Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Bass guitar legend Louis Johnson R.I.P.

Louis Johnson pic
Louis Johnson pic Louis Johnson pic

When musical giant Quincy Jones calls a musician “one of the greatest bass players to ever pick up the instrument,” he has got to be pretty special.

He was. That man was the late Louis "Thunderthumbs" Johnson, a member of the Brothers Johnson and an A-Team session bassist on countless mega-hit records, including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and “Off The Wall.”

Louis died aged 60 on Thursday May 21st. No details of the cause of death or any other circumstances have been announced as yet. His nephew Troy confirmed his passing.

He was a founding member of the funk band the Brothers Johnson, with his sibling George. The masters of funk released seven studio albums; the first “Look Out For # 1,” in 1976 and their last, “Kickin’” in 1988. They also put out a live album in 2004, and six compilation albums. 14 albums in total and 18 singles, between 1976 to 1988. They had nice UK chart singles, which included one in the Top 10, two in the Top 20, six in the Top 75, spending a total of 45 weeks in the UK charts, between 1977 and 1985.

The classic floor filler “Stomp,” was their biggest UK hit, reaching number six in February 1980, with a total of 12 weeks on the UK chart. They scored three albums on the UK chart, between 1978 to 1981 and spent a total of 22 weeks on the UK album chart, with “Blam!”, “Light Up The Night,” and “Winners.”

The L.A.-based Brothers Johnson - 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. They went on to back Bobby Womack and the Supremes, and then Billy Preston's band. Quincy Jones hired them to play on his LP Mellow Madness, and recorded four of their songs. After touring with various artists, they were hired by Quincy Jones for a tour in Japan.

They released their debut album in their own right, produced by Quincy, in 1976 and had three number one hits on the US R&B charts, "I'll Be Good to You," their cover of Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23," and the 1980 smash "Stomp!" Their 1980 album "Light Up the Night," featured Michael Jackson on background vocals and hit the number one spot in the US charts.

After the brothers parted company in 1982, Louis was an in-demand session bassists, and played on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," and records for Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, George Benson and a zillion other mega artists. He is credited with creating the bass line from Michael McDonald's version of Leiber & Stoller's "I Keep Forgettin'," sampled by Warren G and Nate Dogg for "Regulate."

He recorded a gospel album in 1981 with his group Passage, which included his then-wife Valerie Johnson and former Brothers Johnson percussionist/singer Richard Heath. He started his bass academy during the 1990s and gave workshop clinics via his own Website.

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-neighbour Irene Cara. Besides the brothers' brief appearance in Japan around 1994, the duo launched an expanded US tour in 2002.

He was a rare find as a bass player as not only did he expand a style that Larry Graham had started, using his thumb and picking up the nickname “Thunder Thumbs,” he never read music or played set parts on any session in his career. He improvised everything.

The tributes began pouring in from around the world soon after news of his death broke, from fellow musicians, fans and friends. Quincy’s full statement reads: “Louis "Thunderthumbs" Johnson was one of the greatest bass players to ever pick up the instrument. As a member of the Brothers Johnson we shared decades of magical times working together in the studio and touring the world. From my albums "Body Heat" and "Mellow Madness", to their platinum albums "Look Out for #1," "Right On Time," "Blam," and "Light Up The Night," which I produced, to Michael's solo debut "Off the Wall," I considered Louis a core member of my production team. He was a dear and beloved friend and brother. I will miss "Boot's" presence and joy of life everyday. ‪#‎RIPLouisJohnson‬.”

Lenny Kravitz Tweeted: “"Thank you for blessing me and the world with your original #funk. RIP." Bootsy Collins: "Another Brick in our music foundation has left the building. Mr. 'Louis Johnson.'" Robbie Vincent: “Far too young to lose. An amazing #talent. #LouisJohnson worked with just about everyone. #RIP.”

Louis wrote on his own Facebook page in December 2014, this simple but poignant message: “I like to quote for a minute; Take it easy, forget about life for a while, enjoy yourself, be happy, press the reset button, start the new year the best you can and forget the past for all becomes a new life, chose the safe path as we all go thru then play the song; That’s The Way God Planned It. Billy Preston.” Described as a gentle, genuine, humble and caring man by those who knew him, and as a phenomenal, one-off bass player by anyone who heard him play on stage or on countless recordings which have sold literally billions of copies.

Speaking exclusively to Blues & Soul, Level 42's bass legend Mark King paid his personal tribute to an "inspirational" player. "Louis Johnson was a monster player. No one slapped like Louis. He could be ferocious, almost as if he hated the bass, but it was always so fluid, and his riff's would build with more and more syncopation. Truly inspirational stuff.

"I had the pleasure of shaking his hand back in the day, at The Complex Studios, which was Earth Wind & Fire's place in L.A., where he was working with George Duke. He had a ferocious grip! RIP Louis."

US bass star Nathan East recently worked with his friend Louis, and credited him as one of the most important bass players of all time. Speaking exclusively to Blues and Soul from his US home, Nathan - who has just been to the UK to play bass in Eric Clapton's band for his Royal Albert Hall shows said: "Although Our Brother Louis Johnson has left this world, he left his mark on the world of music.

"Louis ranks right up there as one of the most important bass players of our time. He certainly influenced my playing. His sound, his tone and choice of notes; all impeccable.

"Bless Quincy Jones for shining such a bright light on Louis and the Brothers Johnson. Michael Jackson benefited from the Louis touch. Check him out on Michael McDonald's, 'I Keep Forgettin', Patti Austin & James Ingram's smash 'Baby Come To Me', and on countless hits he delivers the goods.

"Most people don't know that Louis also spoke Japanese... fluently. We worked together recently when I was MD for Quincy's 60th Anniversary Concert at Hollywood Bowl. Louis was still just as funky as he was when I met him in the early 80's!

"I'll be playing his bass lines forever and remembering him as one of the baddest bass players in any genre of music, and the greatest guy - a joy to be around. Louis Johnson'; gone but not forgotten. Rest peacefully brother...."

All of us at Blues & Soul magazine are saddened by the news of his passing, and send our sincere condolences to all of Louis’ friends and family. R.I.P.

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