Posted at 09:44h, 08 June 2011 Reply

    Always on my playlist.

  • chris
    Posted at 20:54h, 11 June 2011 Reply

    thanks very nice good job for your site

  • Sembene1
    Posted at 05:07h, 01 August 2011 Reply

    Saw Syl play a set last year….he still has it. He’s being rediscovered and its nice to see him lifted up.

  • Ricardo
    Posted at 11:27h, 01 August 2011 Reply

    A true classic of the genre – thanks for keeping the music alive.

  • Pablo
    Posted at 23:22h, 30 December 2011 Reply

    I’ve been coming here for awhile but just wanted to say thanks and you have one of the greatest blogs out there. I always learn something. Thanks again.

  • Victor
    Posted at 13:30h, 19 February 2012 Reply

    Woah, thanks not only for this but for all of your work.

  • SFdoomed
    Posted at 18:15h, 20 January 2013 Reply

    Another treasure from the vaults! Like garage music of the 60s, this hunt for great tunes seems never ending. Thanks so much (for all posts and fantastic write ups on the bands).

  • lobito
    Posted at 03:57h, 05 January 2014 Reply

    syl, one of the greatest, mucho thanx for the post.

  • Americano
    Posted at 23:46h, 13 February 2015 Reply

    Play it loud and proud ;-)

  • Dj Solo
    Posted at 02:46h, 24 February 2015 Reply

    This song will always have a place in my heart…
    You can make if if you TRY…

  • Will
    Posted at 20:23h, 04 March 2015 Reply

    Million blessings on you and yours for keeping the soul alive!

  • Grooveskin
    Posted at 07:18h, 17 March 2015 Reply

    R&B Songstress Syleena Johnson Is His Daughter And Her Pipes Are Powerful Like Her Pops. She Did An OK Version Of This Masterpiece On One Of Her Albums

  • rich
    Posted at 22:03h, 17 March 2016 Reply

    was just about to ask if u had this album… many thanx nikos

  • Max
    Posted at 12:00h, 13 December 2016 Reply

    Outstanding !!

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