THE BROTHERS JOHNSON-BLAM!
THE BROTHERS JOHNSON-BLAM!
Before Quincy Jones spotted The Brothers Johnson at a Stevie Wonder rehearsal, they’d been part of Billy Preston’s band. After Quincy Jones discovered guitarist George and bassist Louis, The Brothers Johnson embarked on a twelve year, seven album adventure for Herb Albert’s A&M Records. The first four albums The Brothers Johnson released for A&M were produced by Quincy Jones were their most successful albums. Each of The Brothers Johnson’s Quincy Jones produced albums were certified platinum, with three of them reaching number one in the US R&B Charts. This remarkable run of platinum certified albums started with 1976s Look Out For Number One, which reached number nine in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Right On Time was released in 1977, reaching number thirteen in the US Billboard 200 and number two in the US R&B Charts. Then came Blam, released in 1978 which would become The Johnson Brothers’ most successful album so far. Blam which was released by SoulMusic Records on 17th September 2012, reached number seven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. That cemented The Johnson Brothers as one of the most successful funk and souk bands of the seventies. So by the time The Brothers Johnson entered the studio to record Blam, little did they realize that they were currently enjoying the hottest period of their career. After I’ve told you about the background to Blam, and the music on Blam, I’ll tell you why this successful run came to a sudden halt.
With both of The Brothers Johnson’s previous albums featuring a US R&B number one single, the pressure was on to repeat that feat. Their debut album, 1976s Look Out For Number One, featured I’ll Be Good To You, The Brothers Johnson’s biggest single. It reached number three in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Strawberry Letter Number 23, written by Shuggie Otis, a track from their second album Right On Time reached number seven in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. So, The Brothers Johnson were keen to repeat this feat. That’s why it was so important to choose the correct material for what would become Blam.
For their third album Blam, eight tracks were chosen, with Louis Johnson co-writing five of the eight tracks. Louis cowrote three tracks with Quincy Jones and various songwriting partners. This included Ain’t We Funkin’ Now which the pair cowrote with Tom Bahler, Valerie Johnson and Alex Weir. Quincy, Louis, Tom Bahler, Alex Weir also cowrote the title-track Blam with George Johnson and David W. Foster. David Foster also cowrote So You Won’t Stay with drummer Harvey Mason, who played on Blam. Ashford and Simpson cowrote Ride-O-Rocket, which would one of the singles released from Blam. These eight tracks would be recorded at three separate studios, with Quincy Jones producing Blam.
The recording sessions took place in New York and Los Angeles. Two studios in Los Angeles were used, Cherokee Recording Studios and Westlake Audio. In New York session took place at A&R Recording Studios. At these sessions, The Brothers Johnson were accompanied by what was an all-star band of some of the best jazz, soul and funk musicians. This included drummer Harvey Mason, guitarists Larry Carlton and Alex Weir, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, percussionist Eddie “Bongo” Brown, David Foster on synths and piano and Steve Porcaro on synths. George Johnson played lead guitar and sang lead and backing vocals, while brother Louis played bass, guitar and added vocals. Adding backing vocals were The New York Super Singers, a cast of talented singers, including Patti Austin, Gwen Guthrie, Yollanda McCullough and Raymond Simpson. Once the eight tracks that became Blam were recorded, Blam was released in 1978.
On the release of Blam in 1978, not only did it replicate the success of The Brothers Johnson’s two previous albums, but surpassed them, reaching number seven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Two singles were released from Blam, but neither gave The Brothers Johnson their third number one US R&B single. Ride-O-Rocket reached just number 104 in the US Billboard 100 and number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. Ain’t We Funkin’ Now fared slightly better, reaching number 102 in the US Billboard 100 and number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. Although the failure of the two singles must have been disappointing, The Brothers Johnson’s third album Blam had given them their third platinum disc and became their first album to chart in the UK, reaching number forty-eight. However, what does Blam sound like and why didn’t the singles fare better? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on Blam.
Opening Blam is the second single, Ain’t We Funkin’ Now and from the opening bars we’re funking..big time. The Brothers Johnson’s powerhouse of a rhythm section, complete with Louis’ loping, slapped bass that drives this prime slice of funk along. Stabs of blazing horns, cascading backing vocals and George’s sassy, vampish vocal combine. Punchy harmonies assail you, seemingly surrounding you, while riffing guitars and crashing cymbals punctuate the arrangement. All the time, the rhythm section and braying horns are combining as George unleashes a powerful vamp. It’s a five-minute, furiously funky track to open Blam, one that grabs your attention and forces you to listen. When you do, it’s well worth the time and effort and has you anticipating the rest of Blam slavishly.
There’s a real change in style on So You Won’t Stay. The tempo drops, and the funk of the previous track is replaced by a beautiful and soulful song. George’s vocal is tender, emotive and heartfelt. He’s accompanied by subtle harmonies, while an understated arrangement sees synths and keyboards, combine with a thoughtful rhythm section and chiming guitars. Beautiful harmonies sweep in, as George’s voice reveals a fragility and tenderness. As his vocal drops out a sultry saxophone solo replaces it. This is perfect. Not only does it add to the beauty of the arrangement, but is the perfect accompaniment to George’s heartfelt, tender vocal. The result is one of the highlights of Blam.
The title-track Blam marks a return to the funky sound of the opening track Ain’t We Funkin’ Now. There are a few surprises in store, as The Brothers Johnson tease the listener, during two sides of the same song. Synths, a pounding, funky rhythm section, growling horns and guitars accompany George’s punchy vocal. He’s accompanied by dramatic bursts of blazing horns, meandering keyboards, dramatic half-whispered backing vocals and a tight, funky rhythm section. Then just as quickly, things change. Tight, soulful and needy harmonies enter and the horns loose their dramatic, almost aggressive sound and the arrangement reveals a different side. It’s a captivating, compelling track, one full of contrasts, where The Brothers Johnson with producer Quincy Jones’ help, have surprises aplenty in store, as they push the musical boundaries, fusing funk and soul.
