As the Brothers Johnson, Los Angeles natives George ‘Lightnin’ Licks’ Johnson (guitarist/vocalist) and Louis ‘Thunder Thumbs’ Johnson (bassist/vocalist) were among the most renowned funk ’n’ soul teams of the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s, thanks to a series of best-selling albums and hit singles (such as “I’ll Be Good To You”, “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Stomp!”), cut for A&M Records between 1976-1984. Initially working with the legendary Quincy Jones, the talented siblings had been part of Billy Preston’s band before Jones spotted them during a rehearsal with Stevie Wonder.
After two platinum albums, George and Louis began working on their third A&M set, BLAM! in 1978 that housed the hits, “Ride ‘O Rocket” (penned by Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson) and “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” - also both UK top 50 charted singles - the album became the duo’s third platinum and highest-charting LP.
Just reissued by SoulMusic Records’ on CD after many years out of print, journalist Lewis Dene caught up with George Johnson who spoke candidly about the group’s history, and the recording of the album, that would form the basis of Lewis’ extensive liner notes.
Lewis Dene: It’s a real pleasure to speak with you George. Can I begin by asking was music always in your roots, and what were your first musical recollections as child?
George Johnson: I think I was five years old when I first started paying attention to music. My aunties, my mother sisters, had all of the records that was hot and happening back then. Music had always been at the beginning of my beginnings. I used to go to my grandmother’s house, because I was too young for school. She had a turntable and she’d allow me to play the records. I knew it was something sacred. Louis was two years younger than me so he didn’t know what the hell was going on! A few years later I recall watching the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember seeing James Brown and The Beatles, but when Elvis Presley first came out I was totally blown away. There was this guy shaking his leg, playing this box with strings and the women were crying and screaming. I was in a room full of adults, all the other kids were playing outside, and I didn’t really know what was going on… but I liked what I saw.
My dad saw I was really into it too. During the commercial break, dad went to the kitchen, poured out whoever milk was left in the carton, cut holes in it and took some pins and fastened a stick at the top with some rubber bands, pulled them to the top and twisted them. He came back in the room and put it in front of me. I looked at it and started strumming along with Elvis!
One Christmas, when I was seven, he bought a real guitar from Sears & Roebuck, that was shared between my elder brother Tommy, Louis, and me. I stuck with it the most. My dad then bought Tommy a snare drum and a cymbal. I told my dad we needed to get Louis a bass. We also had cousin Alex (Weir) who came in from New Orleans and he also played guitar. It was like the Jackson’s story. We formed a band called The Johnson Three Plus One. We were one of the hottest kid bands in the concerts, played in all the high schools, festivals, etc. and wound up eventually with people like Tony Maiden and Bobby Watson, who wound up playing with Rufus. We were seeing them in their beginnings.
I was the leader of The Johnson Three Plus One. After school I would stop at the record store. Records then were only 99 cents and we were making $50 each for the gigs we played on the weekends, and I still only 12years old. I would invest my money in buying all of the new records that we would use for our playlist. I would write all the lyrics down, listen to the arrangement as far as guitar and keyboard parts, and figure out who was going to play what. I would then teach Louis and my cousin Alex the parts they had to play. It could be anything from Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night to Sly & The Family Stone and Jimmy Hendrix. We played it all in our playlist of about 200 songs. Sometimes we would have to draw mustaches on to actually play in the club (we were 13-14 by then).
LD: So was during your time as part of The Johnson Three Plus One that you met Billy Preston?
GJ: We did that for several years and decided we needed to expand. We were going to audition a keyboard player, Rene (Moore), Louis’s friend, who went on to become half of Rene & Angela. The only keyboard Rene knew was at Billy Preston’s house. Billy came in when we were jamming. I was all Jimmy Hendrix’ed up with my big Afro and flag shirt. Billy just sat there with his mouth open… he was obviously impressed. At that point, he was looking for a guitarist. So he pulled me to the side and asked if I was interested in playing with his band on a tour of Europe. It meant I would have to break up our band to play with Billy’s band. I was also just graduating high school. I asked my community college music teacher what I should do. He said, "you could always come back to school, but you may not always have a chance to go to Europe with Billy Preston." They said clean out your locker, go ahead and go and enjoy your life… I told my brothers I was going to leave to jump into bigger waters with this music thing. They tried two or three gigs without me, but it didn’t go very well. The group just stopped at that point.
