The muscular bass lines played by Louis Johnson as a session musician on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums are known to millions – in particular his classic, driving bass part for the Jackson song Billie Jean.
But Johnson, who has died unexpectedly aged 60, also had a highly successful career in his own right – or more accurately, with his brother, George, with whom he featured in the Brothers Johnson, a funk and R&B band that sold millions of records in the 1970s and early 80s.
Born in Los Angeles, Johnson was the youngest of three brothers, after Tommy and George. They all shared a guitar as children, although Louis moved to bass in 1961 after being smitten by the guitarrón, a large acoustic bass favoured by mariachi bands, which he had heard being played in a shopping arcade in LA.
In their teens, together with a cousin, Alex Weir, the three brothers formed a band called the Johnson Three Plus One, and played concerts at high schools and festivals, opening for bigger bands including the Supremes. Being so young and therefore underage for licensing purposes, they would sometimes have to draw moustaches on their faces in order to get into the clubs where they were playing.
In 1971 George met the soul musician Billy Preston, who asked him to tour Europe with him as a guitarist; when Preston’s bassist left the band, Louis then joined the group at his brother’s suggestion. For the next two years they toured with Preston, supporting major bands such as Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Grand Funk Railroad. Prolific songwriters, George and Louis wrote more than 250 songs of their own while they were on the road with Preston, and then quit in 1973 to form their own group, the Brothers Johnson.
Success came shortly after the Brothers were taken up by the producer Quincy Jones, who became their manager, mentor and collaborator on several key recordings. After the pair toured Japan in Jones’s band, he secured them a deal with the A&M label, and their Jones-produced debut album, Look Out For #1, released in 1976, rapidly sold more than 1m copies. Four more albums followed in the next five years, all but the last achieving platinum status.
The most enduring hit for the Brothers, who were much admired for their flamboyance and musicianship on stage, was Stomp!, from their fourth album, Light Up the Night, which was released in 1980. Tensions between the two led to a split in 1982, by which time Louis’s association with Jones had already led to collaborations with Jackson, for whom Jones was producer.
Johnson’s bass-line contributions to the Off the Wall album (1979) helped propel Jackson to superstardom, and his parts on Thriller (1982) laid down the exciting foundations for what became the biggest-selling LP of all time. In 1985 he played on the We Are the World single, which was written by Jackson and produced by Jones, and sold more than 20m copies internationally.
Thereafter Louis was constantly in demand as a session musician with the likes of George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin – plus dozens of other artists in the soul and rock fields – and was able to make a comfortable living in that role for the rest of his life.
He played with such power that he regularly blew his bass amplifier’s speakers. Known by the nickname Thunder Thumbs, in the 80s he also made instructional videos on slap bass that remain set texts for aspiring bass players. There were Brothers Johnson reunions at various points, and new albums were released by the group in 1984, 1988 and 2002, although they met with limited success.
So significant was Johnson’s contribution to some of the world’s most popular music in the 70s and 80s that he once said: “Every time I’d get in the car to go somewhere, I’d hear me playing the bass ... I was all over the place.”
He is survived by his former wife, Valerie, his sons Kodi and Kenji, and by his brothers.
• Louis Johnson, bass guitarist, born 13 April 1955; died 21 May 2015
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