*It was long after one in the morning, but Louis Johnson was just getting started. Even so, he was already on fire, alternating between ridiculously funky thumping/slapping /plucking licks and melodic, jazzy finger work, the fiery combination of which looked and sounded supernatural.
And I had a front row seat. Not at a concert—that happened several hours earlier, when Louis and George, his guitar-playing, lead singing sibling and other half of the Brothers Johnson, backed by their band, played Philadelphia’s Spectrum venue.
No, my vantage post happened to be Johnson’s bed at the Sheraton—me sitting at the foot of it—as Johnson, stretched out at the other end, his back against the headboard, in street clothes he’d changed into backstage after the gig, burned off residual post-performance adrenalin by casually committing an all out assault on his Music Man StingRay.
It’s one thing to see an artist on stage. However, a concert, especially one built around an act’s hit recordings and audience favorites, can showcase only so much talent.
The depth of the true musician’s imagination and prowess is revealed elsewhere: at the rehearsal hall after rehearsal; in the recording studio once tracks for public consumption have been cut; in the den at the crib on a Saturday night, or…back at the hotel in the wee hours after a concert.
It was that night/morning in 1977, while on the east coast leg of a Brothers Johnson tour with photographer Bobby Holland, covering the act for Soul Newspaper, that I discovered just how gifted a musician Louis Johnson was. They didn’t call him “Thunder Thumbs” for nothing. And he was so much more.
When I got word that Louis passed away on May 21—he’d celebrated his 60th birthday a month earlier on April 13–my first reaction was shock. Then absolute and utter sadness, followed sometime later by a completely selfish and inane contemplation: what a shame that a musician’s chops—their precious musical skill and instincts—can’t somehow be transfused from their consciousness, to be utilized by those left behind. Of course, Louis’ brilliance was his to take with him. But damn.
On the electric bass, Louis was a virtuoso, a monster, a beast, fiend–whatever word denoting “great” you want to use, he was it. He played guitar and keyboards as well. Louis and George co-wrote most of the Brothers Johnson catalogue, including the ‘70s hits “I’ll Be Good to You,” “Get The Funk Out Ma Face,” “Runnin’ for Your Lovin’’ and “Stomp” (their top five single, “Strawberry Letter 23” was written by Shuggie Otis). In 1981 Louis, with then wife Valerie Johnson and Brothers Johnson percussionist/vocalist Richard Heath formed and recorded Passage, a spiritual music trio.
With Michael Jackson, Louis wrote the rambunctious “Get On The Floor” for Jackson’s 1979 Off The Wall album. The song was inspired by its ferocious bass line, something Louis used to play in his leisure. One day in the studio during the production of the album, Louis happened to play that line.
Jackson heard it and insisted they write a song around it (Jackson would later co-write with George and Louis, “This Had To Be” for the Brothers Johnson’s 1980 Light Up The Night LP; he can clearly be heard singing background on the track.). Louis played bass on “…Floor” and every other track on both Off The Wall and Thriller, including “Billie Jean.” Three years later, he would play on another of the biggest singles of all time, “We Are The World.” He was nothing if not prolific.
I first met Louis in 1976. Ed Eckstein, a young, future president of Mercury Records then cutting his teeth working for Quincy Jones Productions, put me with George and Louis for a Soul Newspaper interview during the release of Look Out For #1, the duo’s debut A&M album, produced by Jones.
New to interviews, the two were initially shy, opening up when we discovered among us two commonalities: age—Louis and I were both 22; George was 24—and Billy Preston’s LP, Music Is My Life. I bought that album, featuring Preston’s joyous 1973 number one hit, “Will It Go Round in Circles,” when I was a teenager, in 1972. The Brothers, also teens, actually recorded the album with Preston the same year I bought it.
As an act, the L.A.-born Brothers Johnson came along during a heady time in Black music, when bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, the Commodores, the Isleys 3+3, Parliament/Funkadelic and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan ruled the music scene.
Thanks largely to thumping funk innovator Larry Graham, jazz-rock’s Stanley Clarke, Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius and P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins—not to mention Anthony Jackson’s mighty bass line on the O’Jays’ 1973 smash, “For the Love of Money”–in black music the bass player stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. With Clarke, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White, Keni Burke of the Stairsteps, the Gap Band’s Robert Wilson and Louis all based in Los Angeles, the city suddenly seemed like a town of young bass gunslingers.
Of the newcomers, Louis stood out because of his funky thump/slap technique and explosive performing style onstage. Leo Fender, legendary creator of the Fender guitar, was so enthralled with Louis’ playing that in 1975, when Fender became head of Music Man, the guitar company he helmed after selling his namesake firm to CBS, Inc., he worked with Louis on modifications to Louis’ beloved StingRay—the company’s flagship bass–to suit Johnson’s unyielding style.
The Brothers/Quincy Jones liaison served both parties equally. Before the release of their own albums, the Johnsons performed George’s “Is It Love That We’re Missing” on Jones’ 1975 album, Mellow Madness. Under Jones’ production and management, the Johnsons, who’d worked prior as session players for a variety of artists, received a marketable stamp of approval from a respected arranger/producer.
Jones, on the other hand, used the Brothers’ commercial success to illustrate to other artists, including Rufus & Chaka Khan, George Benson (“Give Me The Night”) and most notably Michael Jackson (who, when it was released, told me the Brothers’ “Get The Funk Out Ma Face” was one of his favorite songs to dance to) that he was more than a legendary arranger/producer of film and TV soundtracks; that he could consistently craft pop hits as well.
Musically, Jones and the Johnsons didn’t always see eye to eye. By surrounding the Brothers in the studio with session players such as keyboardist Dave Grusin, horn arranger Jerry Hey and vocal arranger Tom Bahler, Jones gave the Johnson records his trademark gloss.
Without Jones’ direction, there may not have been enduring Johnson instrumentals such as “Tomorrow,” “Q,” and “Streetwave.” “I don’t know, Boot,” Quincy once diplomatically remarked to Louis—Boot was Louis’ nickname–while the two were in the studio working on a song. “That track is resisting lyrics like a motherfucker.”
The Johnsons were fans of Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton’s Parliament; given their druthers, some of their up tempo songs would have had a rawer sound. Consequently, the Brothers’ live shows, often to the curiosity of crossover (read: white) fans, were funkier than their recordings.
Indeed, the BJ shows Bobby Holland and I saw during that 1977 tour were particularly funky. Some of those dates included none other than Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station. Imagine witnessing Louis beat the hell out of his bass–Holland observed that during the slower BJ songs, Louis resembled a caged cat, waiting to pounce with his blistering solo segments–and then getting to see Graham (whom the ever-competitive Louis seemed bent on trying to outplay nightly) break into “The Jam.” Every night for a week I was in bass guitar heaven.
That was nearly 40 years ago. Since then, Louis, realizing he didn’t always have to kill an ant with a shotgun, so to speak, developed into an even more adept and articulate player.
In latter years, when he wasn’t performing solo, playing recording sessions with some of the biggest names in popular music, including Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand, or out with George gigging BJ reunion dates, Louis shared many of his bass playing secrets during a series of popular instructional videos and seminars. You can see them on Youtube.
Still, the music world at large didn’t know just how talented Louis was. That didn’t concern him much; Louis never wanted to be a star. He eschewed celebrity. All he wanted to do was play bass.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]