LD: Tell us a little about your time on the road with Billy Preston:
GJ: While in Europe with Billy, I wound up meeting The Beatles, Mick Jagger…. I wound up doing a session with myself, Billy, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr! We cut three songs together and to this day I have no idea whatever happened to those masters. I played bass on all of them. Paul played acoustic guitar, Jeff and George played guitar, and Billy was on keyboards.
LD: That must have been totally surreal… how can you top that?
GJ: When I went back to the states, I taught Louis Billy Preston’s whole set. One day, Billy’s bass player quit at the airport on the way to Canada. Billy was upset and didn’t know what to do. Billy didn’t know I’d been brushing Louis up and hadn’t heard him play since we were young. He had no idea he knew the whole set.
LD: How old were you guys at this time?
GJ: I was 18. Louis was 16 and hadn’t graduated high school yet… Louis blew Billy away at the sound check because he knew every song. At the show, a mobile home pulled up and it was Sly Stone and Freddy Stewart (from the Family Stone). Billy always wanted a Sly & The Family Stone-style group; he wanted a powerhouse band, which we were for Billy. Sly was my idol, but they were the ones bopping their heads and checking us out. After the show, we went to their mobile home. I almost lost my mind; it was like meeting God! We got friendly and I would join Sly and Billy in the studio. Bobby Womack was there too. I was absorbing music from the right to the left - a 360degree angle.
LD: Who else were you supporting on the road?
GJ: Billy opened shows for Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Pink Floyd, Grand Funk Railroad; groups that I’d never heard of.
LD: So you toured with Billy Preston between 1971–’73, is that when Quincy Jones came onto your radar?
GJ: We left (Billy Preston) in ‘73 to go back home and start writing our own material. We’d already written 250 songs. I was downstairs writing stuff like “Good To You”; in fact our whole first album. Louis had started writing music for “Get The Funk Out Of Ma Face”. We went to A&M Studios to finish the tracks. They turned us down because they didn’t know what they were listening to. We went back to the drawing board and kept writing.
LD: If at first you don’t succeed…
GJ: Exactly! One day I was hanging out with Stevie Wonder and told him I was going to bring my brother Louis to have him listen to his new album - we also wanted to audition for Wonderlove (Stevie’s backing band). Stevie was in studio B at The Record Plant. Quincy was in studio C. We were grooving with Stevie. Quincy came in when we were auditioning and heard this funk bouncing off the walls. He whispered something in Stevie’s ear, nodded his head, smiled and walked out. About an hour later two guys from Quincy’s camp came in to retrieve us. Stevie said: ‘Quincy wants to work with you guys and develop you’. We played some tracks that I’d already written without Louis and then we did some together. Four songs ended up going on his MELLOW MADNESS album (“Is It Love That We're Missing?”, “Just A Taste Of Me”, “Listen (What It Is)” and “Tryin’ To Find Out About You”).
We toured Japan with Quincy two or three times, and the States too. We went back into the studio again and started cutting tracks like “Good To You”. We told him we’d taken in to A&M and they turned it down. He was on A&M so he called (label owners) Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss to the studio. They brought contracts and literally signed us on the spot.
Our first album, LOOK OUT FOR #1, sold over a million copies. I was writing the hits, and you needed a hit to play on to make them [the musicians] sound good, so it worked both ways.
LD: So your time with Quincy was really a precursor for what was to come with Michael Jackson. It’s often been said that the BLAM! album marked the moment when Quincy perfected the funk-pop sheen formula that was to make him the biggest producer in the business in the 1980s.
GJ: Quincy needed us to help him be in a position where Michael Jackson would ask him to produce an album. If it hadn’t been the Brothers Johnson, Michael Jackson would have never been the powerhouse that he became by working with Quincy. Michael came up to New York to hear us play Carnegie Hall in 1979. Michael was with Rod Templeton and Latoya (Jackson). Michael actually introduced the Brothers Johnson on stage. That was the first time I had actually met him. He then requested both of us to play on his OFF THE WALL album.
LD: Before we come onto BLAM!, you released your sophomore set RIGHT ON TIME in 1977 which reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 200, and included a massive smash in your version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23”. Yet reading between the lines I sense there was tension, and sibling rivalry building with your brother Louis?
