Monday, May 25, 2015

Bass Titan Louis Johnson Dead at 60

Legendary funk bassist Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson died last Thursday, May 21. He was 60. The cause of his death has not yet been disclosed. Johnson was one of the most naturally gifted bass players to ever pick up the instrument. His explosive, ferociously funky playing abilities distinguished him as one of the preeminent bass players of the funk era in the 1970s and placed him in the esteemed company of bass giants such as Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins and Stanley Clarke.  In the mid-1970s, Johnson took Graham’s innovative thump-and-pluck technique and expanded on it, adding his own unique fire and intensity to the style. And as a result, he became a highly influential bassist in his own right—with tons of aspiring players trying to cop his dynamic, rapid-fire funk style.

Johnson was born in Los Angeles on April 13, 1955 and developed a huge interest in music at a young age. While in high school, he and his two brothers (George and Tommy) along with their cousin Alex Weir formed the band Johnson Three Plus One. Upon graduation, they began backing big-name music acts such as the Supremes and Bobby Womack on tour. Louis and George—who’s a talented guitarist—eventually broke off from Johnson Three Plus One to join Billy Preston’s band. They wrote two songs for Preston (“The Kids and Me” and “Music Is My Life”) before leaving his band in 1973. 

They were later hired to play on Quincy Jones’ album Mellow Madness (1975), which contained four of their compositions. To return the favor, Jones took them on his Japan tour and then produced their debut LP Look Out For #1 (1976), which was released on A&M Records. They began dubbing themselves the Brothers Johnson shortly before the recording of the album. The LP was an auspicious debut for the gifted duo. It contained the smash “I’ll Be Good To You,” which shot to #1 on the US R&B singles chart and peaked at #3 on the pop charts.  The collection also contains the dance-floor hit “Get The Funk out Ma Face” (#3 R&B chart, #30 pop chart and #11 dance chart). It also features a super-cool rendition of Beatles classic “Come Together.” The collection went platinum and topped the R&B album charts in the US; and it peaked at #3 on the jazz charts and climbed to #9 on the pop charts. With the exception of “Come Together,” the duo had a hand in the writing of all the album’s tracks.

Jones produced three more Brothers Johnson albums: Right on Time (1977), Blam! (1978) and Light Up the Night (1980). All three LPs went platinum. And the brothers had several more hit singles, including an inspired, funkified cover of Shuggie Otis’ psychedelic soul track “Strawberry Letter 23.” The track reached the top spot on the US R&B singles chart and peaked at #5 on the pop charts. It’s probably their most well-known song. Some of their other hits include the monster funk jam “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now”; the dance smash “Stomp!”; and the smooth, soulful “Runnin’ for Your Lovin’.”

Following Light Up the Night, the duo released six more studio albums: Winners (1981), Blast! (1982), Out of Control (1984), Kickin’ (1988), Funkadelia (1994) and Brothers ‘n’ Love (1996).

In addition to the Brothers Johnson’s albums, Louis and George worked on outside projects. Louis was an in-demand session player and contributed his phenomenal bass skills to tracks by notable artists such as George Duke, Herb Alpert, George Benson, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Michael McDonald, Stevie Wonder and Jeffrey Osborne. And he played on Michael Jackson’s landmark albums Off The Wall and Thriller. He laid down the bottom on iconic tracks like “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “Off The Wall.”

And an addition to his superb bass abilities, Louis Johnson was a talented songwriter and an exciting performer. He could electrify an audience with his raw energy and powerful bass playing.

Louis Johnson left an indelible mark on funk bass playing and on the genre itself. He influenced and inspired bass players across the globe with his incredible bass skills and ultra-funky style.

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