Funk Bassist Louis Johnson Dies At Age 60

Via the New York Times:

Louis Johnson, a bassist who had a string of funk hits with the Brothers Johnson and worked as a session musician for Quincy Jones, notably on the Michael Jackson albums “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” was found dead on May 21 at his home in Las Vegas. He was 60. His death was confirmed by Jeff Mullen, the Brothers Johnson’s manager, who said the cause had not been determined. Mr. Johnson, who also sang, and his brother George, who played guitar and sang, began working with Mr. Jones in the mid-1970s. Mr. Jones mentored the brothers, and they collaborated for many years. “I considered Louis a core member of my production team,” Mr. Jones wrote in a tribute on his website. Nicknamed Thunder Thumbs (George was known as Lightning Licks), Mr. Johnson created a driving sound with his percussive, string-slapping technique. He was an early popularizer of the electric slap-bass style in funk, along with Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. The Brothers Johnson had a number of platinum albums in the 1970s and ’80s. Their singles “I’ll Be Good to You,” “Stomp!” and “Strawberry Letter 23” all reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and made the pop Top 10.

It was Louis Johnson’s memorable bassline that propelled Billie Jean into a global smash and helped make Thriller the best-selling album of all time. Below are my two favorite Brothers Johnson hits, the first of which I owned on a 45 that came with a strawberry-scented sleeve.

(Tipped by JMG reader Mark)

  • bkmn

    Get the funk up to heaven and thanks for the music.

  • Chuck in NYC

    “I’ll Be Good to You” came out before I moved to New York and “Strawberry Letter 23” I identify with my first summer here. “Stomp!” reminds me of Studio 54’s last weeks, then other nights that year at Xenon and Bond’s, and, later, on the amazing sound system at The Saint. All of Quincy Jones’ productions stood out because of their clean, bright sound and the genius musicians he employed, like the Brothers Johnson.

    Sigh…gettin’ old. But I am so very, very glad that era was the soundtrack of my youth.

    • Hip Byroads

      Ah, “the soundtrack of my youth.” And what a soundtrack it was. Things might not always have been perfect for us, but the music pretty much was.

  • sherman

    SL23 is one of my favorite songs from that era, and Stomp is high on the list.

    So young to go.

  • ikahana

    What a huge loss. So much great music left behind. I get a smile whenever I think of the times I was young and not so innocent dancing to Stomp in the clubs. My deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

  • bdsmjack

    My favorite song was ‘Get the Funk Outta My Face.” Drove my mother MAD! ” God, mom, it’s FUNK. F-U-N-K.”

  • By Bit

    My world crumbles, bit by bit by bit.

  • Funkadeelala

    Louis Johnson had a credits list a mile long, and I used to listen to every on of them. The songs he played on are some of my earliest memories of music. Sadness here.

  • Prixator

    Billie Jean is one of my most favourite recordings. It came out soon after I did and that time of my life WAS the time of my life! Such good times.

  • TheManicMechanic

    “Get the Funk Out Ma Face” is to this day an expression I use a lot. One of my favorites from the funk era.

    People know me as a rocker in my high school days, but I secretly had a funk loving streak a mile wide.

    • JW Swift

      Agreed. Wasn’t a big “rocker” myself, but instead rode that Disco wave for as long as it lasted in my younger days. Truly funky stuff like “Get the Funk Out Ma Face” and some of the bigger hits from Parliament/Funkadelic, etc., were sort of a guilty pleasure, and still are.

  • Gerry Fisher

    Strawberry Letter still sounds good today. RIP.

  • Regan DuCasse

    omg…the most I ever heard this song, was on the soundtrack of the great Tarantino movie “Jackie Brown”.

  • Regan DuCasse

    What a time that was. The clothes were awful, but music was great. And pretty much the first time white folks and black folks danced together uninhibited by the usual social convention.

  • leastyebejudged

    I just put on “Strawberry Letter 23” and it took me back to a very special time…

  • mammaleh

    This makes me feel so sad…
    Strawberry Letter & Stomp were my jams, as we said in the 70’s…I thought the brothers were both fine as hell, and had the prettiest fros. And at parties when Stomp came on, the whole room would actually vibrate when everybody stomped together.

  • JCF

    Heaven’s got da boogie tonite. RIP, LJ.

  • Henry Holland

    The bassline from “Billie Jean” was stolen from Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That”, which MJ admitted to Darryl Hall when they were recording “We Are The World”.

    Love the bass he uses in the SL23 video, a nice Gibson Ripper. I had one back in the late 70’s but sold it for a Rickenbacker 4001. 1970’s Rippers are now worth $1500 > $2500 depending on what shape they’re in.

    Louis Johnson was a fantastic player, RIP Bass Man.