In Memoriam: Louis Johnson

Louis Johnson

Bass legend Louis Johnson, the funk session musician who played on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, has passed away of undisclosed causes. He was 60 years old.

Nicknamed “Thunder Thumbs,” Johnson was born in Los Angeles in 1955 and learned to play bass alongside his brother George. The duo would work alongside each other with Bobby Womack, the Supremes, and Billy Preston throughout the ’70s, but it was their work with producer Quincy Jones that led to the Brothers Johnson creating their own music. They released four albums with Jones producing: Look Out for #1, Right on Time, Blam!, and Light Up the Night. The brothers scored several hits including “I’ll Be Good to You,” “Get the Funk Out Ma Face,” “Strawberry Letter 23,” and “Stomp”.

The Brothers Johnson split in 1982 to focus on their own personal projects. Louis recorded Passage and Evolution in 1981 and 1985, but it was his session work that truly flourished. Most notably, Johnson is featured on Michael Jackson’s albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Dangerous, where he recorded the hits “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. He went on to play with a who’s who of the music industry with a resume that includes Rufus, Stanley Clarke, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Bill Withers, Andrae Crouch, and many more.

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Louis Johnson.

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  1. JT

    One of the “Top few funk bass players that ever lived” …….!!! R.I.P

  2. Rock on brother Louis in the bright Heavens you are.

  3. THUNDERTHUMBS!!!!! there are hundreds of thousands of thumpers and slappers out there. louis was one of a kind. a standard. unmatched.

  4. Al Gates

    The reason I wanted a StingRay. The sound he generated from that bass. Amazing…

    • Petey

      Hey Al, I got a stingray bass for the same reason. STILL have mines! Louis was the most thunderous thumpers of all times. I remember the record he did with Rufus (without Chaka Khan) ‘tonight we love’ from the album Party Til’ Broke, boy that solo (from what I was told on fretless @ that) was crazy! He was one of a kind. I’m sure him, Robert Wilson, Mark Adams, Bernard Edwards, & Jaco doing some heavenly bass music @ the moment. My condolences goes to his brother George & the rest of the family. May he RIP.???

      • “mines”?

      • Arlo Gleghorn

        You are right my man….jaco Bernard. And Mr.mark a.k.a the Han solo.were the guys to play behind.did you know mark Adams from the group slave said that Louis Johnson was his idol…. I read it on the best of slave CD jacket….

    • Lawrence

      Same here Al. I loved the sound that he got from the bass. I have two now, but…. I’m no Louis. RIP Thunder Thumbs.

  5. Mike Matthews

    I still have his instructional on VHS. Louis will truly be missed. His solos where cool; but his bass lines where BADASS! Prayers to his family. RIP Mr. Louis.

  6. Michael Bowman

    My favorites bass players were Louis Johnson and Mark Adams of Slave who passed away in 2011. Both had styles who have yet to be matched in today’s bass player no matter what is the music genre.

    • Petey

      Hey Mike. You’re right, Mark Adams aka ‘the hansolor’ was SLAVE! How about this guy? Michael Wiley aka ‘ferocious’ from Dazz Band. He made that stingray bass sing. His death was so tragic. From what I read he commited suicide right in front of his band members in the dressing room in 1987. We’re losing a lot of great musicians in recent years but we have their music to live on. I’m going to keep my stingray bass in tribute to the great bass player, Louis. May my man RIP.?

      • Arlo Gleghorn

        Yes in deed…my music man stingray will be with me forever…. In honor of Mr.Louis a
        K.a. thunder thumbs Johnson…

        • Petey

          Hey Ario, don’t be surprise if you see a lot of stingray basses fly of the shelves in music stores. Then Ernie Ball just came out with the CLASSIC Stingray & Sabre series? Boy that would be a hell of a tribute. 2 icons; Leo Fender (the man that designed the stingray bass) and Louis Johnson, the man that took the slap funk technique into the stratosphere! May they BOTH R.I.P!

          • Arlo Gleghorn

            Dude your absolutely right….. I was at the guitar center in Arlington heights Illinois a few weeks ago and three cats took turns playing Louis Johnson bass licks……one of them left with a stingray bass….I was like……wow….your feeling the funk….they were in their 20’s….they caught the funk….

  7. Kay Em

    Rip Louis Johnson
    Thanks for the memories. They are embeded in my heart. May Allah comfort the family

  8. kyle

    He definitely was great inovator and bad ass …. A nd a big inspiration to a lot of bass players that listen to the old 70s bass riffs and solos and groove …RIP Thunder Thumbs you will be miss your funk will forever ……..

