In May 2015 the world lost a huge musical presence when funk bassist Louis Johnson died at the age of 60. His four-decade career touched the lives of millions, first as half of the legendary R&B group The Brothers Johnson who brought us the hits “Stomp,” “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” Then Johnson served as a sessions artist, playing with everybody from Michael Jackson to Herbie Hancock and Paul McCartney. His bass lines were legendary, including on “I Keep Forgetting” by Michael McDonald and everything on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and much of “Thriller.”
At the recent Bass Player Live event, Johnson was honored with a posthumous lifetime achievement award. His brother and former bandmate George “Lightning Licks” Johnson spoke there about his brother’s life and legacy.
Question: When you and Louis were kids, did you say, “I’ll play guitar, Louis, you play bass and Tommy play drums?”
Answer: We had the guitar that my dad built from a Sears Roebuck kit. It was like a copy of a Strat[ocaster]. I remember when my dad snuck and put it under the Christmas tree. Louis had to be 4. I was 6. Tommy was 8. I went right to it because I knew.
I had a little simulated guitar before that dad had made for me out of a milk carton. I grabbed on to the guitar and said, “This is mine!” I could tell that wasn’t going to be Tommy’s guitar. Louis would kind of play with it, but he wasn’t sure. I knew it was for me.
Q: You started as the “Johnson Three Plus One” with your brother Tommy on drums, Louis on bass and cousin Alex Weir on guitar, yes?
A: To give you a little prehistory, Alex came from New Orleans. His dad had got him a guitar and amp. I was always the arranger and producer of the group, keeping my eyes out. I was into The Beatles. They had three guitars and drums. I told my dad, “We got two guitars and drums. We’re gonna need a bass for Louis.” The first bass he had was a Gibson. Way bigger than he was.
Q: Who taught Louis to play bass?
A: I sat with him and taught him how to deal with it from the best of my knowledge of what I had heard as the time. It was like being a star quarterback and passing the ball. Louis was so into it. He picked up the ball and ran with it for a touchdown every time.
Q: Why did the “Johnson Three Plus One” become the “The Brothers Johnson”?
A: It kind of went as far as we could go. It needed to be something else. Louis suggested we bring in a keyboard player. We were gonna audition him, but the only place he knew there was a keyboard was at Billy Preston’s house. We went there to rehearse, and Billy had just come home from working with The Beatles.
Q: How did you guys ended up in Billy Preston’s band?
A: He needed a guitar player. He saw us rehearsing. I was there with the afro and the flag shirt. He said, “I need someone like a Freddie Stone and a Jimi Hendrix kind of guitar cat.” He wanted me to be in the band. I left our group to go to Europe with Billy for about seven months. I came home from being on the road, and I showed Louis Billy Preston’s whole show. He knew everything we were doing. One day I was going to go to tour Canada with Billy and his bass player, [and] I think he was on downers [and] quit. Billy was crying, “What am I gonna do?” I said, “Don’t worry about it.”
He didn’t know I had taught Louis. I called my mom and said, “Look, Billy’s bass player quit. Pack Louis a bag and bring him to the airport.”
Q: Why did The Brothers Johnson break up in 82?
A: Our creative differences were music-driven. I loved my brother to death. Louis was a very aggressive person by nature. That’s why his playing was so aggressive. He wouldn’t play with you, he would play at you. That tells you a lot about his personality. Which is nothing wrong with it. I welcomed it in a musical growth way.
He did veer off from the band. He would say, “I’m Louis Johnson!” I would say, “Well, we are The Brothers Johnson.” His ego got a little twisted. He started playing a lot of sessions.
Q: Did him playing sessions bother you?
A: I kept saying, “Maybe it’s not a good idea for Louis to do a lot of sessions” because he was giving up our sound. Every album he was on outside of us he was lending our sound to them. I definitely was against it. Michael Jackson came because he was a big fan of ours. We were responsible for “Off the Wall” coming out [and] “Thriller.”
Q: Any chance you’ll make more music?
A: I have been semiretired, but I come out whenever the right person asks me. Ray Parker Jr., Michael Henderson and myself will do something together. I’m working on a new CD of music. Gonna be the same as The Brothers Johnson.
Q: Were you guys still close at the end?
A: We were always close. I loved my brother to death. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six months now. A lot of people from the outside try to make it seem like we weren’t [close]. They say, “Any friend of George’s is not friend of mine.” I just kind of laugh at it. He was my brother.
Q: What do you think Louis would have thought of this award?
A: He would have loved it because Louis has always been a person of sharing and giving.