Category Archives: George Johnson

Look Out For #1@40-George & Louis Johnson Tell Us About The Funk That All Of Us Release

Somehow it never occurred to me that the Brothers Johnson’s debut album Look Out For#1 was celebrating its 40th anniversary. Sadly,it did so without the presence of the late great Louis Johnson-who passed away in the spring of 2015. One of the most important things to say about this album,released on new years day of 1976,is that it represents the very peak of #1 funk-a time when the music was at its strongest in terms of crossover. It was also Quincy Jones’ first major funk/soul production for another artist. Which in turn paved the way for Quincy’s success in that arena in the early 80’s.

George and Louis Johnson started playing professionally with Billy Preston as teenagers. As they approached adulthood,the guitar/bass duo backed up Quincy Jones on his 1975 album Mellow Madness. The setup was that the brothers wrote the songs,played the guitar and bass parts while George did the majority of the vocals with his high,percussive vocal stutter.  This was essentially the setup for Look Out For #1. Other prominent jazz/funk instrumentalists such as Dave Grusin,Ian Underwood,Lee Ritenour ,Billy Cobham,Toots Thielemans and Ernie Watts were among the musicians who played on the album as well.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about this album is how it presents funk at its best recorded,produced and with its highest variety. “I’ll Be Good To You”,the primary single for the album,has a strong Sly & The Family Stone melodic singability. The instrumental “Tomorrow” has a similarly melodic vibe about it. Of course the song that gets the most harmonically advanced about that style is “Land Of Ladies”,the one song sung by Louis in his grunting,cooing vocal approach. Of course,after one goes from there Look Out For #1 is extremely dense with funk.

“Get The Funk Out Of My Face” is the most commercially successful example of this albums funkiness-with its fast tempo and processed wah wah effects. “Free And Single” and ‘Dancin’ And Prancin'”,with their heavy horn charts,take that same sound to the next logical step. A version of The Beatles “Come Together” and the closing “The Devil” are slow,gurgling deep funk that just grind the groove into the subconscious very deeply. The groove that pulls the sound of this entire album together in one song is titled for the brothers nicknames “Thunder Thumbs And Lightin’ Licks”.

There’s a deep point to this album that actually passed by even me,an avid funkateer,for sometime. A lot of times,even the most classic funk albums of this period mixed heavy funk in with jazz,rock or heavily arranged ballad material on an album. Even though this album has at least one slower ballad type number,the main priority of this album is on heavy uptempo funk. The immense talent of the Johnson brothers,as well as the instrumentalists playing with them,showcase how much the funk genre celebrates instrumental,melodic and rhythmic complication at its finest.

Conceptually,this album attracted me from the first time I saw the album cover on CD 20 years ago this year. It was a fish eye view from below,featuring the brothers playing their bass and guitar in front of a bright blue sky-both seemingly in the middle of singing. George is wearing a silver shirt and slacks with Louis has a silky,Indian looking shirt draped over him while in jeans. The whole image is that of just what they were-two super hip young brothers looking to play funky music for the people with enormous skill,style and flair. And that is what Look Out For#1 represents to me as it turns 40 years old.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1976, Billy Cobham, Brothers Johnson, classic albums, classic funk, Dave Grusin, Ernie Watts, Funk, funk albums, Funk Bass, funk guitar, George Johnson, Ian Underwood, instrumental, Lee Ritenour, Louis Johnson, Quincy Jones, Toots Theilmans

Anatomy Of The Groove: “I Fresh” by The Brothers Johnson

The Brothers Johnson continued on valiantly following the end of the partnership between them and Quincy Jones on their first four albums. While their first self produced 1981 album  Winners picked right up where the brothers left off with Quincy,their next album in 1984’s  Out Of Control found them having lost quite a lot of their distinctive sound. Of course at the time,Louis Johnson had gone onto phenomenal success as a session player at the QWest label in particular-coming to particular fame with Michael Jackson as “Mr. Billie Jean” with his iconic bass line for that massive hit record for MJ.

It would be another five years after that before George and Lewis reunited for their seventh and final studio album Kickin‘. It was 1988 by then. And hard funk was making a huge comeback with songs like Cameo’s “Word Up”,Prince’s “Kiss”  and Earth Wind & Fire’s “System Of Survival” lighting both pop and R&B charts on fire in 1986/87. So this new Brothers Johnson album was heavily endowed with uptempo funk grooves. It wasn’t until my experience with ordering CD’s online did I manage to pick up this relatively rare album. And one standout song for me is the George Johnson sung “I Fresh”.