  9. Anthony

    He was pretty young. I sure hate to see him go. He had a powerful sound that was all his own.

  10. Arlo Gleghorn

    I had the pleasure of meeting my idol in 2001 at the Decatur celebration in Decatur Illinois. He was As cool as his music. I was able to talk with him for a bit…I even met his friend Joan… He was so down to earth. I felt like i had known him for years… He is solely responsible for me to pick up a bass guitar..I’ve learned a lot of his songs that he played….rest in peace my brother. Your music and playing style is here to stay…believe that….

  11. Terri

    My cousin Louis was one of the best.

  12. Louis Johnson was one of the most musical bass players in the world, ever. He was musically exactly on the same level as Jaco Pastorius only in different genre. His right hand approach was unbelievable, real Thunder thumbs! Quite complex rhythm patterns but at the same time one of the most melodic bass players ever!! Between 1976-1980 Louis used only flatwound strings, one of the reasons he sounded so FAT!!
    Look out for number one (Fender Precision with flatwounds)
    Right on Time (Alembic with flatwounds)
    Blam (Music Man Sting Ray 1976 with flatwounds) big difference between Music Man 1976 and 1977
    Light up The Night (Music Man Sabre with flatwounds)

    • Mr. Strandberg,
      Thanks’ for this info. I can see why they nicknamed Louis “Thunder Thumbs” after hearing him play bass for the past few days all over again. Listening to Rock , Metal , Funk , Soul , Reggae & Jazz all my life the first band was Three Dog Night then C.C.R. ,Rolling Stones and Grand Funk Railroad that propelled me in to playing bass guitar in 1974 .Our garage band managed to get together two songs for my Senior year in high school for the Talent show in 1975 , Jumpin Jack Flash and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
      What a time that was , I had very little experience on bass but managed using a borrowed bass a 1969 Fender Precision bass .
      Good luck with your music and you have a mighty fine website I put on my favorites.

      Mark S Beretta

    • Anthony

      I could imagine Louis Johnson using flatwounds during this period. All of his stuff on P-bass is without a doubt done with flatwounds. It’s harder to tell on an Alembic or Stingray, but what you say makes sense to me.

      • Hi Anthony! Yes that is right. On the Music man basses that Louis use they almost sound like round wounds, but are not. You can listen to the video in the beginning of this page where Louis plays Sting Ray and it’s with flats! But there are really different flats out there….I remember when I did use flats on my Music Man after discovering Louis was using them….suddenly everything made sense I could turn the highs all the way up without loosing bass, and everything sounded compressed an balanced when thumping. With round wounds its just too much high end if you turn everything up and it sounds quite thin too! However Louis did manage to sound quite good on round wounds as well one good example is “We Supply” from Stanley Clarkes album. That sound and groove just works!!

  13. Petey

    Mr. Strandsberg, you learned something new everyday. All this time, I didn’t know he used flat rounds. I’ve been using roto sounds for years then DR handmade. I didn’t know flat rounds gives you a fat sound. They sound good on fretless basses, and that’s it. Louis had the right hand slamming! I tried that ‘pulling your hand back’ technique like he suggested. Not as EASY as it looks. He had TOTAL control of that tone! He was one of a kind! He will sorely be missed! He inspired so many players it ain’t funny. God blessed his soul.

    • Arlo Gleghorn

      I have doubt’s about that one……flatwounds…. You can here the snap in those strings on songs like celebration and smiling on ya…I own a music man bass and a fender precision and used both roto sounds as well as flats….and flatwounds didn’t give me that response…. Maybe its me….but sound wise…roto sounds are better in my opinion.

      • Hi! There are many different flat wounds, Rotosound Jazz Bass (I think they are called) are quite stiff, but good. D`Addario is softer as I remember and I did use them since Louis did influence me quite much at that time. …with flats there are also less fret buzz. Louis hits the string quite hard thats how he gets his uniq bass sound. At the time when Louis did use the flats, most of the time, (1975-1980) there where not so much need for a synth bass because the bass sounded already FAT enough. But Flats do not play by themselves…. there has to be some work done…. its much harder to make them sing! But Louis did it!!

      • Hi Arlo! On the video above you can see how the strings ”shine”, thats flat wounds! Also on celebration he uses Music Man Sabre with some effects, that bass has really highs, deep low-end and actually not much midrange at all so flats work great for that bass!

