Johnson was best known for his group The Brothers Johnson and his session playing on several hit albums of the 1970s and 1980s including the “best selling album of all time” Thriller. His signature sound was from the Music Man StingRay bass which Leo Fender especially made for him to first use and promote, and form his slapping technique
His work appears on many well-known records by prominent artists. Johnson played on Michael Jackson’s albums Off the Wall, Thriller and Dangerous, and hit songs “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. He also played on George Benson’s Give Me the Night. He was one of three bassists on Herb Alpert’s 1979 album Rise, which included its top-10, Grammy-winning disco/jazz title-track.
Due to his distinctive style, Johnson was nicknamed “Thunder-Thumbs”. His slap bass playing arrived soon after Larry Graham brought it into the mainstream, and both are considered the “grandfathers” of slap-bass playing.
His slap bass lines figure prominently in his work with Stanley Clarke on the Time Exposure album, his work with Grover Washington, Jr. (Hydra), George Duke (Guardian of the Light, Thief in the Night), Jeffrey Osborne (Jeffrey Osborne, and Stay with Me Tonight). The bass line for Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” has been sampled as a backing track for dozens of rap songs.
An excellent example of his thumb playing can be heard on the Earl Klugh song “Kiko”. Without any plucking at all, Johnson sets a complicated funky bass line using a combination of counterpoint slapping with right hand using right thumb, counterpoint with left hand middle finger as a mute tec., called a slap choke, thus creating a percussive sound like drums, adding to the bass notes.
His style incorporated more funk plucks in combination with his thumping, which along with the Music Man StingRay sound gives a very funky, unique sound.
He was the bassist on Earl Klugh’s 1976 jazz/pop album Living Inside Your Love and 1977 jazz/pop album Finger Paintings, as well as Quincy Jones’ 1975 Mellow Madness.
The Brothers Johnson
The Brothers Johnson was an American funk and R&B band consisting of American musicians and brothers George aka ‘Lightnin’ Licks’ and Louis E. Johnson aka ‘Thunder Thumbs’. They achieved their greatest success from the mid-1970s to early ’80s, with three singles topping the R&B charts (“I’ll Be Good to You”, “Strawberry Letter 23”, and “Stomp!”).
Guitarist/vocalist George and bassist/vocalist Louis formed the band Johnson Three Plus One with older brother Tommy and their cousin Alex Weir while attending school in Los Angeles, California. When they became professionals, the band backed such touring R&B acts as Bobby Womack and the Supremes. George and Louis Johnson later joined Billy Preston’s band and wrote Music in My Life and The Kids and Me for him before leaving his group in 1973. In 1976, The Brothers covered the Beatles’ song, Hey Jude, for the ephemeral musical documentary All This and World War II.
Quincy Jones hired them to play on his LP Mellow Madness, and recorded four of their songs, including Is It Love That We’re Missing? and Just a Taste of Me.
After touring with various artists including Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, they were hired by Quincy Jones for a tour in Japan and produced their debut album Look Out For #1, released in March 1976 (#9 US) Their Right on Time album was released in May 1977 and reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 200. Blam!! came out in August 1978 and reached number 7 on the Billboard 200.
Two of the duo’s songs were featured on the soundtrack of the 1976 film Mother, Jugs & Speed. The instrumental track Thunder Thumbs and Lightnin’ Licks refers to the brothers’ nicknames. Get the Funk Out Ma Face was cowritten with Quincy Jones.
Their popular album Light Up The Night was released in March 1980 and rose to #5 on the Billboard 200. It was number 46 on the “Top 100 LPs of 1980” list in Rolling Stone Magazine. The brothers self-produced the subsequent album, Winners; released in July 1981, it only reached #48 on the Billboard 200.
Among their most popular songs are I’ll Be Good to You (Billboard Hot 100 #3 in 1976), Strawberry Letter 23 (Hot 100 #5 in 1977, originally recorded by Shuggie Otis), Ain’t We Funkin’ Now (1978), and Stomp! (Hot 100 #7 and Hot Dance Music/Club Play #1 in 1980). Their styles include funk, and R&B ballads. Each album also included at least one instrumental cut that would either be considered lite jazz (Tomorrow 1976, Q 1977, Smilin’ On Ya 1980, Tokyo 1984) or Funk (Thunder Thumbs &Lightning Licks 1976, Brother Man 1976, Mista Cool 1978, Celebrations 1980).
In 1984 the brothers briefly reunited in the recording studio. The resulting Leon Sylvers-produced LP, Out of Control, did not equal their past success, but it did garner them another R&B hit with “You Keep Me Coming Back.” They teamed up again in 1988 to record “Kickin'”, the title track of which was a collaboration with their then-neighbor Irene Cara. This album’s success was even more limited, but it did include the minor hit “Kick it to the Curb.”
Between the two albums, both George and Louis released their aforementioned solo material and also appeared on Street Shadows, an album by keyboardist/arranger David Diggs, who had provided horn and string arrangements for Winners, Blast, and Louis’ Passage. “Last Night,” Streets opening track, showcases George’s bass-guitar playing. He previously showed his bass skills on tracks like “Teaser” from Winners and “The Great Awakening” from Blast, the same way Louis shows his guitar skills on the duo’s various compositions.
Also during this time, the band’s song “Tomorrow” (originally an instrumental on the B-side of “Get The Funk Out Ma Face”) was recorded with vocals by Tevin Campbell for Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block release in 1989. This album also included Jones’ hit remake of the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good to You,” featuring Ray Charles and Chaka Khan.
Besides the brothers’ brief appearance in Japan around 1994 and George guest-appearing at a Graham Central Station concert in Japan (including a released double-CD), the duo launched an expanded US tour in 2002 which got positive, wide exposure. It was visited by many fans and various artists in the entertainment business. Along with a website and discussion-forum, online visitors could share their experiences of the shows by wandering through the Land of Ladies and reliving Funkadelia’s heyday. A few years later, a combi-release of live-CD + DVD was released under the name Strawberry Letter 23: Live.
Until recently, the brothers have been doing performances on their own. In 2006, Louis gave a duo-show with a drummer on the Poetry in Motion 1 Festival in Maryland. In late 2007 George performed with his own band at a Detroit-Festival, including a persona called Sir Nose. These days George performs with a special band, an initiative of Michael Henderson that includes Adina Howard, Cherrelle, Ray Parker Jr., and others.
He died on May 21, 2015 at the age of 60