The song starts of with a heavy snare drum that only hits after every four light cymbal strokes throughout the entire song. Each beat is followed by a hand clap, a brittle synth bass pulse and a both the ethereal string synthesizer and George’s round wah wah guitar playing the same ultra bluesy melody. On the brief refrains,the key is taken up a bit higher and a higher pitched synthesizer comes in accenting the guitar. Towards the end of the song,the thickness of the bass and keyboard parts is bought more to the surface as the song finally fades out of itself.

Sly Stone arranged the horns for “Balls Of Fire” later in this album. But something tells me he was sitting in through this entire session. The main reason is this song,which sounds like an late 80’s instrumental update of the ultra stripped down, bluesy funk Sly was going for during his Fresh period in the early 70’s. The addition of digital keyboards, plus the fact George Johnson might’ve  played most of the instruments on this song ,also keep it in line with the naked funk Prince had pioneered with the Minneapolis sound. It was very distinctive latter day jam from the Brothers Johnson as a result.

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Filed under 1980's, bass synthesizer, blues funk, Brothers Johnson, drums, George Johnson, naked funk, Sly Stone, synthesizer, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Twilight Clone” by Herbie Hancock (1981)

Herbie Hancock’s four pre Future Shock albums in the early 80’s albums have always been very special to me personally. They may not have been massively successful commercially, but were some of his most potent jazz/funk masterpieces of his electric period. One of my favorite albums of this period was his third released from the 1981’s entitled Magic Windows. The album was by and large a heavy funk set including heavy participation from Ray Parker Jr.,who’d been working with Hancock for six years and for whom  Hancock composed the song “Tonight’s The Night” for his Raydio project a year before-during which Hancock released two albums of his own in Monster and Mr.Hands.

This album was recorded at David Rubinson’s Automat studio’s in San Francisco,a studio known for it’s early embrace of automatic mixing technology as well as some of the biggest producers and musicians who recorded there. Perhaps realizing how his using synthesizers to play horn charts was influences the oncoming 80’s boogie/electro funk sound,Hancock touted this album as having no strings,brass or other orchestral elements on this album outside his electronics. Having been inspired by Talking Head’s electronic Afro-Funk explosions on their Remain In Light album,Hancock bought in Adrian Belew from their band for the his new albums finale entitled “The Twilight Clone”.

The song builds from the funky shuffle of Hancock’s drums and Paulinho da Costa’s percussion (along with a host of others) accents. Louis Johnson chimes in with one of his thickest slap bass lines before Hancock comes back in with a brittle LinnDrum beat and  bubbling,mechanical and percussive synths. George Johnson joins in for chugging rhythm guitar,and all of this is accented by Hancock’s own synth bass line. Belew’s trademark “zoo guitar” sound plays the lead line with a very Arabic style melody. Shortly after the song goes up in pitch melodically,the bridge showcases a guitar/percussive breakdown between Da Costa, Johnson and Belew before fading out on it’s own main chorus.

On many levels,this is my favorite Herbie Hancock song of the 1980’s. It’s a perfect example of the electro funk process functioning strongly on the rhythm of the one. Hancock sets the pass as the drummer on this song,as well as providing his synthesizers as a percussive element in much the same way as he had on “Nobu” eight years earlier. He brings in the Arabic melodic tones of Adrian Belew’s horn-like guitar into the Afrocentric percussion Paulinho Da Costa brings to it. Of course the heavy funk element is locked down tight by the Brothers Johnson. So this song essentially acts as the total nucleus of what Hancock’s mid/late 80’s sound would be on a technological and structural level.

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Filed under 1980's, Adrian Belew, Boogie Funk, Brothers Johnson, David Rubinson, drums, elecro funk, George Johnson, guitar, Herbie Hancock, Linn Drum, Louis Johnson, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, rhythm guitar, San Francisco, synth bass, synth brass, Synth Pop, synthesizer, The Automat, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 5/25/2015: “Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin’ Licks” by The Brothers Johnson

1976 now emerges for me as a tremendous year in funk. Name dropping in this case doesn’t only seem required, but very necessary. You had Earth Wind & Fire with “Getaway” and “Saturday Night”,The Isley Brothers with “People Of Today”,Graham Central Station With “Entrow” and “Mirror”,Isaac Hayes’s “Groove-A-Thon”,Kool & The Gang with “Open Sesame”,Herbie Hancock’s “Doin’ it”,The Crusaders with “Spiral” and “Feeling Funky”,Stevie Wonder with “I Wish” and “All Day Sucker”.And the list goes on.