        • Arlo Gleghorn

          Jan…how many bass players do you know of that did that many bass solos for other artist.. During that time…none….Louis was one of a kind… Believe that.

  14. Tom Hansen

    RIP Thunder Thumbs, Mista Cool, Mr Louis Johnson and thank you for the inspiration, the grooves, the master bass lines, the commitment and the total energy. Ain’t we funkin’ now aha aha, indeed you were

  15. Arlo Gleghorn

    You do have a point with the shine on the strings…..I remember Louis talking about busting his thumb up in the star licks video I believe or it might have been on YouTube. And pretty much all roto sound round wound type strings we tear away at that thumb…

    • On Star Lick videos he was already using round wounds or actually nickel strings. He did sound fine with them as well but I just loved it when he used flat wounds. I spoke with Louis a few times in the early -90`s! At that time he did not remember he had a solo album. I told him I have it but he just told me he never made on? There is also an article in Bass Player magazine released many years ago where he spoke about the making of Light Up The Night or something, but he remembers everything wrong!!

      • Arlo Gleghorn

        Yes…his earlier years were… in my opinion he was using flatwounds…. But if you listen to get the funk out ma face those were definitely flatwound strings..songs like streetwave and mista cool were with out a doubt were round wounds…. The fibrations that they create can be edited in the studio…you can hear the snap in his octave notes….. Flats can’t produce that sound…. No matter how hard you pull the strings or thump them…..that’s just from personal experience…..

      • Arlo Gleghorn

        If you get a chance…listen to the song dreaming by the funk group slave.mark Adams is emulating Louis Johnson’s style…listen to the bridge….you can hear Louis Johnson’s style…he was a major impact on funk bass players trying to make their mark…can you blame them…..yes….Larry graham came out with the thumping style first….I give him that credit….but Louis Johnson in my opinion perfected that style…..and was one the most sought after bass players in the country…. His resume is too long to list…….George Duke. Michael Jackson. The pointer sister’s. Cheryl Lynn.George Benson.the supremes… Billy Preston…. All major players in the game…and the list goes on…..earl klugh as well…. Come on…that guy was one of a kind….

  16. JPS in Frankfurt, Germany

    Yeah, Bass-Brothers, Music-Lovers and StingRay-Players, seems we all feel the same this week. The greatest slap-bassist ever left the planet. Brother Graham was the first one, but Louis showed how to really do it. Listen to that track he played on Herbie’s Manchild and two tracks on Grover’s Feels so good both from 1975! Then came the famous albums Q produced and my favorite Soul-Funk-Album ever, Winners from 1981.
    Still got his two videos on VHS – Louis taught us all how to play it right.
    I couldn’t listen to the Brecker Bros for two years when Michael died and still can’t listen to my favorite Dukey albums and now cannot listen to Louis for probably the rest of the year without getting tears in my eyes.

    • Petey

      I feel you, JPS. I was looking at my white stingray bass I bought in 1989 and was like geez! He was definitely a legend. He touch so many bass players it ain’t funny! You simply CANNOT play funk bass and not know who Louis Johnson is. Larry Graham started it, but Louse took it into the stratosphere!

  17. Barry

    Thunder Thumbs you will be missed…. “I’ll be good to you” was one of the first songs I learned on bass. For years you could not listen to much contemporary R&B music on the radio for more than an hour without hearing Louis on at least one cut.

    • Petey

      Hey Barry, you’re right. He just didn’t ruled the R&B mainstream radio but contemporary (we called it smooth jazz, now) jazz scene as well. He was dominating the radio back in the late 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s before that freakin’ Yamaha DX7 slap bass patch killed bass players (in R&B especially) He was recording with Grover Washington, Jr, Earl Klugh, George Duke, Dave Grusin, and even Herbie Hancock. He even played with the Carpenters. He will be sorely missed. He and that stingray bass were a match made in heaven, even tho he played other basses but them musicman basses; those were his babies. No doubt!

  18. Didi

    Et merde les premiers plan de slap que j’ai bossé peace !!!

  19. Darrell

    This guy’s playing was ” Thunderous”! I met him in 83, he was extremely confident of his abilities. He’s the #1 reason that I’ve owned many stingrays and saber basses. You can hear his sound in many that followed, yet there will only be one “Thunder Thumbs”.

  20. Lars

    Billie Jean is synth bass. Except for a few bars at the beginning.

