“Strawberry Letter 23” - The Brothers Johnson
Written by Shuggie Otis
From Right on Time (A&M, 1977)
A little sonic marvel, “Strawberry Letter 23” is one of Quincy Jones’ finest moments as a producer. It begins with an instantly identifiable, semi-ominous keyboard figure. Soon after, a tight funk groove kicks in, riding on Brother Louis’ slippery bass, Harvey Mason’s always-funky drums, Brother George’s slinky rhythm guitar, Ralph MacDonald’s sleek percussion, and a mini-choir of smoothed out background vocals. Jones at the board really outdoes himself here, achieving a stately funk-elegance in the production which makes the whole thing a powerful, hypnotic listen from start to finish. The setting for Lee Ritenour’s guitar solo is particularly memorable.
“Strawberry Letter 23” was written by Shuggie Otis, son of the great bandleader Johnny Otis and a fine, maverick R&B artist in his own right. The lyrics are a trip; to this day, I’m not exactly sure what they’re all about. Dig the first couple of stanzas:
Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain, I gave
The sun doesn’t shine
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind…
In the garden I see
West purples shower, bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins
Dressed in green
I remember as a young boy staring at the bright blue lyric sheet from the Brothers Johnson album, reading and re-reading the lyrics to “Strawberry Letter 23” and trying to imagine what “Red magic satin playing near” would look like. And what on earth “river cousins” might be. All these years later, I also still very much like a clever narrative device Otis used in the lyric—a sly reference to “Strawberry Letter 22”:
A present from you:
Strawberry Letter 22
The music plays
I sit in for a few
The backstory one can’t help but deduce from these lines is that there was a series of “Strawberry Letters” flying back and forth between two lovers, all of them characterized by colorful, freaky imagery. The song “Strawberry Letter 23” was then the latest in this series of letters, one that happened to be set to music. High concept stuff, and funky as hell, too.
In 2001, Luaka Bop records re-issued Shuggie Otis’s album Inspiration Information and included the original version of “Strawberry Letter 23” as a bonus track (it originally appeared on Otis’ album Freedom Flight). Inspiration Information also contains a fistful of interesting R&B/pop tasties with Otis on all instruments. It’s worth checking out. I hear that Shuggie Otis currently lives in the Bay Area, and can occasionally be seen performing in the area.
One of these days, I’m gonna ask him about those other 22 Strawberry Letters.