Rebirth of Soul

by: Syleena Johnson

Rebirth of Soul may have been an inevitable album for Syleena Johnson to cut, but for those many R&B and hip-hop fans who've followed her singing and television career, it's a welcome surprise. Johnson's catalog dates back to 1996's Love Hangover. She has also appeared on records by Kanye West, Anthony Hamilton, R. Kelly -- the latter has also written for her -- and others. These include her father, soul singer, songwriter, and producer Syl Johnson, who penned hits for Donny Hathaway ("Is It Because I'm Black") and many more. He produced Rebirth of Soul, chose its songs, and assembled a group of crack session players from the vintage soul era. Syl Johnson helms the guitar chair in a mighty group of veterans of the Chicago soul and blues scenes. It includes keyboardist/arranger Tom Washington, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf drummer Mo Jennings (who passed before this was released), bassist Bernard Reed (Little Richard, Chi-Lites), and saxophonist Willie Henderson (Barbara Acklin, Tyrone Davis), along with strings and backing singers. The material, ranging from the '50s and '60s, was cut live from the floor in Chicago studios with Johnson singing in the middle -- live studio recording is a first for her. The resulting "in-the-moment" feel is part of the album's charm. Though soul has been part of her pedigree since birth, Johnson has never been a revivalist. This project was a gift of love for her father (who initially discouraged her ambitions in music). Her reading of Bettye Swann's immortal "Make Me Yours" is nuanced, sung just ahead of the beat, as strings and backing singers highlight the emotion in her vocal. "The Makings of You" is a gorgeous ballad by Curtis Mayfield, who has two selections here (the other is the righteous uptempo closer "The Monkey Time") where her falsetto gets room to roam, but never elevates itself above the players. Throughout, Johnson inhabits lyrics and melodies rather than dictates them. Her reading of "Is It Because I'm Black" resonates particularly poignantly in an era where Black Lives Matter and others are re-fighting previous civil rights victories, including the right to vote, challenged by hostile politicians and white supremacists. Her readings of other iconic songs, such as "I'd Rather Go Blind" (inseparably associated with Etta James and Aretha Franklin) just burns, while Don Covay's funky "Chain of Fools" is rendered gritty and gusty. Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" is slow and smoldering. Jackie Wilson's 1958 smash "Lonely Teardrops" (penned by Berry and Gwendolyn Gordy and Tyran Carlo) has been covered by everyone from Michael Jackson to Michael McDonald, but other than the original, it has never been rendered with the commitment and depth its treatment receives here. Rebirth of Soul is a full-circle, career-defining date for Johnson. Her interpretations of these songs are not nostalgic, they are authentic, and she commands her place in soul music's direct lineage of artists. ~ Thom Jurek

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