The electric bass world is in mourning after hearing of the death of the great Louis Johnson at the age of 60. Johnson’s bass work influenced a generation of funk players as he (along with Larry Graham) are considered to be the first popularizers of modern slap electric bass playing. They paved the way for bassists like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten to come in and blow the doors off of the style.
My first exposure to Johnson’s slap style came through hearing the Brothers Johnson song “Strawberry Letter 23” on my local radio station. The song was a breakout hit for the Brothers and the album from which the song was taken (Right on Time) ended up going platinum.
Johnson next came onto my radar in the mid-80s when the Star Licks videotape series was all the rage. I was a big fan of the series (especially the Steve Lukather video), especially the end of the tapes, which provided a preview of other tapes in the series. I found the preview for the Louis Johnson tape to be a flailing, frightening display of funk bass excellence. I still do today. Watch the first minute or so of the following to see what I mean. This is what “slappin’ da bass” is all about.
I was actually taking some basspiration from Mr. Johnson last week as I listened a couple of times to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album. Johnson plays bass on every track on the album except for “Rock with You.” Producer Quincy Jones knew what he was doing when he hired Johnson. The bass lines on the album range from funky (“Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”), to smooth (the title track), to poppy brilliance (“Girlfriend”). Off the Wall has always been my favorite MJ album and the prominence of Johnson’s bass lines are a huge reason why.
Rest in peace, Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. And thank you for all of your beautiful, funky music.