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Blues brothers Jimmy and Syl Johnson

A Black man wearing a black and white stripe shirt and sunglasses plays a guitar on stage.
Masahiro Sumori
CC A-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia
Syl Johnson at the 1997 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Although not as well-known as Buddy Guy or Otis Rush, brothers Syl and Jimmy Johnson both carved out separate and successful careers in the bustling Chicago blues scene of the 1960s and 70s.

Two real-life Chicago blues brothers passed away this year. Older brother Jimmy Johnson died at 93 and Syl Johnson at 85.

The Mississippi-born brothers moved with their family to Chicago in 1950 to seek a life away from farm work. Their next-door neighbor was blues guitarist Magic Sam, and both brothers would go on to play gigs with him, Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf.

Within a few years, both brothers became prominent on the Chicago blues scene.

Syl Johnson’s 1967 “Different Strokes” not only made it to the top 20 R&B chart, but has also been widely sampled by hip-hop and rap artists Kanye West, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan.

Johnson also wrote songs about the struggle for racial equality such as "Is It Because I'm Black," which reached number 11 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1969.

Syl Johnson’s life story was told in the 2015 documentary Any Way the Wind Blows. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2019.

Syl’s older brother Jimmy worked his way into the soul blues scene in Chicago, backing up artists such as Otis Clay and Denise LaSalle.

While Jimmy Johnson remained a stalwart of the Chicago blues scene for five decades, he may have been better known in Europe, where he did much of his recording and touring.

Over the years Jimmy won several Blues Music Awards, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2016.

Luckily, the brothers united in 2002 for an album together, Two Johnsons are Better Than One.

Remembering brothers Syl and Jimmy Johnson who both passed away this year.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.