Guitarist/vocalist George and bassist/vocalist Louis were in various school bands in the Los Angeles area during the late 1960s and such was their prowess that before reaching majority they’d turned professional and were backing up established megastars like Bobby Womack and the Supremes. They were in Billy Preston’s touring band for a while and then hooked up with Quincy Jones who not only hired them to play on his album Mellow Madness he also recorded four of their songs.
Finding this team worked well Jones then took them the Record Plant to lay down what became Look Out For #1 (1976) just in time for the world domination of groove’n’disco. The original Funk Soul Brothers soared on this superfly intro with a blend of flash, finesse and fun that still illuminates tracks such as “I’ll Be Good to You”, “Tomorrow” and their trademark tune “Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin’ Licks” – their agreeably upfront self-descriptions. No room for modesty here but they were also assisted by plenty of Jones’ men: Dave Grusin’s piano, Harvey Mason’s drums, Ernie Watts on sax, Billy Cobham behind the timbales! So listening now you’ll detect a strong jazz funk atmosphere.
Right on Time certainly was. It won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance R&B on the cut “Q” and also contains the legendary ear-worm single “Strawberry Letter 23” which they borrowed from writer Shuggie Otis and turned into a spectacular summertime smash that still elevates the spirits umpteen years on. This time the class sessioneers were joined by Tower of Power’s Oakland brass and the net results are sublime and seamless pop funk, much of it co-written with Quincy and his wife Peggy Jones.
Blam! (1978) now took them to the top of R&B charts and made #7 on the national pop chart. This time the key pieces are “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” and “Ride-O-Rocket” and guests are of the caliber of Larry Carlton and Steve Khan (guitars) with other stalwarts including Richard Tee, Michael Brecker and David Foster. Jazzier still than the previous disc they can still leave you sweating on the dance floor on “Mista’ Cool” and “Streetwave” – both are West Coast modern soul incarnate.
Light Up the Night (1980) completes a straight roll with Quincy and brings in Jackson’s collaborator Rod Temperton on a bundle of fine tunes as well as Jackson himself, co-writing “This Had to Be”. Opening track “Stomp!” is a constant club classic and a long time favourite amongst British dance people.
The Brothers will self-produce Winners (1981) but the quality never dips. Given that Steve and Jeff Porcaro and David Paich are amongst the composers the instrumental flair is peachy. Check out “The Real Thing” and Louis’ “I Want You” for affirmation of a spirit lifting sound. Before embarking on solo projects and other work the Brothers leave us with Out of Control and Kickin’ and just because these don’t go Platinum, like the first four, they are still worthy of consideration and rediscovery with “You Keep Me Coming Back” and the ultra funky “Kick It to the Curb” retaining all their allure.
Several compilations all do the trick: Blast: The Latest and the Greatest, Greatest Hits, the ever-popular The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Brothers Johnson, the handy Universal Masters Collection and the most recent Strawberry Letter 23: The Very Best of the Brothers Johnson are made for the home, the road and the dance floor and deserve heavy-rotation.
Like all the great soul and funk acts of their era the Brothers Johnson exhibit considerable wit and charm. They knew the value of a larger than life cartoon image and the power of a punchy slogan: sharp dudes always. Discovering them again has been a delight. Put some Johnson in your handy record machine and get ready to Stomp!
Words: Max Bell
Potentially viewed as something of a warm-up for Quincy Jones before producing Michael Jackson's wildly successful Off the Wall and Thriller albums, the Brothers Johnson's first two releases spawned hits like "I'll Be Good to You" and brought George and Louis Johnson to a mass audience of their own. (Louis, in fact, would go on to play bass on those first two sessions by the King of Pop.) As with the Jackson discs, Jones creates a seamless mix of pop and funk on the Brothers sophomore release Right on Time, helping to create the group's second chart-topper "Strawberry Letter 23" as well the equally effervescent, minor R&B hit "Runnin' for Your Lovin'." With Earth, Wind & Fire's airy dancefloor hits in mind, the Brothers also deliver polished funk tracks like "Right on Time" and "Never Leave You Lonely," as well as more pop-friendly material like "Free Yourself, Be Yourself" and "Love Is." And with one of the best jazz arrangers in the business behind the board, the Brothers couldn't forgo some instrumentals here as well, specifically the breezy, funk-in-a-quiet-storm number "'Q'" and the less intriguing, synthesizer jam "Brother Man." An enjoyable and even infectious collection that, in its sophistication, certainly avoids being just some sort of dry run for Jones.
Words: Stephen Cook
Light Up the Night marked the end of an era for the Brothers Johnson -- it was the last of four albums that Quincy Jones produced for the Los Angeles siblings, and it was the last time a Brothers Johnson album was truly excellent instead of merely decent. When Jones was producing the Brothers Johnson's albums from 1976-1980, he gave them something their subsequent albums lacked -- consistency. Even though George and Lewis Johnson recorded some decent material after Light Up the Night, none of their post-Jones albums had the type of consistency that Jones gives this 1980 release. The album gets off to an impressive start with the major hit "Stomp!" (a definitive example of the smooth, sleek brand of funk that was termed sophisticated funk in the late '70s and early '80s), and the tracks that follow are equally memorable. From the sleek sophisti-funk of "You Make Me Wanna Wiggle," "This Had to Be" (which was co-written by Michael Jackson and employs him as a background vocalist), and the title song to the tender R&B/pop ballads "Treasure" and "All About the Heaven," Light Up the Night is without a dull moment.
Words: Alex Henderson
From 1975-1980, the Brothers Johnson enjoyed a very lucrative association with producer Quincy Jones -- one that brought them both creative and commercial success. And when that association ended after their fourth album, Light Up the Night, their popularity faded. Released in 1981, Winners was the first Brothers Johnson album that Jones didn't produce -- and it was also their first disappointing album. This isn't to say that Winners, which they produced themselves, is a disaster; most of the material is decent. "In the Way," "Caught Up," "Do It for Love," and the single "The Real Thing" (a number 11 R&B hit) are pleasant, likable songs, but they aren't great songs -- and when the Johnson siblings had Jones' guidance and direction, they had no problem providing albums that were excellent instead of merely decent. None of the tunes are terrible, but none of them are in a class with "Strawberry Letter #23," "I'll Be Good to You," or "Ain't We Funkin' Now." Definitely not one of the Brothers Johnson's essential releases, Winners is only recommended to completists.
Words: Alex Henderson
Released in 2003, A&M's Strawberry Letter 23: The Best of the Brothers Johnson more or less renders 1996's Greatest Hits obsolete. Containing virtually the same material, plus a selection that includes five more songs -- not to mention 24-bit remastered sound -- it thusly tops all the other anthologies that have come out of the U.K. and the U.S. throughout the '80s and '90s. This has all the essentials any casual fan could possibly want, including "I'll Be Good to You," "Stomp," "The Real Thing," "Welcome to the Club," "You Keep Me Coming Back," "Get the Funk Out Ma Face," and "Light Up the Night."
Words: Andy Kellman