My Music deserves recognition as a soul classic.
Samuel Jonathan Johnson’s My Music is a record whose stature has quietly but steadily grown over time. First released on Columbia in 1978, it didn’t find even the slightest bit of commercial success. But hip-hop producer The Alchemist raised its profile considerably when he sampled the funktified, horned-out bridge of the title track in 2001 for Jadakiss banger “We Gonna Make It.” A number of other medium-profile artists, like Donnell Jones and Jazzy Jeff, have drawn from the album since then. Plus, it’s up to almost 12,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. (Just 62 million more listeners a month to reach Bieber status!)
Really, like oft-sampled and equally un-famous 24-Carat Black’s Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, it deserves recognition as a soul classic. Perhaps, with this 2019 reissue on Be With Records, it will finally find a larger audience. 10 tracks in length, it inhabits a position somewhere between the symphonic, epic sound of Isaac Hayes or Stevie Wonder and the spacier shit of Roy Ayers or Lonnie Liston Smith. Perhaps its choice to live in such a neither-here-nor-there interstice contributed to the tepid response from ‘70s listeners. However, from the vantage point of today, it reveals an artist at the top of his songwriting and arranging game, a virtuoso able to coalesce an admirable range of approaches to funky R&B.
Like with most of Isaac Hayes’ records, the slow jams are the best: they emphasize subtlety and usher a compassionate kind of hush into the listening space. “Just Us,” the second track on Side B, features a wondrous little spoken-word intro that clearly reveals the record’s debt to Hayes and Barry White. “Wooww/ We’re finally alone,” he muses, probably at the conclusion of some satin-and-sequence-draped soirée (that is, if the album art has anything to say about it). A shimmer of chimes drifts along to introduce the monologue, and Larry Ball’s DTF bass jumps in soon after to underline Johnson’s genuine awe. Opener “My Music” features a similarly turned-on bassline, plus a groovy horn section and a tower of sweet sentiments wrapped up in real love. That love is all about the music in this case: “Music, music, we like all kinds of music,” the backing vocals attest. Additionally, Johnson turns solfège to soul-fege by scatting “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” at various points in the track. The effect is pure camp: such moments reveal a passion too intense to provoke anything but deep affection and delighted laughter.
The up-tempo tracks are pretty fun, too. Johnson goes full-on disco to introduce Side B with “You,” a precise imitation of Chic’s “Le Freak” (down to the sharp-beaked bird calls of strings and the female choir that keeps repeating “aaah”). The song builds to a frenzy with heavenward bursts of horns, as if the tune could fly apart at any second. “You!/ Talking ‘bout you!,” goes that all-girl choir. If their impassioned finger-pointing can’t win somebody over, it’s impossible to imagine what could. “It Ain’t Easy,” at the end of Side A, grows to an ardent finish as well. “Don’t give up!” the choir insists. But there’s a touch of plaintiveness in these gospel vibes, to match the song’s hard-knock subject matter. Such sadness is beautifully noticeable in the half-celebratory, half-dolorous muted trumpet solo that takes us to its fadeout.
My Music isn’t quite a perfect record. There’s the slightest thinness to Johnson’s voice that can be alienating (although, arguably, it adds to the LP’s charm), and the choice to end on two propulsive yet fairly forgettable tracks (“Thank You Mother Dear,” a goofy Mother’s Day card of a song if there ever was one, and “Reason for the Reason,” a bit of disorienting grandeur) leaves listeners ready to shrug off. But the album as a whole is a disarming plea for joy and love, cloaked in seductive funkiness. It was the only collection of songs by Samuel Jonathan Johnson to ever see the light of day, so the album’s title fits just right. These songs are what we have of Johnson’s music, all glowed up and ready for appreciation.