1994 – 4th Annual LA Music Awards “1970’s Supergroup”
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).
The duo split up in 1982 to pursue separate projects.
Louis Johnson’s solo work
Louis Johnson recorded a gospel music album in 1981 with his own group Passage, which included his then-wife Valerie Johnson and former Brothers Johnson percussionist/singer Richard Heath. He played bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In 1985 he recorded a single, “Kinky”, on Capitol Records; it appears on his Evolution album which was exclusively released in Europe that year. Louis then made 3 instructional videotapes for the Starlicks video-distribution company in which he shared his bass-playing skills. The first was released in 1985. He then settled down to enjoy family life with his wife and son, but by 1988 his then-manager Diane Taren talked him into going back into the recording studio. He started his bass academy during the 1990s and gave workshop clinics via his own Website. Louis Johnson died on May 21, 2015.
George Johnson’s solo work
George Johnson released one single in 1985, “Back Against The Wall”, on Quincy Jones’ own Qwest label. A complete album (recorded but unreleased) came from that session, as George confirmed when he and Louis were interviewed around 1987/88 for Blues & Soul Magazine in the United Kingdom (see link below). George also delivered guitar work for Steve Arrington’s album Dancing in the Key of Life (1985) and had ad-libbed vocals on the track “Think Back And Remember” from the Galaxian album by the Jeff Lorber Fusion, released in 1981 on Arista Records.
Various 1980s reunions and other projects
Brothers Johnson in 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.
The 2002 reunion tour and death of Louis Johnson
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.
Louis Johnson died May 21, 2015. No cause of death was given.
Year Album Peak chart positions Certifications
(sales threshold) Record label
1976 Look Out for #1 9 1 — 25 —
1977 Right on Time 13 2 43 36 —
1978 Blam! 7 1 — 51 48
US: Platinum 
1980 Light Up the Night 5 1 57 58 22
1981 Winners 48 10 — 42
1984 Out of Control 91 20 — — —
1988 Kickin’ — — — — —
“—” denotes a recording that did not chart or was not released in that territory.