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.
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
Midnight Star are very significant to the the funk scene because,creatively they represent a transition. Not only were they one of the very last large funk bands to form,but their first full length album The Beginning came out in 1980. So with no output during the 1970’s, Midnight Star were the first of the big funk bands to evolve solely during the 1980’s decade. While that album was complete live band horn funk primarily,their next two albums straddled two worlds-that of their live instrumental beginnings and the burgeoning electronic/synthesizer based world of what was then called electro funk and is now called boogie. 1983 was a huge year for soul/funk artists because the genre was back in business,and the post disco freeze out thawing as MJ’s Thriller was pretty much ruling the music world and bringing spirited funk based dance music into the public eye. Because the producer/writer/vocal/instrumental team of siblings Reggie and Vincent Calloway were as much strong melodicists as instrumental futurist,they now stood in the position to deliver the album that would solidify their sound for the rest of the decade.
“Electricity” begins the album with a hard funk grooves entirely based in the synthesizer as all of the instrumental elements. And of course “Freak-A-Zoid” picks right up on the same impulse-using a combination of vocorder and Belinda Lipscomb’s strong,Patti LaBelle-like vocals. Both musically and lyrically capture the spirit of the computer game/video arcade based pop culture of that time as a metaphor for the last days of the sexual revolution. Its on the other songs here that the album truly takes flight really. “Night Rider” takes a drum and bass/guitar sound from “Billie Jean” and applies it to a much more synthesizer oriented and electronic landscape. “Feels So Good” is a grooving “smooth groove” somewhat reminiscent of a jazzier pop take on “Sexual Healing” with Lipscomb’s strong vocals at center stage. “Wet My Whistle” has a melodic and percussive pop/funk sound very much out of the Reggie Lucus/Mtume/Madonna sound of that time and is one of my personal favorite songs here. The title song,copped later by The Bar Kays for “Freakshow On The Dancefloor” is similar to the opener-even including a vocoderized allusion to James Brown’s “I Got The Feeling” on the last verse. “Slow Jam” is a radio friendly contemporary pop/funk…well the title says it all. And it deals with a romantic dance at that. “Playmates” ends the album on a more melodic new wave friendly note.
I discovered this album in 1999 as part of a group of CD’s from a record store that had apparently gone out of business,and were on clearance at a local resale shop brand new for $1 a piece. It basically defined my headphone experiences for the rest of that year and even into the new millennium. Listening to it now,one of the things that’s so striking about this album is how strong the material is. The instrumentation,vocals and songwriting are all first rate,bright and have a party atmosphere that also has a strong elegance reflecting the more streamlined urban contemporary funk attitude of the early/mid 1980’s. Midnight Star created their first full on electro boogie funk album with this release,whilst still maintaining a nine member funk band lineup at the time. At the same time,they didn’t have the same sort of narcissistically cynical sexual world view as Prince and many of his protege’s did during that time. While they always had time for a little sexual fun on this album, everything was still stated with the 70’s era method of implicit lyricism. This is probably one of the strongest of the futurist minded electronic/synthesizer/boogie oriented funk albums of the early 1980’s. And showcases how much of the 70’s funk band attitude was still present in the more contemporary sounds of that era.
Originally posted on April 18th,2014
Link to original review here*
Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Belinda Lipscomb, Boogie Funk, electro funk, Freak-A-Zoid, Freakshow On The Dancfloor, Michael Jackson, Midnight Star, Music Reviewing, Prince, Reggie Calloway, Reggie Lucas, Thriller, Vincent Calloway, vocoder