    • JPS in Frankfurt, Germany

      Forget Billie Jean. Some magazines like Rolling Stone write “Michael Jackson’s bass-player dead”, when they should have written “Quincy Jones’ bassist …” But it’s always like that, if you have played on a few songs of such a mega-star it is more important to the press than anything else. He was an incredible slapper, even Stanley Clarke used him on “We supply” on “Rocks, Pepples and Sand” – Stanley could not have played that, his slapping style is different. But Louis also played beautiful fingerstyle basslines, listen to some of the ballads he played on. There were certainly other great bass players in the 70s, 80s or today, but thanks to Q who had composers like Rod Temperton Louis was fortunate to play on some of the best songs ever recorded. Listen to “The Dude” with songs like “Ai no Corrida”, “One hundred ways” or the title track if you want to hear some really significant Louis, apart from the first 5 albums by the Brothers Johnson themselves. And he never played too much, something young bass players often do, Louis always played what the song needed, but because he sounded so good the producers often gave him enough room to show his skills.

      • Arlo Gleghorn

        Man… hit it on the head with that statement… You are absolutely right…. His earlier work was magnificent…. Louis was definitely one of a kind.his sound and definition Was on point…mista cool…celebration… And even twinkle with earl kluhg….. They let him show his skills..,.. Tonight we love that he did with Rufus was just straight sick with it…just listen to the solo real good… Control and power.. All in one.

  21. Hi George Johnson, I am so sad about your brother Louis Johnson. My condolence to your family and my heartache is for Louis Johnson. I really love him very much and of course I am cried for him. I wish I could to meet him in the past time. I never forgot when I was 18 years old so I listen your musics all the time. But now I am 58 years old and still listen musics again. I’m praying for you and family. I love you, George Johnson and I want to smack you but I wanted to kiss Louis but it is too late. May be God Bless you all.

    Delma Beverly-Owens

  22. I want to make sure George Johnson got my message. I thought I send it to you recent. Anyway I am still missing Louis Johnson in my heartache for real. I want to hug with you and but I want to hold Louis Johnson so bad. I love you as God Bless you.

    • joerg schulmeister

      Thank you Delma. Let us remember Louis with a few words from one of his beautiful songs:

      Love can make you see differently but clear, all the things you waited for will suddenly appear, Love can make you feel really really real, Love is …

  23. I have a Music Man StingRay that gets severely punished, trying to keep pace with the power, precision, speed, and bass madness of the legendary Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. Although I also workout with bass artists such as Aaron Mills of “Cameo”, Mark “The Hansolor” of “Slave” and when i feel like taking a walk on the wild side, I play along with Bootsy Collins, but if you need to learn from the very best, you have to give it up for Louis Johnson. It’s one of my life’s regret to never had met this musical genius, to tell him how much he influenced me, and how him and his magnificent brother, George Johnson, became my best friends in music. Louis may not be here with us in human form, but his spirit in music will always be with us. Rest In Peace my bass brother.

  24. I have a Music Man StingRay that gets severely punished, trying to keep pace with the power, precision, speed, and bass madness of the legendary Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. Although I also workout with bass artists such as Aaron Mills of “Cameo”, Mark “The Hansolor” Adams of “Slave” and when i feel like taking a walk on the wild side, I play along with Bootsy Collins, but if you need to learn from the very best, you have to give it up for Louis Johnson. It’s one of my life’s regret to never had met this musical genius, to tell him how much he influenced me, and how him and his magnificent brother, George Johnson, became my best friends in music. Louis may not be here with us in human form, but his spirit in music will always be with us. Rest In Peace my bass brother.

  25. Serina Williams

    It was nice knowing you I will always remember you Louis and your brother George started out with the band the Brothers Johnson. My cousin Wayne Vaughn played keys board for the group along with Ricky Lawson’s, that were a amazing time for all of us. It has been quite a remarkable memory what The Brothers Johnson’s started with this remarkable band. Louis wife Valerie was always by his side what a love they shared. It was truly a happy time in late 70’s for all of us. Thank you The Brother Johnson’s for the members. I hope Louis you are frying it up in heaven with the band and choir, showing God the talent that he had given you the power to play. See you in heaven. The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. P.S. I went to George wedding receptions and Louis and George were standing by each other, I congratulate George and his wife and Louis notice in my hair with two Gold bobby-pins made like Guitars and both of the brothers said to me, “that’s nice guitars in your hair thanks for representing.”