Even in the jazz and rock sections of record stores? The funk seemed to be everywhere by this time with Steely Dan,Jeff Beck,The Doobie Brothers and Edgar Winter. Also during this year? There were the appearances of a few new artists who my friend Rique described so well as basically saying to the world “we’re the new generation of funk”.

George and the now late Louis Johnson were an LA bass/guitar duo who began their career as session people for big name stars of the early 70’s such as Bill Withers,Bobby Womack and Billy Preston. On an apparent audition for Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove? They were overheard by Quincy Jones. He bought them in to play,write and sing on his 1975 album Mellow Madness.

The Johnson’s could not have had a more totally complete introduction if they tried. They had the support of Quincy,the access to the huge bevy of instrumentals that his reference provided and signing to the (at the time) artist owned A&M Records for their 1976 debut Look Out For #1. The second song on this album is an instrumental that, for me, showcases what really made them musically. It’s titled after the brothers nicknames-“Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin’ Licks”.

The song begins with a delayed drum from Harvey Mason-accented by a bassy,greasy Clavinet solo from Dave Grusin introducing the first refrain. He then comes in with a higher,pitched bent synthesizer playing a bluesy guitar like riff that launches into a similarly themed full on melody of the song. This main chorus features George and Louis bass/guitar interaction mixed up high along with the melody. On the second refrain? Sahib Shihab plays an improvisation of the bluesy theme on flute.

After another chorus and refrain that again improvises on their two melodic themes? There’s a bridge which heavily emphasizes the timbale work of Billy Cobham-with a little vocal jiving from the brothers themselves. After this the song returns to the man chorus-with swells into a James Brown like sustained rhythm guitar-let along by Glenn Farris’s trombone to the fade. Throughout the song? The trumpets and sax’s of Chuck Findley,Ernie Watts and Bill Lamb  play call and response to everything else going on in the song itself.

The first time I ever heard this song,when I was about 11 years old? It was played at the beginning of a late 70’s Saturday Night Live sketch starring Steve Martin,which took place in a disco. I instantly loved the groove,though it was a very minor aspect of the sketch itself. But did not know what it was. Nor who the Johnson brothers were. First time I heard this album in my early 20’s? It was very exciting to be able to identify this song I’d loved for years.

While I have many examples of this I could rattle off? This is one of those songs that, for me, represents funk at it’s most solid and complete. Both instrumentally and production wise. Quincy polishes up the sheen of this groove-featuring jazz/funk session greats with the new artists’ for some of the most expertly enthusiastic playing of the 70’s funk era. Rhythmically it’s a direct transition from the thick,phat approach of the “united funk” years to the more polished rhythms of the disco era to come. It’s one of the my favorite, and most defining funk instrumentals of all time.

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Filed under 1970's, Billy Cobham, Brothers Johnson, Dave Grusin, Ernie Watts, Funk, Funk Bass, George Johnson, Harvey Mason, Jazz-Funk, Louis Johnson, Quincy Jones, Sahib Shihab

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 5/23/2015: ‘Winners (Expanded Edition) by The Brothers Johnson

Brothers Johnson Winners

Released in the immediate aftermath of the Johnson’s split with the Quincy Jones production team they had the excellent sense to take the same talented people they’d worked with over the years along with them. All the same this album proved an enormous dip in commercial success and,as far as I know this is the first CD reissue of this particular album. I had the vinyl for years and barely ever played it. In that format it always seemed a little lacking to me musically and it still is in some ways.

The main reason is that the one thing the Johnson’s couldn’t take with them from Jones was the years of arranging and production experience so when they produced and arranged this album themselves everything was given a similar flavor at times but overall it lacks the clever touches,especially certain electronic ones that Quincy often added to spice up his productions. Otherwise,in some ways it’s actually a pretty logical follow up to it’s predecessor even if it doesn’t break any new ground musically.

