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 October 19 that year.
The equally impressive original by Otis — the son of rhythm and blues 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.
Inspiration from Shuggie
George’s lead vocal on the brothers’ version was very close to Otis’ original, and Jones conducted the masterstroke 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. 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.
Fifteen years later, Quincy returned to the song when he produced a version by the teenage R&B star of the time, Tevin Campbell, which just made it into the R&B Top 40. But for most soul fans, the Brothers Johnson interpretation takes some beating.
Buy or stream “Strawberry Letter 23” on Strawberry Letter 23, The Very Best of the Brothers Johnson.