Louis was anxious to talk and was impressed that I tracked him down. No one in the media, at that time, seemed to have been checking for the man christened Thunder Thumbs because of his jaw-dropping slapbass technique or his older brother, George, a guitarist with hands so fast he was known as Lightning Licks and a voice so mellow it was like butter. Their heyday in the spotlight had long faded since the mid-70's and 80's when they recorded a few albums but then retreated behind the scenes, winning reputations as celebrated studio musicians for others. I found it a bit unusual that no one was looking for them, considering a new generation of music lovers were being introduced to a bit of their sound each morning. The top-rated, syndicated radio show, the Steve Harvey Morning Show, aired Shirley Strawberry’s relationship segment, Strawberry Letter, with an instrumental portion of the pair's classic song Strawberry Letter 23.
From the very start, it was evident that music was Louis' love and passion. Within a few minutes into the conversation, his encyclopedic knowledge of music was refreshing. He started the dialogue by going on and on about how much he loved Bjork’s music and how he thought she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Louis told me how he was so captivated by all things Bjork that he traveled to find her. He told me how excited he was when they collaborated on music together. He explained to me that the wonderful thing about where he was at that point in his life is that he could afford to do nothing, so Holland was his destination of choice to kick back and relax. Minneapolis, he mentioned, was where he was residing. Louis told me he never had to work another day in his life, because he was deliberate about putting in the time and hours as a young man to secure himself financially for the future. As he put it, he intentionally sought to work with “everybody and their mama” to be the No. 1 requested bass player.
But no one gets to the top alone, he advised. Louis told me how George first got a break playing for Billy Preston, a musician sometimes referred to as the "fifth" member of the Beatles. When Preston’s bass player left, George put in a word and got his brother on with Preston's band. The brothers eventually played on the 1972 hit song Will It Go Round In Circles. Shortly after leaving Preston, they hit a brief dry spell before music maestro Quincy Jones started working with the skinny brothers with the big eyeglasses and even bigger afros. Neither George nor Louis knew what the other would say to me when we spoke, so I was impressed with how in sync they were, offering individual praises about Quincy. Both brothers explained how he protected them and educated them about the business of music as soon as he took them into his fold. Louis and George stated how Quincy could have gotten over on them but he did not. Instead, he managed them and taught them how to manage themselves as musicians. Both brothers told me they were basically set for the rest of their lives financially because of the foundation laid by Quincy. I heard so many horror stories about the cutthroat antics in the music business that I was moved to hear artists mention how someone helped them instead of hurt them. The brothers also played on albums for Herbie Hancock, Bobby Womack, Grover Washington Jr., and Bill Withers.
Louis, who said they didn’t grow up playing sports but playing instruments, explained to me how he worked with Quincy on lots of Michael Jackson projects. He said Quincy taught him how to get co-writing credit for his contributions as a bassist. Quincy showed the brothers the value in being musicians and that they should be compensated for their mastery. Louis immediately told me how he heard Jackson’s Billie Jean for the first time and thought to himself that something was missing. Louis told me that’s when he came up with his famous bass line on the song’s introduction. He told me that’s how he got so many co-writing song credits in his catalog, because he was confident that his bass drove the songs. Billie Jean was a good song, Louis told me, but he said his touch made the song great. Needless to say, Louis did not lack confidence when it came to music. This man knew his gift.
Training others how to play the bass was something he told me he enjoyed; it was his way of giving back. Louis thought it was amusing and was flattered that so many young men were on YouTube, trying to play the bass like him. He was touched that so many people, young and old, were playing his funk. Louis told me to watch one of his slap bass lessons on YouTube and then advised me to see a few people who were trying to do the same. He told me how he made custom bass guitars and how his slap bass style earned him the nickname of Thunder Thumbs, but it was Graham Central Station front man and founder Larry Graham, Prince’s mentor, Drake’s uncle and former Sly and the Family Stone member, who ushered in this style well before he did. Graham, Louis said, was the man noted as the Godfather of the Slap Bass.
The bass was the heart and soul of music, Louis said. His homework assignment for me, in addition to watching the YouTube videos of his slap bass disciples, was that I listen to any song of my choice but that I should follow the bass guitar all the way until the tune's very end. He suggested I do this very thing for every instrument in order to understand the importance of what musicians contribute. Sometimes I still find myself doing this exercise.
George first mentioned his brother’s passing on Facebook; a nephew informed the masses of it on Instagram as well. I was sad to hear the news. Back when I interviewed them, Louis made it known that he wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother. He said that Brothers Johnson fans need not hold their breath for a reunion if he had anything to do with it. Though he said he wasn’t talking to his brother, I teased Louis that it was interesting how he knew everything, even in Holland, that George was doing in Los Angeles. I told Louis this just goes to show that we have our ups and downs with our siblings, but when it is all said and done, we still have the other's back and continue to look out even from afar. Louis chuckled and said he agreed.
Life is short and time waits for no one. Louis just turned 60 years old on April 13, but a month and 8 days later, he was gone. Hopefully Louis was on speaking terms with his brother before he made his transition. If he wasn't, George should know that his little brother was always keeping up with him in some way. Know that he will certainly do the same now in spirit.
Until next time. DocM.A.C. signing off. Keep the faith and always trust the process. #OnwardUpward