George and Louis Johnson cut their teeth as members of Billy Preston’s band between 1973 and 1975, so when they made their recording debut as the Brothers Johnson, they were ready to hit the ground running.
Their 1976 debut album Look Out For #1 lived up to that title, with a month atop the US R&B chart, and introduced their exciting new sound, a funk-soul recipe with added jazz flavours. It became the first of four platinum records in a row, as the siblings created a series of memorable soul and pop hits and some great album tracks. We celebrate them in memory of bassist Louis Johnson after his sad passing in May 2015, at the age of just 60.
Among the most enduring songs in the duo’s entire catalog is “Strawberry Letter 23,” a cover of the Shuggie Otis original that George and Louis made entirely theirs. The duo took it to the top of the R&B chart and the US pop Top 5 in 1977. The classy recording was enormously enhanced by the production know-how of confidant and mentor Quincy Jones, and a guitar solo by the much-respected Lee Ritenour.
‘Stomp!’ is perhaps the pair’s best-known crossover hit, another R&B No.1 from 1980’s Light Up The Night that not only hit No.7 on the American pop chart but also became their one UK Top 10 single, reaching No.6 and filling dancefloors from that day to this.
After those introductory hits, a chronological move through the Brothers Johnson’s A&M catalog arrives at the Quincy track on which they had their first key role. “Is It Love That We’re Missin’” hit the R&B Top 20 late in 1975, establishing their distinctive vocal sound and powerful musicianship. When Look Out For #1 arrived, with Jones’ production and fellow A-list musicians like Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Harvey Mason, Ralph MacDonald, Billy Cobham and Ernie Watts, the results were powerful. From it, “I’ll Be Good To You,’ a No.1 R&B single, was later remade by Quincy with Ray Charles and Chaka Khan, and hit the top again.
From the same album, “Thunder Thumbs and Lightnin’ Licks” was the autobiographical title to describe Louis’ bass and George’s guitar work; “Get The Funk Out Ma Face” was a superbly funky hit that spread their name internationally; and “Free And Single” echoed the horn-laden exuberance of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Right On Time, their second album, featured “Strawberry Letter 23” alongside the R&B Top 20 entry “Runnin’ For Your Love” and “Q,” inspired by their great producer. On February 23, 1978, that track won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental. Then in 1978, Blam! had the brothers adopting a space-age theme with the title track and “Ride-O-Rocket.” The LP also boasted another big funk favourite in “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” and the classy, romantic “It’s You Girl.” The album topped the soul chart for no fewer than seven weeks.
1980 was the year of “Stomp!,” co-written with Quincy’s frequent collaborator on Michael Jackson’s multi-million-sellers, Rod Temperton. It was on the Light Up The Night album, from which also came a fine title track and another single, “Treasure.” George and Louis then stepped out as producers in their own right for 1981’s Winners LP, from which highlights included “The Real Thing” and another single, “Dancin’ Free.”
1983’s Blast! The Latest and the Greatest combined hits with new tracks, one of which, “Welcome To The Club,” made the R&B Top 15; the following year’s Out Of Control did the same for “You Keep Me Coming Back.” The brothers’ last soul chart entry was “Kick It To The Curb,” from 1988’s Kickin’ album by two of the funkiest and most soulful brothers in the annals of R&B.