Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson
I’ve learned that when the phone rings at 3:00 in the morning it’s probably not good news on the other line. I got one of those dead of night phone calls from my friend and brother, Ed Eckstine, last night. When his name appeared in the caller i.d. window, I picked up immediately and said, “My man, is everything ok?”
My suspicions were confirmed when he responded somberly, “Nah man, it’s not. Louis Johnson is gone.”
I paused a full beat before I inquired, “The bass player, your man?”
“Yeah, he’s gone. He died”
Black music is like family (albeit a dysfunctional one), so we stayed on the phone the way you do when a close relative tells you about the death of a distant cousin who you’ve heard about for years, but you’ve only met them briefly at a family function. It was like that because Ed Eckstine, the first black president of one of the major US record companies is my brother in this thing of ours – when he was the head honcho at Wing Records, I ran East Coast promotion for him – and while he was in the employ of Quincy Jones Productions, he developed The Brothers Johnson, and started Louis Johnson, one of the most important musicians of the Funk and Black Pop eras, on his creative journey after naming him “Thunder Thumbs”. Ed picked the name because of the thunderously funky way that Johnson played his bass. And in an era when the baseline was everything Louis Johnson was the bottom line.
Quincy Jones was no dummy. Sure he signed Louis and his older brother George to his production company, and produced superb Brothers Johnson projects that featured Louis on both hit singles and album cuts like “Is It Love That Were Missin'”; “I’ll Be Good To You”; “Strawberry Letter 23”; “Get The Funk Out Ma Face”; “Treasure”; “Blam”; “Street Wave”; “Stomp” and “Tomorrow”. But he had the good sense to use Louis’ superior gifts on other Jones produced projects on George Benson, James Ingram, Donna Summer and most memorably on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Johnson’s bass can also be heard on records by Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker, Michael McDonald, Earl Klugh and others.
I owned the Brothers Johnson’s recordings, but I only met Louis Johnson once. He, and his brother George were working on a remix for a Vanessa Williams project, and Eckstine invited me to the studio to meet the Brothers. Later that night, I watched Louis and his older brother George open for Chaka Khan at the now defunct New York club, Tramps. It was a dope show but more of an exercise in nostalgia than anything else.
But I saw them when it really mattered. They weren’t quite headliners when I’d caught their act in ’77, on the grounds of the Take It Easy Ranch in Calloway, Maryland. On that Fourth of July weekend, the ranch hosted a four day outdoor festival that featured 28 acts. I caught the fourth day’s bill that was headlined by the white hot Lionel Ritchie fronted Commodores working off of their smash “Brick House”. Further down the bill was a mad crew of hit making acts that included Kool & the Gang, The Emotions, Slave and The Brothers Johnson working in support of their “Right On Time” album and their hit single “Strawberry Letter 23”.
Over 100,000 Funk and R&B heads were in attendance, and it was very much like a black Woodstock. The Brothers took the stage in the blazing heat generated by that July sun and rocked.
If I close my eyes and remember that long ago day, I can still hear a young 22 year old Louis Johnson put his thing down and remember what it was to be young, black and funky as a teenager in Jimmy Carter’s America. God rest Louis Johnson he made it a little hotter that day.
For Boo R.I.P