Man, I could just kick myself in the ass. I had this review in the can, no sweat no problem, move on, whip through the backlist, make the editors happy, all that—because this one was a slam-dunk for many reasons. But then I had to go and commit the ultimate reviewing sin. Let me explain.
This should have been the easiest CD in the world to write about. All I had to do was stick to what everyone says about the Brothers Johnson: George (guitar) and Louis (bass) Johnson were really wonderful musicians who had two or three undeniable classic ‘70s funk-pop singles (especially the one that this collection was named for) and then the law of diminishing returns set in and they became less relevant and their stuff fell off the table, but this collection gives you all the big hits (five or so) and some interesting stuff, the end, time to tackle that new James Blood Ulmer disc, that one’ll actually be hard to write about.
Strawberry Letter 23: the Best of the Brothers Johnson
US: 17 Jun 2003
UK: Available as import
But I had to go and make it more complicated by thinking about the disc in terms of whether or not I could recommend it to someone who didn’t get it free in the mail, and it all just made me more pissed off and blasé about this greatest-hits collection. Because this is a sloppy piece of merchandise when it comes down to it: song credits misspelled (was it really Louis Jordan who co-wrote “Funk It (Funkedelala)”? Uh, NO.), unnecessary slander of the man who wrote their biggest hit—calling the fascinating Shuggie Otis an “underground soul-rock oddity” is no way to win this reviewer over—and overstatement of the brothers’ importance to American and world music; these all smack of desperation and retro-branding. (I’m not complaining about song selection here, you’ll notice, and that’s because the song selection is pretty good overall.)
So then I didn’t know what to think, so I committed Sin #2: I played the songs on the compact disc I’m supposed to be reviewing. Rookie Mistake, I know, and unforgivable but there it is, can’t take it back, what can you do. And then my pissed-off-edness rocketed up a few more notches to contempt. I was actually angry at the Brothers Johnson for letting Quincy Jones, famously their mentor and producer and svengali before he shifted his creepy attention to Michael Jackson, make their music all safe and sappy and pointillist-perfect. All those creamy sheens over everything, all the bells and whistles (literally, sometimes): safe, and boring, and USELESS! I started my review in a cranky Oscar the Grouch snit, railing against the very idea that funk should be tasteful and living-room ready, cursing the name of Quincy Jones with every synapse in my brain. I even had a clever title for my clever review: They Shoulda Just Said “No Thank Q”. Get it? Ha ha ha, I crack myself up sometimes.
Suddenly, though, I realized that I’m frontin’ harder than Pharrell, because “Strawberry Letter 23” has always been one of my favorite songs. Before I even knew there was a Shuggie Otis, I loved the Brothers’ version of his song, “trippy love poetry” and all. Maybe it took a Quincy Jones to pull off the production work here, segueing smoothly between the hurdy-gurdy parts and the slinky funk parts and that wonderful prog-rock riff-fest. This shiny happy version is even better than Otis’, to me—not because it’s the one I’m most familiar with, but because the sighing sexy backing vocals always knock me into next week. Even learning that the song’s centerpiece section, that dut-duh-diddley dut-duh-diddley repeat to eternity part, was actually played by Lee Ritenour (okay, so the liner notes aren’t completely worthless) doesn’t dull this one after all these years; it’s like I’m right back in junior high, rollerskating in Oregon City and trying to get down with Wendy M.
And, yes, “I’ll Be Good to You” is the best song Louis and George ever wrote, an early burner that justifies its TWO high pop chartings (the original went to #3 in 1976, and the Quincy Jones remake with Ray Charles and Chaka Khan hit #1 in ‘89) through sweet-natured soul voicings and an absolutely glorious chorus. The Brothers Johnson were the most layered of their ilk, and the bubbling latticework of guitar and keys and bass that make this original version rule so hard over one that features Ray Charles and Chaka Khan just couldn’t be touched by anyone else. (Also, hearing this original version for the first time in a long time, you can hear Prince’s entire early career in the intro.) And, yeah, the forgotten “Stomp!” deserved its Top Ten status on the pop charts in 1980 simply because it’s one of the most perfect mindless dance songs that ever got played on the radio.
But the rest just got on my nerves on casual hearing. An instrumental called “Thunder Thumbs and Lightning Licks”? All together: “Enough with self-congratulatory smooth-jazz-leaning funk jagoffs!” The precious and twee instrumental “Q”, which won the Bros. a Grammy for Best Boring-Ass Song To Ever Waste A Classic Fonk Riff of 1977? No thanks. How the hell can anyone in good conscience issue a song called “Mista’ Cool”, even in 1977 when we didn’t know better? A Rod Temperton let’s-make-a-baby ballad called “Treasure” in 3/4 time? Yuck yuck yuck. How did this sub-standard pap end up on the same records that produced jams like “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” and “The Real Thing”?
Here, however, is where you get to see how dumb I really am. Because, Faithful Reader, I was curious and not a little stupid, I must admit that I did worse than hearing all the songs on the CD: I actually listened to them. (Gasp, shock, horror, etc.) And my opinion changed. Maybe I’m just a sucker for this stuff, but now I kind of love it all. Now, to my ears, “Q” doesn’t waste that riff at all, but rather slots it in between the (admittedly) twee jazziness. “Treasure” isn’t really all that bad on headphones, where the sparkling production can really shine. (Did I actually say that? Oy vey.) Even “Thunder Thumbs and Lightning Licks” sounds pretty great.
The Brothers Johnson were never the most original songwriters; “Get the Funk Out Ma Face” is a straight P.Funk jack in 1976, “Funk It (Funkedelala)” is a straight P.Funk jack in 1982, and in between are things that sound like Stevie and like the Ohio Players and like the Gap Band and like everybody else ever. Neither were they incredible singers—good enough, sometimes quite great, but never transcendent—or untouchable innovators on their instruments, choosing merely to be tasteful wizards of the conventional. But they were extremely good at doing what they did, and their classic singles remain classic, and even the filler here sounds excellent to me. So I guess I just love fun funk-pop music, even when it’s not world-beatingly NEW or GROUNDBREAKING.
I guess I’m glad I listened to this one after all. I should do that more often.