Blues brothers and sibling rivals, Syl and Jimmy Johnson migrated north from Holly Springs, Mississippi in search of a better life. Because of finances, they left separately for Chicago with older brother Jimmy taking the lead. In the Windy City, the Johnsons found themselves at the heart of an electrical storm, powered by factory jobs and the amplified sounds of Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Magic Sam.
Jimmy Johnson: I knew how to play a little piano, and I knew how to play very little guitar, but I was making money, I didn’t care nothing about no music. I was at the age where I really was loving girls, had my own car, plenty of money. Then all of a sudden, Magic Sam moved to Chicago, that’s what inspired me to go back to play music. He moved next door to me, and he had a guitar that didn’t have no strings on it and didn’t have no money so I bought him some strings for his guitar. And the next few weeks-
Syl Johnson: He couldn’t play s***. He’s got it wrong!
Nick Spitzer: Syl let him tell it, and you can correct it.
JJ: Look man, I’m telling it the way it went down, I bought Magic Sam some strings on his guitar, and I didn’t get to see him for maybe 3 or 4 weeks later, but when I saw him, man that boy could play!
SJ: No he wasn’t playing that good.
JJ: And I went with him to play a few times, and the crowd goes crazy. I said, “Man, let me get me a guitar, I can do that!”
NS: So you really left behind that Mississippi agricultural farm work where you were down at the bottom, and you begin to move up in the city.
JJ: Well now you’re going to realize, you’re still not one of them. They’re gonna make sure of that. You’re not one of them. It got better through the years but it’s not good.
SJ: Steel is the hardest metal in the world. So how do they make steel so hard? They put it through so many degrees Fahrenheit. So we went through these degrees of heat and pressure, and that’s what inspired me to write, “Is It Because I’m Black.”
NS: Jimmy, you and Syl sometimes have had arguments?
JJ: Oh man, you never seen two brothers yet that didn’t fight. But any way you look at it, blood is thicker than mud. I don’t like my brother, but I love my brother.
NS: Syl, what about your brother? Seems like y’all getting along pretty good.
SJ: He’s my hero. He’s my brother always.
JJ: When we were growing up I’d protect my younger brother, I’d protect him. In the middle of my sleep at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, if my brother called me, I’m getting up out of the bed.
NS: Syl, how about you? What if you heard that Jimmy needed some help?
SJ: He knows I’ll be there. I’ll be there.
NS: I think we got it guys. Now I refereed a little bit, I did my best. I don’t think I did that good as a referee, but I did alright.
SJ: I like your style.
JJ: You’re cool with me!
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.