If American pop culture was tailored to the tastes of those folks Amiri Baraka described as “Blues People”, there would have been a video game called “Bass Hero” last decade. Imagine video game cartridges with illustrations of an animated Bootsy, or Larry Graham. Chuck Rainey, and Anthony Jackson, Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller. James Jamerson, and one with a special edition for keyboard bass, featuring Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and Junie Morrison among others. Two of the funkiest and most popular games would undoubtedly be for two bass players who’ve now unfortunately passed on. Both of them came to prominence in the 1970s and took the bass advancements of the ’60s to a new level of visibility. Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report has been gone for a long time. Last month the great Louis Johnson joined him.
Louis Johnson’s death shocked me because at 60 years old I still considered him a young man. He was a young man relative to two other legends we lost last month, The great Kings, Ben E. And B.B. But I think the reasons I will forever view Louis Johnson as young have to do with his athletic, muscular style of bass playing, and the album cover to his first album with his brother George, “Look Out for #1”
Now by the time I came along in the early ’80s, that first Brothers Johnson album was one of the newer ones in pops collection. By that time he was already moving into tapes and CDs and most of his vinyl had jazz era scenes on them. But “Look Out for #1 had two young black men on the cover with monster afro’s and nothing but blue sky behind them. Even a few years later in the design conscious ’80s that was a powerful statement. Then I remembered Dad telling me Quincy Jones was their producer, the same man who was producing Michael Jackson’s music, which was the biggest music in the world.
The essay on the cover of an album told a story of two young musicians, the guitar playing Brother George who’s nickname was “Lightning Licks”, and the bass playing Louis, “Thunder Thumbs.” Then when I heard the music I was mesmerized by “Get the Funk Out Ma Face.” I had no idea where the groove was coming from and even less idea of how Louis was making his sound. At that time all I knew of bass was it was a low deep sound I liked, but I was clueless to the actual techniques of bass playing.
I had also heard The Brothers Johnson tune “Stomp”, but Louis sounded different on that, more rounded and smooth, until he whips out his relentless bass riff on the bridge. Then Quincy Jones released “Back on the Block” and amazingly there was a song from The Brothers, “Tommorow”, this time with lyrics sung by Tevin Cambpell!
As my musical appreciation grew, so did my appreciation of The Brothers Johnson. The two brothers from LA took the soul music world by storm in the ’70s, playing with Billy Preston and Bill Withers. This eventually lead to their work with Quincy Jones on his “Mellow Madness” album. With Q’s production, and their own songs and unique, sibling synced funk, they blew all the way up on A&M. I’ve always viewed The Brothers Johnson as one of the bands in Funk that truly had the right situation to show off their talents and get their music to the people. This led to Gold and Platinum albums and their cover of Shuggies Otis’ song “Strawberry Letter 23” being one of the classic songs of the ’70s.
George Johnson was the super cool vocalist and primary songwriter on most of their big hits, but Louis bass style made him an in demand session bassist in the mold of Chuck Rainey, James Jamerson, Carole Kaye, and Anthony Jackson. What was unique about Louis career was by the time he came along, people were finally hip to how much a strong bass line could do for a song. And he came to the plate with a flashy, powerful, super hip bass style. Larry Graham, Bootsy and Louis are probably the Trinity of funk bassists in terms of both style and recognition. Louis Johnson would be hired on record gigs basically to play Louis Johnson. This is significant because some great bass players get gigs with the expectation of them being versatile and playing what ever you put in front of them. Though Louis had some versatility as well, you hired him to bring the sound of Louis Johnson to your track, much as you would a great jazz soloist.
This led to one of the most successful studio careers in history, in what was both a golden age and a twilight for studio musician work. He played funk, soul, pop and jazz gigs. The more I grew as an enthusiast of records I’d discover things like the fact Louis was playing on Grover Washingtons “Feel So Good” album. It was like his groove was so powerful it was it’s own genre or style, you would hear a record with dope bass and be grooving to it without even knowing who was playing it. Then you’d find out it was Louis Johnson. And though he was known for slap, many times you would hear him playing finger style and the effect was the same. All ears on the bass! He most definitely helped pave the way for today’s world of star bassists like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten.
I finally got the chance to see Louis perform here in the Bay Area in the mid ’00s. There is footage on the Internet of him teaching bass and he seemed like a very nice, soft spoken, cool person, which is a trip when you think of how aggressive his bass style was. I really can’t formulate any words of wisdom or way to summarize how I feel about Louis Johnson because he’s been a constant in my life for a long time, through his music. We still have his music of course, as well as footage of him teaching. But I think I feel good about his legacy when I see that girl play his classic bass part to Michael Jackson’s “Get on the Floor”, one of the meanest bass tracks in history. Yeah. That makes me feel much better….