GJ: We wasn’t hating on each other, but there was competition between the two of us, and I think a lot of that had to do with Louis’ wife. (Valerie Johnson is co-credited for writing both “Ain't We Funkin’ Now” and “Get The Funk Out Ma Face” on their third album, BLAM!) I was pissed off with Louis and decided to sit back and see what he came up with.
That’s when Quincy got Ashford & Simpson to write “Ride ‘O Rocket”. To me, that was the first album we’d recorded that didn’t feel like a Brothers Johnson record. The beginning of it was very Star Wars-sounding; we had access to sounds and effects that no one else had because Quincy was hooked up with Stephen Spielberg. But if it were up to me, I would never even picked that song for the Brothers Johnson. All I did was write "Blam!," the title track, which was the only one that has the signature of that true Brothers Johnson sound. It’s a shame that it was never a single as it has that feel of Sly Stone in the early days.
LD: Is there any significance in the BLAM! title – is it an onamaterpier sound that a bass-guitar makes?
GJ: No it was nothing like that. Quincy came up with the album title. He was great with coming up with titles. He came up with the title “Stomp”, and I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to write about’. Ashford & Simpson taught me how to write lyrics in ink, not in pencil. That way it would be more finalized. So I wrote “Stomp!” in ink. I took it to the studio and Quincy asked me to rewrite it three times. So thought, ok, he’s challenging me. So I came back, changed some things and wrote it again. And he said, now do you think you can add some more to it? Now, Quincy is not a songwriter, he’s a producer and an arranger, so I thought he was testing me as I was working with Rod Temperton, I knew he wanted to bring out the best in me. I didn’t actually finish “Stomp!” until the night before we were going to the studio. But we nailed it. I had learned that I could work under pressure as well.
LD: Let’s talk about some of the other key tracks on the BLAM! album… “Mista’ Cool” was a great jazz-funk jam that the UK market loved.
GJ: This was actually written for me. I always felt honored about that. Quincy dubbed me “Mista Cool” and that was my theme song.”
LD: “Streetwave” was another from the same mould.
GJ: “Streetwave” was really a bass-riff song. It was like Louis and my jamming with the orchestration and arrangement of Quincy, which is what he does best. And when our two worlds come together—that is what “Streetwave” is.”
LD: On “It’s You Girl” your cousin Alex Weir handled lead vocals.
GJ: I had been singing all the songs, so we were trying to fit Alex in, just like Louis. During our live shows I need a damn break from singing when you’re on stage for two hours, I just wanted to sit
back and play, so that’s when Alex comes in.
LD: BLAM! was another star studded affair with the most phenomenal lineup of guest musicians including David Foster, Larry Carlton, Steve Khan, Harvey Mason, Richard Tee, Jerry Hey and Steve Pocaro, along with singers like Patti Austin and Gwen Guthrie to name just a few. I’m sure Quincy’s little black book brought them all together, but ultimately I guess someone had to pay for all of that talent too.
GJ: The first album was $11,000 to put together, but by the time we got to the third and fourth albums it was $200 - $300,000. We would actually pay studio musicians with a full-blown orchestra of 40 strings.
LD: Yet despite the quality of the musicianship and production, and the album’s platinum status, both of the 45 releases charted relatively low, so do you think promotion and marketing was awry?
GJ: With regards to the promotion and singles, Quincy was about to leave A&M and go to Warner Brothers. I think A&M’s plan was to destroy us because they didn’t want us to join Quincy at Warners as they had us under contract for four more records. A&M was also selling out to Polygram given Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss $5M to split. Janet Jackson went to Virgin Records and a lot of other bands started dropping off while we were stuck at A&M. Back in those days, you’d be lucky to get two hits off an album, and record companies had priority acts. The record company just wanted to label us as R&B and funk. You had a pop division and R&B division. Louis and I were so musical, we could go any way: rock, funk, jazz.
LD: In hindsight then would you have done anything differently on BLAM!?
GJ: I would have taken it back to the “Lookout For #1” sound - a funkier, more pop’ier ride as opposed to the jazz stuff. The record company just wanted to label us as R&B and Funk. You had a pop division and an R&B division. Louis and I were so musical, we could go any way: rock, funk, jazz.
LD: It’s been a real pleasure talking with you George. You provided the soundtrack to my youth with so many wonderful records. Thank you for your time and assistance with the reissue of BLAM!!
BLAM!! (The Extended Edition) is out now on CD from Soulmusic.com with liner notes by Lewis Dene.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.