“The Real Thing” is basically the most obvious response to “Stomp”,lacking only that songs sense of rhythmic build-it comes out of nowhere and more or less stays there. “Dancin’ Free” and “Caught Up” are similarly grooving affairs whereas “Do It For Love” and “Teaser” easily emerge as the harder funk on the album-actually very stripped down production wise which is very appropriate for the times and the emergence of “naked funk”,although none of these songs are the least bit electronic as all the music on this album is extremely organic in nature.

The last half of the album is very unusual as it presents a series of songs with more rock oriented musical devices in keeping with the sound of the Toto members participating in this album. “Hot Mama” in fact is pretty straight out rock n roll with a bit of a funk edge. “I Want You”,”In The Way” and the closer “Daydreamer Dream” actually sound more like arena friendly early 80’s Toto style pop/rock track than anything by The Brothers Johnson. It was an interesting unexplored direction but might have taken people off guard as it did me.

Luckily this reissue solves another problem. Up until now The Brothers Johnson entire recorded output on CD has remained incomplete because all the four “new” cuts featured on their 1982 compilation Blast! were never released on a compilation together. This compilation straightens that out by adding all four of those cuts as bonuses,giving this some of the best bonus cuts I’ve heard on a CD since usually bonus tracks are single edits or alternate takes. Three of these cuts “Welcome To The Club”,the autobiographical “Funk It” and “The Great Awakening” are all a nasty,lightly electro style hardcore naked funk-the latter whose lyrics (as illustrated in the excellent liner notes) are George’s plea to his philandering brother Louis to stat true to certain important people in his life.

This ends with “Echoes Of An Era”,a full on hardcore early 80’s on the Sly Stone style funk groove with a tribute to funk itself. Big Break Records is currently THE BEST funk,soul and R&B reissue label currently around. Particularly in the way they present rare albums such as this with excellent sound,great liner notes with well written information and photos and bonus tracks the same way rock and jazz albums have been getting domestically. And this is an excellent reissue in a series of them that actually helped me reappraise music I’d previously had uncertain thoughts about.

Originally Posted On May 10th,2011

Link to original review here*

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Big Break Records, Brothers Johnson, electro funk, Funk, Funk Bass, George Johnson, Louis Johnson, Music Reviewing, Quincy Jones, reissues, Sly Stone

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 5/22/2015: “A Touch Of Class” by Louis Johnson

After waking up and having the usual inner dialog about what song to blog about this week? Rique informed me of the sad news that Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson had passed away at the age of 60. Now,I was very back and forth about whether or not this matter should be addressed so soon. For one? Just did a major piece on the Brothers Johnson on the birthday of Louis’s eldest brother George. Another was that I didn’t want to come across as exploiting a tremendous talent I had nothing but respect and admiration for.

Took a 10-15 minute Facebook conservation with Rique to decide me on the matter. Louis’s career as a huge hit making and critically acclaimed musical success peaked at a crucial point in the music. A point where the circular nature of taste was veering away from instrumentalists again and back towards popular vocalists-following the post disco era. Taking a break from recording with brother George? Louis released his first and only solo album entitled Evolution in 1985. And smack dab in the center of the album was a song called “A Touch Of Class”. A song that left a strong impression on me personally.

Beginning with a slow paced,brittle uptempo drum machine rhythm accented with electronic hi hat on the second beat? Johnson’s slap bass comes right in and fast becomes the central body of the song. After this? A series of synthesizer based melodies build. The first is a more percussive oriented one-joined almost immediately by a light improvised trumpet melody from Bobby Rodriquez. Following this? Three more orchestral synthesizer elements come into the song that create something of the environment of big band horn sections-including voicing’s for trumpet,sax and trombone interactions. Following yet another solo for Johnson’s slap bass? A jazzier keyboard solo comes in before a series of twittering bird like,and more abstract electronics close out the jam.

First thing about this song that really impressed me was the fact that it was an instrumental. On a pop album rather than a jazz one. This was very common during the height of the 70’s funk era. Yet by 1985 in particular? Full on instrumentals were, in fact a lot less common on pop,rock,funk and soul records of the period. Louis Johnson celebrated his instrumentally based musicality in another important way on this song. Using then contemporary synthesizers and drum machines? He uses the medium of electro funk production to created a series of solos which accent (and emulate) his iconic slap bass playing. As a multi instrumentalist here? He accents Rodriquez’s single trumpet solo here with Quincy Jones-like orchestral synth arrangements. As a high quality joining of big band jazz and funk in the style of his mentor? This song in particular is, for me anyway, a wonderful solo musical legacy for the man to have left behind.

