Louis Johnson, Bassist of The Brothers Johnson


The Brothers Johnson Strawberry Letter 23

Every once in awhile my friend Jim will  single out a song for review via a YouTube link,  a copy of a CD, or when you’re a captive audience in his car. It’s a pretty random assortment–“In My Room” by The Beach Boys one time; “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, the next.

One evening, as I rode shotgun on our way to a birthday celebration, he tested my music knowledge with a song I couldn’t name. Another friend, Brian, piped up from the backseat with the answer: “Strawberry Letter 23,” a Shuggie Otis song recorded by The Brothers Johnson. Brian and Jim are older than me–5 and 8 months respectively–so they’re entitled to have musical memories that we don’t share. What’s more, they both grew up in Minnesota, while I grew up in West Virginia, and their knowledge may reflect geographic differences in radio DJ taste.

The only flaw in those theories is the song came out in 1977, the year I moved to Minnesota.  So I guess I can’t use my “youth” or origins as excuses.

Anyway, this car-ride quiz sent me on a mission to discover the music of The Brothers Johnson and Shuggie Otis, both of whom I’ve come to love.

In the summer of ’77, The Brothers Johnson shot to #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the Billboard charts with their cover of Otis’s single.

Louis Johnson (April 13, 1955-May 21, 2015) was a bassist, known as “Thunder Thumbs.” He and his brother George fronted an LA-based R&B/funk band, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. They backed up Bobby Womack, The Supremes, Billy Preston, and others, and were taken under the wing of Quincy Jones, who produced their debut album Look Out for #1 and its followup, Right On Time.

The group split up in the 1980s to pursue independent projects. Louis played bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and for a host of other artists, including Earl Klugh and George Benson. He released a gospel album with his band Passage and later, Evolution, an album under his own name.

Passage I See The Light

He is known for his slap-bass style, which he taught through a series of instructional videos.

Louis Johnson bass lesson intro

The Brothers Johnson I’ll Be Good To You

Marcus Belgrave, The “Soul of Detroit Jazz”

Marcus Belgrave Is An Unsung Jazz Hero

In David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, he makes the distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former are the glittering accomplishments we pack into our CVs; the latter, the qualities by which we’re remembered.

Judging by the actual eulogies recently given Marcus Belgrave (June 12, 1936-May 23, 2015), he appeared to live his life by the “eulogy virtues.” He was a mentor and teacher to countless young musicians–a teacher both in the classroom and by example. He founded the Jazz Development Workshop in Detroit, which he ran for about 40 years. According to MLivestudents from the workshop have gone on to perform with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder,  Justin Timberlake, and other notable musicians. Reflecting on his career as teacher and mentor, Jazz Times said “The jazz world is immeasurably richer for Belgrave’s staying home.”

Marcus Belgrave Lottie’s Mood

But it’s not as if Belgrave was lacking in impressive accomplishments as a horn player. He toured for five years with Ray Charles, played with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and was a frequent contributor to the Motown sound. While the recording studio was not his priority, he did release several respected albums, including Gemini II (1974), Working Together (1992), Live at Kerrytown Concert House, Vol. 1 (1993-1995),  In the Tradition (2002) with Doc Cheatham and Art Hodes, and You Don’t Know Me: Tribute to New Orleans, Ray Charles and the Great Ladies of Song (2006) featuring Joan Belgrave and Charlie Gabriel.

Marcus Belgrave Marcia’s Opal

For more on Belgrave, from a local Detroit perspective, check out the post by Rich Brown in the blog “Good Music Speaks.”

McNeil Robinson, Organist, Composer and Teacher

McNeil Robinson Plays Dupré at St. Mary the Virgin

For many years, my mother was a church organist and choral director, having begun her professional career as a teenager in Pittsburgh. Sometimes after school, I would accompany her to an empty church and watch her practice. For someone who was not particularly coordinated, she had amazing dexterity when it came to navigating three keyboards (manuals), a multitude of stops and foot pedals below. It’s amazing how athletic you have to be to play a pipe organ.

Organists and carillon ringers may be unique in that they cannot bring their instruments home to practice. Practice and performance happen in a particular place, on an instrument usually of someone else’s choosing. The organ often eclipses the organist: on the website for the NPR program “Pipedreams” is a listing and photo gallery of the organs and places that have been featured on the show.

McNeil Robinson (March 16, 1943-May 9, 2015) was familiar with a number of Manhattan organs throughout the course of his distinguished career: at St. Mary the Virgin (1932 Aeoolian-Skinner), Park Avenue Christian Church (1946 Casavante Frères), Holy Trinity Catholic Church (1927 Estey), and for nearly 50 years at the Park Avenue Synagogue (1926 Casavante Frères).

In Memory of McNeil Robinson–Park Avenue Synagogue

Robinson studied at Julliard in New York and at the University of Salamanca in Spain. For nearly two decades, he was the chair of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music. His students have won more international awards than those of any other teacher.

