While never long in the spotlight, Al Johnson quietly created some very memorable Soul music for himself and others over a more than forty year career, and developed a small but loyal following over that period as a top notch songwriter, singer and musician.
Johnson first scored as the lead singer of the Unifics, a group formed at Howard University in Washington, D.C. which had a big hit with "The Court of Love." After another minor hit, "The Beginning of My End," the group split and Johnson began a long string as a session musician, songwriter, arranger and producer.
Johnson next formed the short lived group Positive Change and also recorded a solo album, Peaceful, in 1978. He then worked with producer extraordinaire, Norman Connors, providing guest vocals on Connors' Take It To the Limit album. Connors returned the favor, producing Johnson's major label debut, Back For More, a gem of an album that included a number of new cuts plus re-recordings of a few songs from Peaceful. The title cut from the album, a duet with Jean Carn (later covered by Tavares), became an underground Soul classic. The rest of the album was wonderful, especially the upbeat "I've Got My Second Wind" and the beautiful ballads "You Are My Personal Angel" and "Peaceful." And while initial sales of the album did not merit a follow-up, the disc became a cult classic that is still considered by many as one of the great soul albums of the early 80s. After years out of print, it was reissued on the SoulMusic.com label in 2011.
Johnson spent most of the 80s and 90s continuing to provide session help for other artists, including the Whispers, Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson. Then, in 1999, he went back to the studio to record his first album in nearly two decades, My Heart Is An Open Book, on the Clout label. The album found him in excellent voice (maybe even better than in his youth) and included a number of solid cuts that updated the classic soul sound of Johnson's earlier work. Especially notable on the album were the title cut, "Here's Looking At You" and the smooth midtempo, "Tranquility." It again developed for Johnson a small but loyal following (especially in Europe) and demonstrated that, while Johnson was known mostly for his support work for other artists, he had both the songwriting and vocal talent of a great solo artist. His albums, though hard to find, are worth seeking out.
Johnson continued working into the 21st century, performing on Jeff Majors' 2002 album Sacred 4 You and, in late 2004, reuniting with the Unifics for gigs in the DC area. They also released a solid album, Unifics Return, an enjoyable reunion disc. Johnson was back in the studio in 2011 working on his first solo album in more than a decade, Maybe the Fire Isn't Out, an album that was never released. In Summer of that year he released the first single to radio, "It's Real."." Sadly, Johnson died on October 26, 2013.
by Chris Rizik
My Heart is an Open Book
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