Bass Player - Slap Masters Supplement - (Page 24)
The Brothers Johnson
IN-YOUR-FACE-BASS AT THE TOP OF the charts is rare indeed, yet it was a regular occurrence during the late-’70s/early-’80s heyday of Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. Best known to bassists as the arching, steely bridge between slap pioneer Larry Graham and modern-day thump kings like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten, Johnson—as “discovered” by Quincy Jones— had the musical midas touch. He capped a potent session run by playing on virtually every track of Michael Jackson’s landmark albums, Off the Wall and Thriller. Simultaneously, with guitarist/brother George, he formed the Brothers Johnson, issuing such hits as “Strawberry Letter 23,” “I’ll Be Good to You,” and “Stomp!” The latter was the duo’s biggest hit, reaching No. 1 on the R&B and dance charts, and No.3 on the pop charts. Infectious and multi-sectioned, the dance hit clocked in at 6:20 on the Light Up the Night LP, with over two minutes shaved off for radio. But both versions had a most pleasantly surprising centerpiece: a slap solo (although cut from 16 to 8 bars for radio). Johnson’s “Stomp!” path actually began on Olvera Street, in his native downtown Los Angeles, where he was born in April 1955. At six years old, he saw and heard a guitarron acoustic bass in the mariachi bands that lined the famed Mexican-themed walkway, and got hooked on the big sound. Coming from guitar, Johnson got into slapping organically, ﬁrst by plucking the bass strings with his thumb and then “trying to ﬁnd the little clicks and pops I got when I strummed chords on the guitar.” This led to slapping and popping the standard way, as well as other devices, like palm pats and muted strums. When Louis and George got their ﬁrst big break, joining Billy Preston’s band in 1972, Louis was told he sounded like Larry Graham. He recalls, “I hadn’t even heard of Larry yet, my inﬂuences were Ray drum kit enters, Louis lets loose with a funky, octave-switching twobar phrase that sets up—and continues as—the ﬁrst verse. Johnson’s ﬁnger plucking technique, alternating index and middle ﬁngers, is notable. He relates, “I used ﬁngers at ﬁrst because Quincy, my musical mentor and teacher, taught me when you create a song you don’t start out at level ten and leave yourself with nowhere to go; you start simple, build to a highpoint, and then go back down slowly. I wanted to tell a musical story in ‘Stomp!,’ and build up to the thumping. That’s how I wrote ‘Land of Ladies’ and a lot of other Brothers Johnson tracks.” With a nudge on the board, legendary Quincy Jones engineer Bruce Swedien pumps up Johnson’s bass for his slap solo. Generally, Johnson starts each measure with a similar rhythmic ﬁgure, varying its ending on beats three and four. Dig his left-hand-aided triplets in bars 3 and 7, and his walk-ups at the end of 4, 8, 12, and 16—usually with octaves or similar notes (4) added on top. Louis addresses his basic slap approach: “It’s all about the rhythmic counterpoint between the right and left hands. I’ll tend to think about two or three traditional folk rhythms at once, maybe an African-type rhythm on the one and the downbeats, which is key in funk, then, say, a Native American rhythm over that, and maybe a Japanese rhythm on top [sings all three]. It’s sort of like having a bass, mid, and treble going on in the rhythm.” Louis, who has been known to break both string and speaker with his Bruce Lee-inspired intensity on the ﬁngerboard, advises, “Just get into the part and really feel it. I’ve always said, when I play, I become the bass; I’m no longer Louis Johnson, I am the bass—so the bass is in trouble!” SM
Brown and James Jamerson.” Quincy Jones came upon a Johnson brothers demo a few years later, paving the way for their 1976 album debut, Look Out for #1. The late-1979 session for “Stomp!,” from the fourth and best-charting Brothers Johnson album, took place at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Recalls Louis, “I started writing the song on bass ﬁrst and then guitar at my home studio. Next, Quincy had Rod Temperton, George, and my wife, Valerie, help out with some melodies and lyrics; Jerry Hey did the horn and string arrangements.” He adds, “The song is about people dancing and stomping and having a good time partying. Notes Louis, “We had it in about two takes, and I made no punches or fixes; the funk was there as soon as we hit it.” Johnson used a natural Music Man StingRay (which he helped design), and strung it with new D’Addario roundwounds. His bass recorded his bass direct and through a miked and bafﬂed Fender Bassman amp. Anchored by four-on-the-floor kick drum, the track launches with an extended intro based on the chorus changes. Johnson provides roots for the chord hits in the ﬁrst eight measures, and adds some rhythmic motion to the next eight. When the full
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