Syl Johnson – Total Explosion – Hi Records/ Pure Pleasure SHL 32096 – 180 gram audiophile vinyl – 1973/2012 ****:
(Syl Johnson, vocals and harmonica; Wayne Jackson, trumpet; Andrew Love, tenor sax; Lewis Collins, tenor sax; James Mitchell, baritone sax; Jack Hale, trombone; Charlie Hodges, organ and piano; Archie Turner and Earl Randle, piano; Teenie Hodges, guitar; Leroy Hodges, bass; Howard Grimes, drums; String section: The Memphis Strings; Produced and engineered by Willie Mitchell; Remastered by Kevin Gray)
Syl Johnson has always been an underrated soul music treasure. Never given the attention that Hi Records roster mates Al Green and Ann Peebles received, Syl, nevertheless, was a force to be reckoned with. He was as much known as a blues artist as a soul singer. He played and sang with blues legends Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells in the 1950s and 1960s. He could be a romantic singer, but with his blues background could have a venomous edge with hard edged lyrics as well.
The English audiophile label has made a wise choice re-releasing perhaps his best and biggest selling LP, Total Explosion. It featured his best selling single, Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”, done in a slower tempo. It has the Hi Records impresario Willie Mitchell at the helm with his signature hot horn section mated with sweet strings sound.
Syl’s hot harmonica is featured on the shuffle beat, “I Only Have Love” and Johnson matches the Reverend Al with his soulful crooning. “Bustin Up or Bustin’ Out” lays down the choice to his lady. “Star Bright Star Lite” is a sweet interlude compared with the rest of the harder edged material. The girl background vocalists are unaccredited.
“Steppin’ Out” is revenge-driven, getting’ even soul fare. Side 2 opens with a version of “Take Me to the River” that rivals Al Green, due to Syl’s harmonica prowess, hot guitar licks and those Memphis horns. “It Ain’t Easy” is classic blues with some sweetening by the strings. Syl pours out his woes on the vocals. “That’s Just My Luck” shows Syl can step out on his own. “What am I doing with another man’s wife, but I am having the time of my life,” he admits. A nasty guitar solo by Syl adds to the intrigue. This was my favorite track on the LP as Syl steps away from the soul crooner that Al Green does so well, to become the sly blues man role that is more fitting for Johnson’s blues pedigree.
The remastering by Kevin Gray is topnotch as usual. We get to hear the horns and strings soar, but not overwhelm Syl’s vocals and his rhythm section. If you dig Al Green and Ann Peebles, and the Hi Records sound, get yourself this classic Syl Johnson issue!
Side 1: I Only Have Love, Bustin’ Up or Bustin’ Out, Star Bright Star Lite,
Watch What You Do to Me, Steppin’ Out
Side 2: Take Me to the River, It Ain’t Easy, ‘Bout to Make Me Leave Home, That’s Just My Luck
This is a special upscale audiophile vinyl that is worth it!