Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Strawberry Letter 23 Post Scripted With A Stomp!

Los Angeles brothers George (vocals/guitar) and Louis (vocals/bass) Johnson put together their first band whilst still in high school. Johnson Three +1 was a R&B funk outfit which also featured older brother Tommy and the brothers cousin Alex Weir. The band experienced limited success on their own in their early days but upon turning professional they found themselves in high demand as a backing group. In the early 70s they backed such R&B luminaries as Bobby Womack, Ray Charles and the Supremes.

George and Louis then struck out on their own and soon found themselves as established members of Billy Preston’s band. The brothers were honing their song writing craft during this period and wrote the title track for Billy Preston’s 1972 album ‘Music Is My Life’ and ’The Kids And Me’. During this period the Johnson brothers became known to the A&M label (which was Preston’s label), and after leaving Preston’s band in 1973 the pair were hired by the legendary Quincy Jones (then owner of A&M) to play on his 1975 LP ‘Mellow Madness’. The track ‘Is It Love That We’re Missin’ reached #70 on the U.S. charts and was credited to Quincy Jones featuring The Brothers Johnson.

The Johnson brothers had become The Brothers Johnson, and following a Japanese tour with Quincy Jones, the duo entered the studio to record their debut album. With Quincy Jones at the controls ‘Look Out For Number 1’ was released in 1976, with ‘I’ll Be Good To You’ the first single release. The slick funk based number bulleted to #3 on the U.S. Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts - The Brothers Johnson had arrived. The follow up ‘Get The Funk Out Ma Face’ was aimed straight at the fertile disco market reaching #11 on the Club charts and #30 on the Hot 100. The album also featured a soul driven remake of The Beatles’ classic ‘Come Together’.

Their sophomore album ‘Right On Time’ proved to be just that going platinum (US#13, OZ#43) and yielding perhaps The Brothers Johnson’s most well known hit single ‘Strawberry Letter 23’. Featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Lee Ritenour in the guitar solo, ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ found itself delivered all the way to #5 on the U.S. Hot 100, #35 in Britain and #25 in Australia during the second half of 1977 (as you can imagine the efficiency of postal services varies greatly, hence the differing chart addresses). The album also featured the track ‘Q’, in acknowledgment of Quincy Jones, and the R&B hit ‘Runnin For Your Lovin’.

1978’s album ‘Blam!!’ saw The Brothers Johnson firmly entrenched in the musical sub-genre known as ‘sophisti-funk‘, also known as ‘uptown funk’, a more accessible and commercial take on the hard core funk of contemporaries like Rick James and George Clinton. Despite this, the commercial success of ‘Blam!!’ was mixed. The album itself reached #7 on the main pop album charts, but failed to yield any major hits, with ‘Ain’t We Funkin’ Now’ (UK#43) the biggest. Quincy Jones then took time away from The Brothers Johnson to produce an up and coming young singer by the name of Michael Jackson - the result being an obscure little album called ‘Off The Wall’ (so obscure it sold millions).

Flush with the success of ‘Off The Wall’, Quincy Jones reunited with George and Louis Johnson for the 1980 album ‘Light Up The Night’. It was a return to form for The Brothers Johnson, the album soaring into the top 5 on U.S. charts and reaching the top 50 in the U.K. and Australia. Part of that was the sublime dance-funk number ‘Stomp!’ which stomped all over much of the competition on the charts in early 1980 (US#7, UK#6, OZ#13). Also featured was the dance hit title track and the song ‘This Had To Be’, co-written by Michael Jackson and featuring his background vocals, and the R&B hit ‘Treasure‘. But the album also marked the end of the recording partnership between The Brothers Johnson and Quincy Jones.

Following on from the disappointment of their self produced 1981 album ‘Winners’ (US#48) which generated the minor hit ’The Real Thing’ (US#67), The Brothers Johnson took a break during which time Louis Johnson played bass on a number of tracks from Michael Jackson’s zenith album ‘Thriller’. Two more albums followed, 1982’s ‘Blast’ and 1984’s ‘Out Of Control’, but as with so many of their funk/disco/dance contemporaries The Brothers Johnson found themselves no longer at the vanguard of cutting edge music, but rather withering on the popular music vine as a new crop of artists with fresh sounds and style became the product of choice for a fickle record buying public. George and Louis Johnson returned to session work for the next few years, playing with the likes of Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Earl Klugh and Aretha Franklin.

After an extended hiatus, during which time Louis recorded the gospel inspired album ‘Passage’ and George released the single ‘Back Against The Wall’, The Brothers Johnson returned in 1988 with the new album ‘Kickin’. Despite signing a new multi-album deal with A&M and expressing optimism in the lead up to its release, The Brothers Johnson regrettably compromised quality to a degree on the album in an effort to appeal to the late 80s sound.

The track ‘Tomorrow’, which featured on The Brothers Johnson’s debut album, was re-recorded by producer Quincy Jones for inclusion on his 1989 album ‘Back On The Block’. Originally an instrumental, the remake featured new vocals by Tevin Campbell and was a #1 R&B hit. ‘Back On The Block’ also featured a hit remake of The Brother’s Johnson song ‘I’ll Be Good For You’ (featuring new vocals by Ray Charles and Chaka Khan).

Louis Johnson has developed his own music clinics (first started in the 80s) teaching bass to up and coming players, these days via his own website, whilst George continues to guest on other artist’s work and most recently has performed on occasion in a ‘supergroup’ of sorts also featuring Ray Parker Jr., Adina Howard and Cherrelle.

No comments: