My watering hole is the Sarah Street Pub, your basic rock and roll/sports bar. One thing you can’t help but notice the first time you go there is that it has more video screens than any other bar you’ve ever been to. It’s like a command center out of a Hollywood movie, but with beer on tap. Besides sports they use the screens for something called “video jukebox” which is basically old music videos on “shuffle” mode; it’s a real walk down memory lane sometimes, fun stuff.
I was down there a few weeks ago, just shooting the breeze with a friend, when something caught my ear. I kind of half remembered it from my childhood, one of those songs that was always on the radio. What got my attention was a dexterous guitar figure, a cascading sequence of notes reminiscent of Steve Howe’s work on early Yes albums; only this was a slow, funky pop ballad from the late 70’s, not the place a guitar part like that is expected to pop up. I had to wait until the end of the video to scan the credits before putting it all together. The Brothers Johnson – Strawberry Letter 23. Yeah, I knew that song. It was one of “those” songs, the kind that linger on the edge of memory and reside on the tip of the tongue.
What I didn’t know is that Strawberry Letter 23 is a cover. For sure, an unusual choice for a funk band; but this was no ordinary funk band. I had to know how the collaboration had come about; as it turns out, it is a story as interesting as Louis Johnson’s rise to fame as the premier session bass player of his time, the man who would become known as “Thunder Thumbs” for his innovative slapping technique.
Two Brothers, One Classic Song
Louis Johnson is best known for providing the unforgettable bass line to Michael Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean” but the journey to that moment was long and eventful. He got started early, sharing a guitar with his brothers Tommy and George as kids, before moving on to bass guitar after being inspired by the guitar on, an instrument played in mariachi bands. The brothers formed a band, playing high school dances and local clubs (sometimes having to disguise the fact that they were underage) but quickly rising to the point of opening for acts like Bobby Womack and the Supremes.
It was a chance meeting with keyboardist Billy Preston (of Let It Be fame) that changed their fortunes. George was touring as Preston’s guitarist; when the band’s bass player dropped out, Louis was drafted to fill the spot. Playing with Preston, they opened for many of the big rock acts of the time: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Grand Funk Railroad.
In 1973 the brothers departed to form their own band, The Brothers Johnson, with George as lead singer and guitarist. Quincy Jones picked the brothers up and became their producer, manager and mentor, shepherding their first album, Look Out For #1 (1976), a million seller. All of their seventies albums went platinum. When egos clashed between the brothers, Louis went solo, becoming one of the great session bass players of all time. Louis had already played on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album (1979) but it was his contributions to the 1982 juggernaut release, Thriller, that secured his place among the gods of bass guitar. Louis went on to play with an endless stream of greats, including Paul McCartrney and Aretha Franklin, he even played on “We Are The World”.
But how did the Brothers Johnson come to record their best remembered song, Strawberry Letter 23?
Shuggie Otis – The Penman of the Letter
Born in 1953, the son of legendary musician Johnny Otis, Shuggie was a wunderkind who had music flooding from every pore of his body. There wasn’t an instrument or style he couldn’t master. He was a creative genius; but as is common with geniuses, what made him brilliant sometimes got in the way of success. He started playing guitar in his father’s band at the tender age of twelve; like the Johnson brothers, sometimes having to conceal his age.
Shuggie recorded his first album (Cold Shot!, 1968) with Al Kooper, at the age of fifteen. He released his first solo album in 1971. Here Comes Shuggie Otis featured an impressive list of gust stars: Frank Zappa (Shuggie played guitar on Zappa’s classic “Peaches En Regalia”), Etta James and Bobby “Blue” Bland, among others. But it was his second outing, Freedom Flight (1971), that featured Strawberry Letter 23. The album wasn’t exactly burning up the charts but it so happened that George Johnson was dating a cousin of Shuggie’s. He heard the album and along with Louis brought the song to the attention to Quincy Jones.
The Brothers Johnson cover of Strawberry Letter was to be Shuggie’s only hit. The world waited for his fourth album but it never came. He declined opening slots on big tours, kept his recordings to himself and eventually his contract with Epic Records lapsed. He never delivered a fourth album and fell into obscurity. If not for the Brothers Johnson, he might have been completely forgotten.
The Story Behind Strawberry Letter 23Strawberry Letter 23 is a mysterious piece of music. The minor key keyboard groove is similar in affect to the haunting mellotron melody that introduces that other famous strawberry-themed song, penned by Lennon/McCartney. The lyrics are impressionistic and elusive:
Hello, my love
I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain
I gaze – the sun doesn’t shine –
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind
In the garden – I see west
Purple shower, bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green
Pretty music I hear – so happy
And loud – blue flower echo
From a cherry cloud
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
Playgrounds will laugh
If you try to ask
Is it cool? Is it cool?
If you arrive and don’t see me
I’m going to be with my baby
I am free – flying in her arms, over the sea
Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kite – with velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
A present from you – Strawberry letter 22
The music plays, I sit in for a few
A present from you – Strawberry letter 22
The music plays, I sit in for a fewStrawberry Letter 23
What does it mean? One urban legend had it that Shuggie’s girlfriend sent him letters written on strawberry scented paper; but Shuggie shot that down. Like all great lyrics, a literal interpretation isn’t necessary. It means something different for each listener.
Shuggie played most of the instruments on the original recording but the Johnsons put together a unique backing band to capture the magic of Strawberry Letter: George Duke (keyboards), Aynsley Dunbar (drums) and Lee Ritenour (playing those gorgeous arpeggios) in addition to the Johnson Brothers. The 12″ single was pressed on strawberry scented vinyl (perhaps providing the origin of the strawberry scented paper legend).
It is worth noting that on the original version the bass guitar does no more than provide a pleasant low end; on the Brothers Johnson cover, Louis provides a dance-able groove and romantic atmosphere that help define the track. The song was an immediate hit and shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Since then it has been covered, sampled and quoted by numerous artists and has been heard in a number of films and television shows.
Shuggie Otis is still playing, recording and touring, enjoying the appreciation of a new generation.
Louis Johnson died May 21, 2015 of unknown causes. Tributes flooded the internet from family, friends and musicians. It is sad that it took his passing for me to finally unravel the mystery of Strawberry Letter 23, but as the song says, it remains a “present from you”, a musical gift from another time, only one small part of the legacy left by Louis Johnson.