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Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson

I’ve learned that when the phone rings at 3:00 in the morning it’s probably not good news on the other line. I got one of those dead of night phone calls from my friend and brother, Ed Eckstine, last night. When his name appeared in the caller i.d. window, I picked up immediately and said, “My man, is everything ok?”

My suspicions were confirmed when he responded somberly, “Nah man, it’s not. Louis Johnson is gone.”

I paused a full beat before I inquired, “The bass player, your man?”

“Yeah, he’s gone. He died”

Black music is like family (albeit a dysfunctional one), so we stayed on the phone the way you do when a close relative tells you about the death of a distant cousin who you’ve heard about for years, but you’ve only met them briefly at a family function. It was like that because Ed Eckstine, the first black president of one of the major US record companies is my brother in this thing of ours – when he was the head honcho at Wing Records, I ran East Coast promotion for him – and while he was in the employ of Quincy Jones Productions, he developed The Brothers Johnson, and started Louis Johnson, one of the most important musicians of the Funk and Black Pop eras, on his creative journey after naming him “Thunder Thumbs”. Ed picked the name because of the thunderously funky way that Johnson played his bass. And in an era when the baseline was everything Louis Johnson was the bottom line.

Quincy Jones was no dummy. Sure he signed Louis and his older brother George to his production company, and produced superb Brothers Johnson projects that featured Louis on both hit singles and album cuts like “Is It Love That Were Missin'”; “I’ll Be Good To You”; “Strawberry Letter 23″; “Get The Funk Out Ma Face”; “Treasure”; “Blam”; “Street Wave”; “Stomp” and “Tomorrow”. But he had the good sense to use Louis’ superior gifts on other Jones produced projects on George Benson, James Ingram, Donna Summer and most memorably on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Johnson’s bass can also be heard on records by Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker, Michael McDonald, Earl Klugh and others.

I owned the Brothers Johnson’s recordings, but I only met Louis Johnson once. He, and his brother George were working on a remix for a Vanessa Williams project, and Eckstine invited me to the studio to meet the Brothers. Later that night, I watched Louis and his older brother George open for Chaka Khan at the now defunct New York club, Tramps. It was a dope show but more of an exercise in nostalgia than anything else.

But I saw them when it really matted. They weren’t quite headliners when I’d caught their act in ’77, on the grounds of the Take It Easy Ranch in Calloway, Maryland. On that Fourth of July weekend, the ranch hosted a four day outdoor festival that featured 28 acts. I caught the fourth day’s bill that was headlined by the white hot Lionel Ritchie fronted Commodores working off of their smash “Brick House”. Further down the bill was a mad crew of hit making acts that included Kool & the Gang, The Emotions, Slave and The Brothers Johnson working in support of their “Right On Time” album and their hit single “Strawberry Letter 23″.

Over 100,000 Funk and R&B heads were in attendance, and it was very much like a black Woodstock. The Brothers took the stage in the blazing heat generated by that July sun and rocked.

If I close my eyes and remember that long ago day, I can still hear a young 22 year old Louis Johnson put his thing down and remember what it was to be young, black and funky as a teenager in Jimmy Carter’s America. God rest Louis Johnson he made it a little hotter that day.

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For Boo R.I.P

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Jan and Marvin Gaye

After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s second wife, and David Ritz is a deeply moving account of a love gone wrong, and a reminder that love is seldom enough on its own. At the age of sixteen, Jan met the then thirty-three year old genius, Marvin during the early stages of his recording of the classic “Let’s Get It On” album. Her beauty, youth and presence ignited Marvin’s creativity and secured Jan’s historic role as soul music’s greatest muse. She has written a page turner that I could not put down.

Throughout the book, Jan takes great care to describe Marvin as a loving but confused patriarch who tried to provide for his wife, his children and his extended family. There are passages where Marvin’s love for his children and for Jan is apparent, and her love for him as well. She also depicts the great artist as vain, shallow, manipulative, cruel and indifferent to the wishes of loved ones – you know; a rock star. According to Jan, Marvin’s insecure doubting of her affection for him and his constant taunting drove her into affairs with both Frankie Beverly and the great Teddy Pendergrass. She also gives honest accounts of real and suspected dalliances that Marvin had with both well known and obscure women.

“After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye is not a sensationalized tell all, instead it is a cautionary tale of how insecurity, dysfunction and cruelty can end the greatest of loves while that love can inspire world class art. Her uncertainty and insecurity made the then young girl submit to sexual fantasies of Marvin’s that she now regrets. Her inexperience led her to forego her education, move in with Marvin and in the name of love, abandon any pursuit of marketable skills while becoming financially dependent on a free spending addict. Jan also reveals how she and her late husband shared a deep spirituality as well as a mutual love of top shelf quality drugs. In the book, she has shared as much about her personal struggle with, and triumph over substances as she has shared about anyone else’s.

Her heartbreaking tale describes how the ill matched couple had very little chance of succeeding from the start; she had been raised in an uncertified foster care home where she’d been dumped by her loving but drug addicted mother and became the victim of sexual abuse. He had been the son of a deeply religious, evangelical cross dressing father who’d beaten Marvin mercilessly for questioning the elder’s fashion sense, and daring to raise the possibility that his gender bending attire may have brought dishonor to the family name. Marvin was also a superstar depressive who had lost his way and was using copious amounts of drugs to numb the pain from the break-up of his first marriage. Jan and Marvin never had a chance.