Rocket Countdown/Blastoff is not unlike something you’d expect to hear during the soundtrack to some seventies sci-fi blockbuster. It’s just fifty-three seconds of drama, that are like something from Close Encounters or Star Wars. Synths add a sci-fi sound, before blazing, growling horns and strings build the drama. Sadly, al too soon the track is over. While it was a delicious taster of what might have been, it sets up the next track perfectly.
Ride-O-Rocket was penned by the prolific songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson. It was chosen as the lead single from Blam and builds on the drama of the previous track. Kettle drums, stabs of keyboards, growling horns and the combined vocals of The Johnson Brothers combine as the track blasts off. George delivers a sassy vocal, accompanied by joyous, cascading harmonies, jazzy piano and growling horns. Later the horns change, adding to the uplifting, joyful sound. As harmonies sweep in and George’s vocal drifts in and out, the rhythm section create the track’s gloriously funky heartbeat. Still the punchy, horns rasp, playing an important part, by adding a contrast to the sweeping, joyous sound of the rest of the arrangement. Before long, the journey on The Brothers Johnson’s Ride-O-Rocket has landed and this joyful, funky journey is complete. Believe me, so good is the journey, you’ll climb back aboard and enjoy the journey.
Mista Cool was written by Louis Johnson with Ed Eckstine and Larry Williams. Gentle, subtle keyboards are something of a curveball, giving little indication of the song’s direction. It’s an instrumental, with synths, keyboards, driving horns and The Brothers Johnson’s pounding, funky rhythm section combining. Louis slaps his bass, creating one of his best bass lines on the album, while synths and the rest of the rhythm section combine. All the time, the horns help drive this innovative slice of funk along, helping create a track that would prove popular among the UK’s jazz fusion fraternity.
It’s You Girl is the only track on Blam George Johnson cowrote. Mind you, if you’re only going to cowrite one track, make it one as good as this. George’s voice has the same tenderness as on So You Won’t Stay. Again the tempo drops, with the rhythm section, keyboards and chiming guitars creating an understated arrangement, as the track gets underway. Some of the best and most harmonies on Blam accompany George’s vocal. Later, when they gloriously unite, they bring a gospel sound to the arrangement. They replace George’s impassioned, heartfelt pleas and their power and gospel-tinged sound are just the finishing touch to another of the highlights of Blam.
Closing Blam is Streetwave another jazz fusion track. It came about after The Brothers Johnson jammed, with Quincy Jones added a full arrangement. Louis pounds his bass, before mellow keyboards, then percussion and saxophone enter. Soon, the band kick loose, with the horns blazing and growling and the rhythm section driving the track along and providing its jazzy heartbeat. Hearing The Brothers Johnson and the rest of the band kicking loose is a joy to behold and isn’t a fusion of jazz and funk, but what both The Brothers Johnson and producer Quincy Jones do best and seems a fitting finish to Blam.
Blam saw The Brothers Johnson continue the success of Look Out For Number and Right On Time. Indeed Blam became The Johnson Brother’s most successful album. The only thing it lacked was the number one single that featured on Look Out For Number and Right On Time. Their debut album, 1976s Look Out For Number One featured I’ll Be Good To You, and Right On Time featured Strawberry Letter Number 23. Unfortunately, neither of the singles, Ride-O-Rocket nor Ain’t We Funkin’ Now replicated the commercial success of these two tracks. Good as both singles were, they maybe lacked the radio friendly, hook-laden sound of I’ll Be Good To You and Strawberry Letter Number 23. Having said that, both singles are good examples of what The Brothers Johnson did so well and what made their music so successful. Both tracks demonstrate The Brothers Johnson at their funky best, while tracks like So You Won’t Stay and It’s You Girl reveal a quite beautiful soulful side to their music. Of the two sides to The Brothers Johnson, I adore their soulful side. Having said that, two tracks on Blam give us a brief glimpse of another side of The Brothers Johnsons music and their versatility and talent. Mista Cool and Streetwave which closes Blam, shows another side of the The Brothers Johnson’s music. It’s a fusion of the talents of The Brothers Johnson and Quincy Jones talents and together, they created a glorious slice of jazz fusion. So, for lovers of jazz fusion, funk and soul, Blam has something for everyone and it’s no wonder that it became their most successful album. Little did The Brothers Johnson know that their run of successful albums was nearly at an end.
After Blam, 1980s Light Up the Night became The Brothers Johnson’s most successful album, reaching number five in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts, becoming their fourth consecutive platinum album. It featured another number one US R&B single Stomp, a classic from The Brothers Johnson. Following Light Up the Night, The Brothers Johnson split from producer Quincy Jones. This wasn’t their best decision, with The Brothers Johnson never enjoying the same success. Ironically, if it wasn’t for Quincy Jones then maybe The Brothers Johnson would’ve remained forever session players, rather than becoming the huge stars. However, Quincy Jones’ role in The Brothers success can’t be underestimated. For anyone yet to discover The Brothers Johnson’s music, then their first four albums, including Blam, which was rereleased by SoulMusic Records on 17th September 2012. Blam is the perfect introduction to one of the most successful and talented soul and funk groups of the seventies… The Brothers Johnson. Standout Tracks: Ain’t We Funkin’ Now, So You Won’t Stay, Ride-O-Rocket and It’s You Girl.
THE BROTHERS JOHNSON-BLAM!