Louis Johnson, founding member of funk band the Brothers Johnson and an in-demand bassist who appeared on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” died on Thursday, May 21st. He was 60. His death has been confirmed though a cause of death has yet to be revealed. With all due respect, but another great in our music foundation has left the building.
In the 1970s, I owned a record and tape shop. It was at that time I first heard the sound of these guys called “Thunder Thumbs and Lighting Licks” aka The Brothers Johnson and instantly feel in love with their sound. There are only a few bass players to rise to legendary status, and Louis Johnson was one of the greatest bass players to ever pick up the instrument.
The Brothers Johnson had great success during their run in the 1970s but split up in 1982 to pursue separate projects. Louis Johnson recorded a gospel music album in 1981 with his own group Passage, which included his then-wife Valerie Johnson and former Brothers Johnson percussionist/singer Richard Heath. He played bass on Micheal Jackson’s Thriller. In 1985, he recorded a single, “Kinky”, on Capital Records; it appears on his Evolution album that was exclusively released in Europe that year.
Louis then made three instructional videotapes for the Starlicks video-distribution company in which he shared his bass-playing skills. The first was released in 1985. He then settled down to enjoy family life with his wife and son, but by 1988 his then-manager Diane Taren talked him into going back into the recording studio. He started his bass academy during the 1990s and gave workshop clinics via his own Website.
The Los Angeles-based Brothers Johnson, a group featuring Louis and his brother George, got their start backing up Quincy Jones before releasing their acclaimed, Jones-produced debut LP Look Out for #1 in 1976. Over the next five years, the Brothers Johnson racked up three Number One hits on the R&B charts: 1976’s “I’ll Be Good to You,” their 1977 cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23,” and 1980’s smash “Stomp!” (Their rendition of “Strawberry Letter 23” was later featured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.) The Brothers Johnson’s 1980 album Light Up the Night, featuring “This Had to Be” co-written by Michael Jackson and featuring the King of Pop on background vocals, ascended to the top of the R&B album charts.
“I’ve never been given parts to play in my whole life. I’m the most rare bass player in the whole world,” Johnson told Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper in 2013 for the upcoming book MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. “No one ever gave me music paper to read; no one ever gave me anything to read. They tell me, ‘Here’s a track, play what you want.”
After the brothers parted ways in the early Eighties to pursue solo careers, Louis became known for his bass playing prowess, emerging as a prolific, in-demand session musician. Johnson served as the primary bassist on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and later lent his skills to Jackson’s Thriller (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T.”). Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street soundtrack and the all-star “We Are the World” collaboration.
“When I went to the session with ‘Billie Jean,’ I took like ten basses and I lined ’em up. I’d say, ‘Michael, pick one,'” Johnson told Rolling Stone. Johnson is also credited with creating the bass line from Michael McDonald’s hit version of Leiber & Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” a melody that was later sampled by Warren G and Nate Dogg for “Regulate.” Over his long career, Johnson also worked with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Herb Alpert and George Benson.
In the Rolling Stone interview he said, “I had access to all musicians and artists, from Barbra Streisand to Paul McCartney to Michael Jackson. …It was like an open door. The Lord blessed me with that — I prayed to God and my prayer he answered. He said, ‘OK, you got the whole world now.’ Every time I’d get in the car to go somewhere, I’d hear me playing the bass… I was all over the place. I released the funk on everybody.”
I am one who loves greatness and Mr. Johnson you were one of the greatest and therefore my prayers are for you to rest in peace! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…