I spoke with Jan, earlier this year, via telephone. She called for the purpose of nervously reading the book’s first chapter to me, and getting my opinion. She hadn’t turned in her manuscript to her publisher yet, so I felt flattered by the sneak preview. I assured her that what she’d written was great, and it was, but in no way had her excerpt prepared me for the exceptionally intimate, personal and poetic work of depth and beauty that she and Ritz have delivered.

Jan describe how life at the side of a glamorous ’70s sex symbol was like living in the eye of a hurricane. She writes of the unscrupulous promoters, Marvin’s ambivalence about performing, and his stage fright. She writes of Motown pressuring the superstar for bigger and more frequent hits. She writes of Marvin’s loyalty to Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, and Marvin’s bitter resentment of Gordy’s lack of appreciation for his artistic ambitions. The book insightfully examines the complications caused by Marvin’s marriage to, and ultimate divorce from Gordy’s sister Anna. There are also recollections of delusional managers who could not manage the great but unmanageable talent, and vignettes about accountants and business managers who could not convince Marvin to spend less frequently, save more often or pay his taxes. She has written beautifully about the gorgeous messiness of love in the shadows of stardom while it’s shrouded in the fog addiction.

Recently Jan and her children have been in the news as a result of having won a seven figure judgement against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, in a copyright infringement lawsuit, over the contention that their “Blurred Lines” record of two summer’s back too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s dance floor classic “Got To Give It Up”. It has been said that the landmark decision will put a chill on musical creativity, and that a business built on sampling the work of others has been rocked at its core. Time will tell.

Of course, for me, the most interesting portions of the book are the ones where Jan describes the creative process that Marvin, the hit maker, went through to come up with the albums; “Here My Dear”; “I Want You”; Let’s Get It On” and the smash single “Got To Give It Up”, and the subtle way that she inspired and guided Marvin to the expression of his best and higher artistic potential.

This book is her love letter to her mentor, partner and former husband who was tragically murdered by the hand of the cross dressing father who vied for control of the Gaye clan with his strong willed son. It is her deeply personal confession of the adoration, confusion and regret that she felt as a result of falling up to her eyeballs in love with one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. It proves that Marvin’s spirit still speaks to all of us through his music and through this tremendously written work. For soul music fans and those who are interested in black creativity and pop culture it is a must read. Jan Gaye hit this one out of the park.

insideplaya

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https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6568888/bruce-lundvall-blue-note-records-veteran-beloved-label-executive-dead-at-79

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El Toro Negro

El Toro Negro

The genius Stevie Wonder turned 65 years old yesterday. It is hard to believe that he has reached the official point of senior citizenship. It seems like just yesterday when I first heard his records. He was a kid like I was. A Taurus like me too, he called himself “El Toro Negro” (The Balck Bull). A decade older maybe, but still a kid. A big fun loving kid who dressed like Ray Charles played the piano and caused trouble when he picked up that harmonica to play it. His youthful exuberance made the occasion of my Uncle Dave’s funeral truly memorable because my older cousins Joan, Jimmy and Carl (Uncle Dave’s niece and nephews) were all closer to Stevie’s age and had been hip to the Wonder get down before me. They, fortunately, wanted to share the preciousGIFT of Stevie’s genius with their little cousin, and the gift has kept on giving ever since.

There aren’t many artists or records that you can recall exactly where and when you first heard them, but for me, Stevie Wonder is one of them. I was six or seven and I’d traveled from Soul City with my mother and grandmother to Springfield, Massachusetts for was supposed to be a sober and somber event when I “got it”, for real after hearing my older cousins playing “Uptight”, the slangy, up-tempo, Soul Music romp by the then sixteen-year-old SteveCONTINUALLY, the night before Uncle Dave’s home going – funky bunch of kids, we were.

Like most African-Americans of, or near my generation, I have felt deeplyCONNECTED TO Stevie Wonder’s music for the past fifty years. He is the most important musical reason that I chose to pursue aCAREER as a record man. Earlier today, I did what I normally do on the great man’s birthday, I listened to his music, and I posted some of it on my Facebook timeline.

A noted author who wrote, an important non-fiction book about a particularly messy, and corrupt period in the career of a key record business figure who I’d worked with, about 25 years ago, made what appeared to be a sarcastic remark about how much I love Stevie Wonder. Though he is a celebrated author with a national reputation, his comment revealed a lack of consciousness. Because if he understood what it meant to be young and Black in an America that was finding its way after King was assassinated, during the rise of Black militancy as exhibited by; the Panthers, Stokley Carmichael’s SNCC, and Angela Davis; during and after Vietnam and Watergate. If he understood how closely intertwined Wonder’s music was with the struggle and rise of a people, and how that music, which was as potent as King’s message of non-violence. or James Brown’s message of self-determination was, and how that music provided a platform that Wonder used to get the King Holiday through the US Congress, and how many house parties that music jumped off, then yes, he’d understand how much I love Stevie Wonder. I loved him because he was a potent voice of my America when we didn’t have many. Happy birthday El Toro Negro nobody ever did it like you. Thank you.

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