by Kevin Burton
From its carousel introduction to its abstract imagery lyrics, “Strawberry Letter 23” was, different.
The song was released 45 years ago this month on Epic Records.
You remember the tune? It was one of the quieter songs performed by the Brothers Johnson.
Wikipedia says the 7-inch single was released in a strawberry-scented sleeve and the 12-inch version was scented.
“The Brothers Johnson put out a single (of the song) and it was colored red and smelled like strawberries,” recalled songwriter Shuggie Otis.
Pretty weird, eh? Well stay with me and I’ll make it a little weirder for you.
The Brothers Johnson were hotter in their time than you probably remember. The band had three top 10 hits between 1976 and 1980: “I’ll Be Good to You” in 1976, “Strawberry Letter 23” 1977 and “Stomp” in 1980.
One other memorable release, 1976’s “Get The Funk Out Ma Face,” defines the band, at least for me. I can still hear Casey Kasem enunciating the song title the week it debuted on the Top 40.
Otis did his own version of the song but it is the Brothers Johnson cover that everybody knows. Quincy Jones produced it. Jones worked with both brothers George and Louis Johnson before and after the song hit in 1977.
“The song’s chorus says ‘Strawberry Letter 22’ instead of the actual title of the song. This is because the premise of the song is that a couple is exchanging love letters in musical form,” according to Wikipedia.
“The singer is creating Strawberry Letter 23 as a reply to the song he has received from his lover, and he refers to her previous message as Strawberry Letter 22 when replying.”
“George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson, was dating one of Otis’s cousins when he came across the 1971 album Freedom Flight. The group then recorded ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ for their 1977 album Right on Time, which was produced by Quincy Jones, and the album went platinum. Their rendition hit the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number five and reached number one on the Soul Singles chart in 1977,” according to Wikipedia.
“Guitar prodigy Shuggie Otis (real name Johnny Otis Jr.) wrote the song at the age of 17,” according to Songfacts.
I loved hearing that and it made me wonder what kind of images I would have conjured at that age, compared to what Otis came up with.
Here are some of Otis’s lyrics:
“Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you.
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain I gaze, the sun doesn’t shine. Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind.”
“In the garden, I see, West purple shower bells and tea Orange birds and river cousins
Dressed in green.”
“Even the Brothers Johnson had a hard time making sense of the lyric,” Songfacts writes.
“You could call it a Star Wars love song. It could really be whatever you want it to be,” said the late bass guitarist Louis Johnson. “(It could be) about a guy on the road, who’s missing his lady and wants to be back with her but knows he’s got to go on doing what he’s doing. Then again, you can say that it’s on everyone to put their own interpretation on it.”
“It is commonly believed that she wrote to him on strawberry-scented paper, but Otis told Spinner in a 2013 interview that the song has nothing to do with the smell of strawberries.” Songfacts wrote.
“What I pictured when I was writing that song, was a girl handing a guy a pink envelope,” Otis explained. “A love letter. The guy and the girl had written each other 22 letters so far. And the 23rd one he writes is a song. But no scents.”
The Brothers Johnson broke up in 1982 but both brothers stayed in music. Louis Johnson played bass on “Billy Jean” and more memorably on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” on the Jones-produced mega-smash Thriller Album by Michael Jackson.
OK, ready for more weirdness? Want to think of the song in a new light?
Listen to “Strawberry Letter 23.” I mean give it a good hearing, then consider: Could that song not have been a song for and by Seals and Crofts? You know, the “Diamond Girl” and “Summer Breeze” band?
Are there not similarities in the vocal approaches and delivery and maybe some in the use of imagery? Is this not content that would be appropriate for both bands?
It was Jones who said on a Time-Life documentary that music cross-pollinates and that’s the way it should be.
Am I crazy? If so, let me know how crazy in comments below.