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.