“We were pioneers,” Lester Johnson said, as he reflected on his early years with the legendary Indianapolis funk group Ebony Rhythm Band (later known as Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign.)
In the late ‘60s, Johnson and Ebony Rhythm Band pushed R&B music into exciting new terrain, exploring the uncharted territory between psychedelic rock, jazz and funk. It was the same mix of styles that would propel George Clinton to fame — but the first Ebony Rhythm Band 45 predates the debut releases from Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic by a year.
Now in his 70s, Johnson is still a musical pioneer. Recent years have seen the bass player working with outsider music icon Jandek. His next project features Johnson in a live collaboration with virtuosic hip-hop producer Exile. I spoke with Lester Johnson as he prepared for the gig, and he shared his memories as a founding member of one of Indianapolis’ greatest bands.
Johnson met his Ebony Rhythm bandmates after returning home to Indianapolis from a stint in the army.
“They had just gotten out of high school. I was about five or six years older than those guys,” Johnson said, admitting the age difference made him nervous. “I didn’t know if it would work long term, because they were pretty inexperienced. But they had a lot of energy and they quickly got it together.”
That required some serious woodshedding, Johnson recalls guitarist Robert “Master Boobie” Townsend employing a unique training technique.
“He would go get a big sack of White Castle hamburgers, lock himself in the bathroom, eat White Castles and practice all day. About two months later, he could play in every key.”
The group gelled quickly and immediately started landing gigs.
“In the early days, we used to play at The Twenty Grand club on 34th and Illinois.” During their tenure at the club, Ebony Rhythm Band shared the stage with some of the biggest names in soul music. “We opened up for Al Green, Laura Lee, Patti Labelle, The Chi-Lites and many others,” Johnson said.
The band developed a reputation for their tight sound, catching the ear of local record exec Herb Miller, who recruited the group to his Lamp Records label.
“We became the house band at Lamp. All the acts they brought in to record, The Vanguards, The Pearls, we played for them, and Lamp paid us a whopping $25 per person, per session,” Johnson said, laughing sarcastically.
Johnson credits drummer Matthew Watson for providing a key element of The Ebony Rhythm sound.
“Matthew was a big part of what we did.” Johnson said. “He had a lot of ideas about rhythm and he could create many different drum patterns, similar to what you see now with hip-hop beatmakers. We didn’t have any drum machines to make beats, but we had Matthew.”
Ebony Rhythm Band’s 1969 recording debut came about in a rather unusual fashion.
“Mayor Lugar sponsored an anti-drug song contest. If you had a song with a strong anti-drug message you could win $500 and a recording contract,” Johnson rememberd.
The group provided the winning entry with their composition “Drugs Ain’t Cool.” Johnson recalls picking up the prize money at the City County Building,
“As soon as we left, we went out and bought about $350 bucks worth of weed with the anti-drug money,” he said, laughing.
“Drugs Ain’t Cool” features guitarist “Master Boobie” Townsend’s searing acid rock riffs, capturing the band at the height of their psychedelic sound.
“We were incorporating a lot of things the other R&B bands didn’t. We used wah-wah pedals and fuzz tones,” said Johnson. “We were heavily influenced by rock and we had started experimenting in a more psychedelic direction. We felt that would give us the freedom we wanted as a band. We were basically hippies.”
He noted the band cultivated a distinct look to match their sound.
“The other groups would wear matching suits, and do their little dance steps to every song. We thought that was corny,” said Johnson.
Johnson cited the band’s nonconformist attitude as a major reason behind their decision to branch out beyond Indianapolis.
“Because we were mavericks, we couldn’t get many gigs here. So, around 1969 we started traveling and playing all over the Midwest,” he said.
“We were playing shows with a singing group called the King James Version. They got a gig in Los Angeles and when the club owner heard us playing, he told the King James singers he would only hire them, if we came to L.A. and played with them. So we went to Los Angeles and lived there for three and a half years,” Johnson said.
While in L.A., Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign (the group changed their name to avoid contractual obligations in Indianapolis) continued to refine their sound, playing shows with a bevy of soul music superstars including Earth, Wind and Fire and The Commodores. All this experience paid off, and in 1973 the group earned a major label release with Uni Records.
Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign’s self-titled debut LP is a classic from funk’s golden era. Produced by Crusaders’ trombonist Wayne Henderson, the album features the band’s masterpiece “Get It On,” an epic six-minute jam that ends with dazzling, jazzy solos from Watson and Johnson.
Despite their West Coast success, the stars never quite aligned for the group. The band’s album was well-received, but failed to produce a breakout hit. So the group returned to Indianapolis, continuing to perform together throughout the ‘70s. The group released their second album for the Chi-Sound label in 1976, an excellent disco-boogie influenced affair titled Watchin’ You, Watchin’ Me.
In the ‘80s, the band’s music was discovered by a new generation of fans. Hip-hop beat-heads embraced the group’s catalog and samples of Ebony Rhythm’s music started popping in the work of artists like 3rd Bass.
“I’ve learned to deal with it,” Johnson said, as he shared his thoughts on sampling. “Ultimately it’s all music, it’s just being constructed in different ways.”
Interest in the band’s work continues to grow each year and their fiery, psychedelic soul sounds as fresh today as it did in the 1960s. As I spoke with Lester, I got the impression that his musical journey is far from complete. Johnson is still an active figure in the Indianapolis music scene, hosting a regular blues night at Local’s Only and contributing to the gospel music scene.
Johnson’s Wednesday night collaboration with Exile at Tru Nightclub will write a new chapter in the music pioneer’s career. He urges listeners to come with an open mind, and he assured me that the “grooves are gonna be very good,” as indeed, they always have been.
A Cultural Manifesto Podcast Volume 6 with DJ Kyle Long. In honor of Lester Johnson, this weeks edition focuses on psychedelic funk from around the world.
NUVO - Cultural Manifesto Podcast - Vol. 6 - Kyle Long by A Cultural Manifesto
1. Ananda Shankar - Jungle Symphony - (EMI, 1981) INDIA
2. Mehrpouya - Ghabileye Leyli - (Ahange Rooz, 1977) IRAN
3. Funkadelic - I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing - (Westbound, 1970) USA
4. Ofo The Black Company - Allah Wakbarr - (Decca, 1972) NIGERIA
5. Irakere - Bacalao Con Pan - (Areíto, 1976) CUBA
6. Jorge Ben - Cavaleiro do Calvo - (Philips, 1976) BRAZIL
7. Erkin Koray — Istemem - (Istanbul, 1973) TURKEY
8. Mulatu Astatke - Alemiye (197?) ETHIOPIA