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Filed under 1980's, Bobby Rodriquez, Brothers Johnson, electro funk, Funk, Funk Bass, George Johnson, instrumental, Jazz-Funk, Louis Johnson, Quincy Jones, slap bass

The Brothers Johnson-Stomping Thunder & Lightning

Brothers Johnson Artwork

Michael Jackson was likely the first artist who ever focused my attention on instrumentalists. While admiring the vocal,songwriting and performance ability of the Jackson brothers in general? My attention would focus on the liner notes of their albums. This came after watching The Jackson’s-An American Dream mini series on TV. And my parents loaning me their Michael Jackson/Jackson related albums. I personally wanted to know more about the musicians whose sound made the rhythms snap,crackle and pop with funkiness and soul the way they did. It has gone on to be a tremendous learning experience for me.

Two of these musicians that I noticed on the liner notes to Mike’s iconic Off The Wall album,from my mom and dad’s original vinyl copy,were guitarist George Johnson and his bassist brother Louis. Considering my interest in bass players even then? It was amazing to learn just what a bass icon Louis Johnson in particular was. Not to mention his enormous debt to the 1980’s by his iconic electric bass line on Mike’s “Billie Jean”. While I knew who Quincy Jones was of course? I had no idea of the breadth and scope of his musical outreach until learning more about the Brothers Johnson.

A few years later during mid adolescence? I was browsing the CD racks at the now defunct Borders Books & Music. I noticed a collection of four newly arrived releases by…The Brothers Johnson. The earliest one, 1976 album called  Look Out For #1 showed a photographically powerful image,take from below,of two super hip looking young musicians playing bass and guitar and singing with enormously enthusiastic expressions and stances. All of these album covers projected intensity. Album art is just art of course. But the best part was,as I veered toward adulthood, was discovering that these albums were musically just as energetically funkified as their cover art implied.

During my early 20’s? Something began to become uppermost in my understanding of the Johnson brothers musicality. Free jazz/bluesgrass/rock guitarist and writer for Allmusic.com Eugene Chadbourne perhaps worded it best about the revelation I had-when Mister Chadborne described the Johnson’s as coming from a period where musicians in the jazz/funk/soul genre were judged by the dues they paid in professional situations. As opposed to being judged by a romantic notion of street credibility. Since that latter notion totally defined the local understanding of musical appreciation around me at that time? This led me to more research,both through physical literature and my earliest experiences online, about the Johnson’s and other funk era instrumentalists.

By the time 2004 rolled around? And I was connecting with a group of local musicians/DJ’s as something of a local funk bands volunteer videographer? It was the story arc of how musicians such as George and Louis Johnson became musical icons that was fascinating me most. The brothers started playing with the Billy Preston band while still in high school. Quincy Jones then became taken with the duos talents. And he bought them in to record with his mid 70’s band on his 1975 release Mellow Madness-much of which qualifies as the earliest introduction of the Johnson’s duel playing and vocal harmonies. And the rest was history. In addition to success as a duo with their own albums? They would go from blistering session work with Herbie Hancock and George Duke to 80’s era work with Leon Sylvers and Slave’s Steve Arrington.

Looking back on it all now? The Brothers Johnson are the main reason why I have continued to focus so heavily on the instrumentalists relationship in the creation of the funk,soul and jazz music that has become such a source of creative and emotional inspiration for me. Getting back to the Michael Jackson angle? Now that the man sadly isn’t with us anymore? Whenever I hear his first two Quincy Jones produced solo records? It’s a lot more easy to tune into how Mike’s vocal hiccups take their turns popping right along with George and Louis’s instrumental licks on songs such as “Get On The Floor”,”Burn This Disco Out”,”Baby Be Mine” or the aforementioned “Billie Jean”. So among all the wonderful funky soul the Johnson’s have made? What I’d personally thank them for is helping increase my level of understanding of why playing in the groove works in music.

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Allmusic.com, Billie Jean, Billy Preston, Borders Books & Music, Brothers Johnson, Eugene Chadbourne, Funk, Funk Bass, George Duke, George Johnson, guitar, Herbie Hancock, Leon Sylers, Look Out For #1, Louis Johnson, Michael Jackson, Off The Wall, Quincy Jones, Steve Arringon, The Jacksons, Thriller