EML’s Favorite Songs – THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: “Strawberry Letter 23”

Strawberry Letter 23

One of my favorite songs from the 1970s, or of all time for that matter, is “Strawberry Letter 23” from R&B/funk band The Brothers Johnson. It was one of the defining songs of my summer of 1977, when I spent two glorious months in Portland, Oregon before starting college. The track was written by the brilliant singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis in 1971, whose own original version was featured on his album Freedom Flight.

It’s a romantic song with a dreamy, almost mystical vibe, thanks to the whimsical lyrics and his use of chiming guitars, xylophone, calliope and other sparkling synth instrumental sounds. For their recording of the song, which was masterfully produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, The Brothers Johnson embellished on all those lovely instruments and added their own funky guitar, bass, beats and smooth vocal harmonies, along with a dreamy backing vocal chorus. The result was a gorgeous and captivating track that took the song to the next level.

The song was included on their 1977 album Right On Time, and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #5 on the Hot 100. It’s been featured in several films and TV shows, including Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck. Otis’ version was featured in the film Munich.

I’d originally wondered why the song was titled “Strawberry Letter 23” when the lyrics speak of “Strawberry Letter 22” instead. The reason is that Otis intended for the song to be about a couple exchanging love letters in the form of songs. The singer is creating “Strawberry Letter 23” as a reply to the “Strawberry Letter 22” song he received from his lover and refers to in the song.

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

Pretty music, I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo from a cherry cloud
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
Playgrounds will laugh
If you try to ask “Is it cool? Is it cool?”
If you arrive and don’t see me
I’m going to be with my baby
I am free, flying in her arms
Over the sea

Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kite
With velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
A present from you
Strawberry letter 22
The music plays I sit in for a few

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

For comparison, here’s the original version by Shuggie Otis:

3 thoughts on “EML’s Favorite Songs – THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: “Strawberry Letter 23”

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