It’s been a tough few weeks for fans of classic soul and R&B with the deaths of Ben E. King, then Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown, followed by blues giant B.B. King and now Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson. Johnson has died at the age of 60 and he leaves this world widely regarded as one of the funkiest, most influential bass guitarists of all time.
I always loved the Brothers Johnson. They didn’t have a truckload of hits, but the ones they did have were funk classics that still sound big on the radio. Plus they had Quincy Jones in their corner as producer so they must really have been as cool as their album covers always suggested.
Most of what I want to say about Louis Johnson is in this Rolling Stone magazine tribute. The article explains how Johnson’s prowess on the bass spread far beyond his own band’s catalogue and onto the vinyl of the biggest music stars of the 70s and 80s: everyone from Michael Jackson (Billie Jean) to Michael McDonald (I Keep Forgetting) to George Benson (Give Me The Night).
The Rolling Stone piece also details how Johnson was an innovator: he used magnets to get the distinctive bass sound on Jackson’s Billie Jean, an artist he worked extensively with. His slap bass style was inspired by Larry Graham of Sly & The Family Stone and alongside the likes of the Commodores Ronald LaPread and Marvin Isley of the Isley Brothers, he was at the forefront of this particularly funky revolution in bass playing in the late 70s and early 80s.
Nicknamed “Thunder Thumbs,” the cause of death for Louis Johnson has not yet been revealed. In tribute. here’s 1980’s Stomp, part of the triumvirate of truly great Brothers Johnson hits (with I’ll Be Good To You and Strawberry Letter #23 the other two). It’s a pretty magical piece of disco-funk with a slap-bass breakdown as dominant as for any pop-hit of the era. RIP.