A song the Brothers Johnson liked so much that one of them went down the aisle to the original, struck gold in 1977. The brothers’ remake of Shuggie Otis’ ‘Strawberry Letter 23,’ masterfully produced by Quincy Jones, was certified gold by US body the RIAA on 19 October that year.
The equally impressive original by Otis — the son of R&B figurehead Johnny Otis — had been around for six years, originating on his 1971 album Freedom Flight. George Johnson was dating one of Shuggie’s cousins, who gave him a copy of that long player, and the idea for the cover was born.
The Billboard Book of No. 1 Rhythm & Blues Hits, by Adam White and Fred Bronson, recalls that Louis Johnson, who sadly passed away in May 2015, got married to the soundtrack of the Otis recording. Shuggie has denied that the lyric was inspired by strawberry-scented letters he supposedly received from his girlfriend of the time.
George’s lead vocal on the brothers’ version was very close to Otis’ original, and Jones conducted the master stroke of hiring jazz-soul guitar wizard Lee Ritenour to play the complex, distinctive lead, which gives it a spacey, futuristic feel. Their cover topped the R&B chart in America for a week in August 1977, reaching No. 5 pop, and was certified gold on 19 October,1977. The album it was from, Right On Time, had gone platinum in the US in August, just as its predecessor Look Out For #1 had the year before.
15 years later, Quincy returned to the song when he produced a version by teenage R&B star Tevin Campbell, which just made it into the R&B top 40. For most soul fans, the Brothers Johnson interpretation takes some beating.
Purchase ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ on The Very Best of the Brothers Johnson here.
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