The Park Avenue Synagogue website cites Robinson’s many commissions, including from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the San Francisco Symphony, and the American Guild of Organists.

McNeil Robinson Improvisation, Part 1

McNeil Robinson Improvisation, Part 2

Victor Salvi, Harpist and Maker of Harps

Victor Salvi on the Museo dell’Arpa Victor Salvi

Quick! How many harpists (string, not harmonica) can you identify by name? Before this post, I sadly could only come up with two–Harpo Marx and the late Derek Bell (of the Chieftains).

Victor Salvi (March 4, 1920-May 10, 2015) came from a family of musicians and musical instrument makers. (His brother, Alberto Salvi, was deemed “the greatest harpist of all time” by celebrated Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.)

Salvi himself played with numerous distinguished orchestras, including the St. Louis Sinfonietta, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.

Debussy “Le Mer” performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra

In the 1950s, he returned to his ancestral home in Italy and founded his own harp company, Salvi Harps, which has grown to become one of the pre-eminent makers of harps in the world.

“What is harp?”

Bob Belden, Jazz Saxophonist, Arranger and Diplomat

“New Song No. 2,” with Animation at the Jazz Standard

Music and musicians have often played a role in soothing relationships between nations. Louis Armstrong penetrated the Iron Curtain at a concert in East Berlin in 1965. Recently, the Minnesota Orchestra contributed to the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba through a series of concerts and workshops in Havana.

Perhaps less known is a concert that took place this year, when New York saxophonist Bob Belden performed with his group Animation in Tehran, the first US group to do so since 1979.

As testimony to the diplomatic power of music, Belden (October 31, 1956-May 20, 2015) told The New York Times: “Everybody is nice to us here…a guy comes up to me, an Iranian, asks me where I’m from. I say,  ‘America!’ He says, ‘I love you!’ I tell him I’m a jazz musician. He says, ‘I love jazz!'”

Recording of “Black Dahlia” by the Bob Belden Orchestra

In addition to Animation, Belden was known as a prodigious arranger, often reinterpreting rock and jazz classics in new ways. He was well-known for an album of Sting’s music. He brought together Indian musicians to do a new take on the music of Miles Davis, using sitar and tabla. The album was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2009 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

“All Blues” on “Miles from India”

Johnny Gimble, King of the Western Swing Fiddle

Johnny Gimble profile on “Waco Remembers”

There are a lot of musicians whose music I know, but whose names I don’t. I’ve come to know some of the people behind the music, thanks to a recent series of documentaries and videos on the Muscle Shoals studio musicians, LA’s Wrecking Crew, bassist Carol Kaye and the backup singers featured in “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”

For me, fiddler Johnny Gimble falls into this category. I’ve  probably heard him playing off and on for over 40 years–with the cast of “Hee Haw,” on my college roommate’s Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel records, on “Austin City Limits” or “The Prairie Home Companion.” And who knows how many other Nashville recordings I’ve heard him on.

“Take Me Back to Tulsa” with George Jones

But while Gimble (May 30, 1926-May 9, 2015) may have been a stranger to me, he obviously was no secret to the country elite. And he was no stranger to awards, either, having racked up five Best Instrumentalist Awards from the Country Music Awards, nine Best Fiddler Player awards from the Academy of Country Music and two GRAMMY Awards for collaborations he did with Asleep At The Wheel.

“San Antonio Rose,” Asleep at the Wheel with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys

Jerome Cooper, Percussionist for Revolutionary Ensemble

For the past few years I have had the privilege to do some consulting work for the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, AZ. The museum showcases instruments and music from nearly every country and territory in the world (North Korea and Antarctica are the two exceptions). Throughout its galleries MIM makes the point that instruments and music, like people, frequently cross borders and influence other cultures. African lutes made of gourds morph into banjos in America. European brass instruments turn up in Mexican mariachi bands.

Jerome Cooper (December 14, 1946-May 6, 2015) was an embodiment of this idea. While he is known primarily as a percussionist, he was a multi-instrumentalist, who incorporated instruments like the balafon and chiramia into the jazz he performed and recorded.

Chicago-born Cooper was a student of Capt. Walter Dyett, the demanding yet inspiring South Side high school music teacher, whose students included Nat “King” Cole, Bo Diddley and Dinah Washington. Another student was Leroy Jenkins, a violinist who would form the trio Revolutionary Ensemble with Cooper and bassist Sirone.

The group was only together for a few years in the 1970s. In an article in All About Jazz, Clifford Allen calls Revolutionary Ensemble “one of the most crucial outfits to form in the decade.” After breaking up, the group members pursued other projects, but reformed in 2005 and performed until Jenkins’ death in 2007. A Cooper composition of this period, “Le-Si-Jer,” captures Cooper’s concept for “multi-dimensional drumming,” the layering on of a traditional trap set with the balafon, chiamira and even a Yamaha PSR-1500. You can hear it on the playlist.