At the age of two, George Johnson was weaned on the spiritual music of Mahalia Jackson at his grandmother's Los Angeles home, but it wasn't long before he got all shook up.
"My first major influence was seeing Elvis Presley on television when I was five," says Johnson, who just turned 51. "During a commercial my dad went into the kitchen, poured out the milk that was left in a half-gallon container, washed it out, cut holes in it and attached a stick and some pens. He stretched rubber bands up to the top of the stick and simulated a guitar. I was sitting down on the floor looking at Elvis and playing this box."
Two years later his dad built him a real guitar, an imitation Stratocaster, from a Sears Roebuck kit.
And in 1964, after seeing the Beatles, his dad went to a pawn shop and bought a drum set, guitar, bass. and two amplifiers. Johnson played guitar; his younger brother, Louis, played bass; his oldest brother played drums, and a cousin added his guitar.
His dad's strategy paid off. By the late 1970s, The Brothers Johnson (featuring George and Louis) was one of the hottest groups in the nation. (The Brothers play Rochester MusicFest on Saturday, July 17.)
But back in the mid-1960s when they began playing around LA, they were the Johnson Three Plus One.
"That group became so huge," Johnson says. "Bobby Womack produced our first record after we won a radio station contest. They pressed 995 singles of a record called 'Testify' and sold every one."
In the late 1960s music was changing.
"Jimi Hendrix came out and blew me away because I was left-handed too. That's what inspired my afro." In a tribute to Hendrix --- and America after 9/11 --- Johnson plays the "Star Spangled Banner" at every show. "It's brought people to tears."
The early 1970s found the Johnson brothers backing Billy Preston. On one European tour with Preston they jammed with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and Jeff Beck. "We recorded a song. I've always wondered what happened to that tape."
Back home, Johnson began hanging out with Sly Stone and Larry Graham.
"All the people who were really funky knew who was funky and almost authorized each other," he says. "Larry and I made up little cards we gave to each other and Sly. They simply said, 'George Johnson, Larry Graham, Sly Stone: Your license to funk.' The person who gave it out would have their signature on it."
The brothers also studied hit-making with a master.
"Quincy [Jones] made us study the Bee Gees. We'd go to his house at noon and stay till midnight," Johnson says. "Quincy would read to us about how to structure songs. He'd put on Bee Gees records and say, 'Why do you think this is a hit?' We would tear the song apart from the front, the middle, the back, take it inside out, stretch it like a rubberband, twist it all up.... He taught us how to write a hit."
From 1973 to 1975 they wrote more than 200 songs, including classics like "I'll be Good to You." Louis would often start on bass.
"He set the pace on 'Get the Funk Out Ma Face.' Quincy threw the title out and I wrote the lyrics."
The Brothers Johnson got four platinum albums out of those songs. They still have 20 or 30 albums of material if the right backer comes along.
Perhaps their best-known song, "Strawberry Letter 23," was written by Shuggie Otis.
"It's an allegory song which basically paints a lot of pictures and uses a lot of adjectives and adverbs --- very descriptive and a lot of the lyrics might not make any sense," Johnson says. "It was our favorite song. We played it for Quincy and he loved it. We just rearranged it and dropped a little funk in the front."
In the 1980s, Johnson cut down on touring to spend time with his family.
"One time I left and my daughter didn't understand," he says. "She must have been one-and-a-half or two. When I came back she was mad. I could see it in her face. I thought about what this poor child felt every day."
Back on the road two decades later Johnson feels right at home. But he misses playing stadium dates with big acts.
"All of us would mingle back stage, go to truck stops together, have waffles, eggs and bacon --- Chaka [Khan], George Clinton, Bootsy [Collins], me and Louis sittin' at a table, sharing our new music. Back at the hotel one time Chaka said, 'Hey George, come here.' She played me 'Papillon,' for the first time. These are moments I can never forget."
The Rochester MusicFest takes place Friday through Sunday, July 16-18, at Genesee Valley Park. La Linea and Puerto Rican Power headline Latino Night on Friday at 6 p.m. Earth Wind & Fire, The Brothers Johnson, Impromp2, Carl Thomas, Prime Time Funk, and Damaris Rivera play Saturday starting at 1 p.m. Gerald LeVert, Tweet, Calvin Richardson, The Dazz Band, Whild Peach (OutKast's backup band), and The Atlas Band play Sunday starting at 1 p.m.
Tickets: Friday, $15, $8 children 7-12; Saturday, Sunday: $32, $10 children; Weekend Pass: $49, $17 children. Tickets are available at MusicFest box office, 710 Lake Ave, Tops markets, tickets.com, 888-223-6000, or the gate.
Free parking/shuttle bus service is available at University of Rochester. Info: www.rochestermusicfest.com/index.htm
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