Strawberry Letter 23

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    "Strawberry Letter 23"

    [Song written by Shuggie Otis]

    "Strawberry Letter 23"

    [Song written by Shuggie Otis]

    Its funny how talents can collide in the most unexpected of ways and this is certainly true of the story behind one of our most enduring Smooth Soul Survivors.  Who would have thought that when the then unknown Shuggie Otis released ‘Freedom Flight' in 1972 he would be providing what has since been described as probably the last great psychedelic soul single of the '70s.  The Brothers Johnson's cover of ‘Strawberry Letter 23' made number one on the R&B charts in the summer of 1977 and ‘Right on Time', the album from which it was taken, ultimately sold over a million copies.  Yet it was an unusual combination of circumstances that led The Brothers Johnson to discover ‘Strawberry Letter 23' in the first place.

    Born in Los Angeles, CA on November 30 1953, Johnny Otis JNR, Shuggie, as he became known, was playing guitar with his fathers band by his early teens and cut his first record with CBS, ‘Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis', in 1969 while still only 15 years of age.  The follow up ‘Here Comes Shuggie Otis', produced by Johnny Otis SNR, was released on the CBS imprint, Epic Records.  ‘Freedom Flight' followed in September 1971 and ‘Strawberry Letter 23' was included on it.  In fact Otis wrote ‘Strawberry Letter 23' for his girlfriend, who used strawberry scented paper for her love letters to him.

    ‘Freedom Flight' has been favourably compared to his 1974 masterpiece ‘Inspiration Information'.  Again produced by Otis SNR, it features seven stand-out tracks with all but one written or co-written by Shuggie.  His contribution on guitars, organ and percussion combined with Wilton Felder on bass, George Duke on keyboards and the backing vocalists, Clydie King, Venetta Field and Shirley Matthews makes this a very special piece of work.  Indeed, Shuggie's own version of ‘Strawberry Letter 23' stands up remarkably well against the better known Brothers Johnson cover.  It's slower and Otis injects genuine tenderness into it.

    As coincidence would have it George Johnson, of the Brothers Johnson, was dating a cousin of Shuggies around that time and she gave Johnson a copy of ‘Freedom Flight'.  He liked the track ‘Strawberry Letter 23' so much that he arranged to have it played at his brother Louis Johnson's wedding.

    In common with Shuggie Otis, guitarist/vocalist George Johnson and bassist/vocalist Louis Johnson were from Los Angeles and together with older brother Tommy and their cousin Alex Weir they formed the band Johnson Three Plus One while still in school.  On turning professional the band backed both Bobby Womack and the Supremes but when the boys started to fragment George and Louis Johnson joined Billy Preston's band.  They wrote ‘Music In My Life' and ‘The Kids And Me' for him before leaving his group in 1973.

    Their next big break came when Quincy Jones hired them to play on his LP ‘Mellow Madness'.  This working relationship led to him recording four of their songs, including ‘Is It Love That We're Missing?' and producing their platinum selling debut LP, ‘Look Out for Number 1'.  When they got together again to plan the follow up, ‘Right On Time', Louis remembered his wedding music and suggested ‘Strawberry Letter 23' as a possible track for it.

    It is perhaps the consummate production techniques of Quincy Jones that makes the difference between The Brothers Johnson version and the original.  Despite pre dating his work on Michael Jackson's classic ‘Off The Wall' and ‘Thriller' albums Jones was, at that time, already polishing the ultra-slick arrangements that would become his hallmark.  The depth and richness he creates on the track is almost hypnotic and the famous guitar solo by Lee Ritenour is quite simply the icing on the cake.

    ‘Right On Time' also went platinum and Jones stuck around to produce the bands third and fourth LPs, ‘Blam' in 1978 and ‘Light Up the Night' in 1980.  This latter release signaled the end of an era as Jones went on to record his own ‘The Dude' in 1981 and then form his collaboration with Jackson.  Although the Brothers Johnson still produced some good work in their post Quincy Jones phase they never quite reached those same heights again.  They started pursuing separate projects and Louis Johnson played bass on Michael Jackson's ‘Thriller'.  Although they periodically came back together, both in writing and recording capacities, they were never able to emulate their past success. 

    Shuggie Otis can also look back on his great releases of the 70's as his finest hours.  Although his influence can be found in the output of George Clinton and Prince to name only two, his work as a solo recording artist dwindled and although he still continued to tour and perform, his presence slipped from the radar screen.

    As for Strawberry Letter 23' its aura and soulful sophistication continues to shine like a beacon.  It has been generously covered and both the Johnson and Otis versions can be found on a host of compilations.  Chicago guitarist Phil Upchurch includes it on his self titled album of 1988 and it can also be found on the 1988 release ‘To Change And / Or Make A Difference' from Detroit duo Kiara.  Would be teen soulster Tevin Campbell, who incidentally was also discovered by Quincy Jones, makes it part of his 1991 debut release ‘T.E.V.I.N' and not surprisingly it is given particularly nice treatment by Johnny Otis SNR on the 2001 ‘Watts Funky'.

    Of the plethora of appearances on compilations, one to single out is ‘Jackie Brown - Music From The Motion Picture'.  Here, in the company of such classics as ‘Across 110th Street' and ‘Natural High', the Brothers Johnson version is used by Tarantino to weave an evocative backdrop to his subtle character study and love story that serves as a homage to blaxploitation movies.

    Denis Poole.  July 2005.

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