Arts Desk

Remembering D.C. Soul Star Al Johnson

Al Johnson

Al Johnson, a former Howard University student who achieved popular success with The Unifics before branching out as a solo artist, arranger for mysterious D.C. soul hero Terry Huff, songwriter for The Whispers, and producer for Roberta Flack, died Oct. 26 at the age of 65. A cause of death has not been released.

In 1968, the native of Newport News, Va., reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 3 on the R&B singles chart with The Unifics' "Court of Love," an impassioned soul track arranged by Donny Hathaway. It features Johnson as a plaintiff testifying about a woman who wrote him a note that she was leaving him for another guy. The Unifics, known also for their choreographed dancing and white gloves, later reached the charts again with “Beginning of my End,” another tearjerker in which Johnson recounts a tale of a girlfriend driving off after a silly fight with him and dying in a car accident. The group had several other R&B hits before breaking up in 1972.

Johnson later adjusted to subsequent '80s and '90s trends in R&B as seen in his smoother production and arrangement efforts for the likes of Jean Carne and local harp player Jeff Majors. He released three solo efforts (1978's Peaceful, 1980's Back For More, and 1998's My Heart is an Open Book) and reportedly recorded another one in 2011 that has not been released. Johnson returned to more old-school style soul in 2005 by serving as the music director for The Four Kings, a touring revue that featured Jerry ButlerLloyd PriceBen E. King, and Gene Chandler. He even put a version of The Unifics back together; the group performed at a D.C. All Stars soul show in 2005 at the Birchmere and recorded an album in 2004.

In an email, Joe Phillips of The Winstons writes about his respect for Johnson. "He was an inspiration to me in many ways. I know that he attended Howard University, where I am sure he picked up a great deal of music knowledge. His vocals as a lead singer were great, his ability to harmonize, he had a great sound in his music productions, and his ability to write music arrangements was outstanding. As a self-taught music arranger, I looked up to him. He was always a professional on stage and I always enjoyed working with him. I enjoyed conducting his arrangements. On top of it all, he was very humble."

Mark Greene of D.C. soul group The Moments recalls his own group performing on a bill with The Unifics, Michael and Marlon JacksonSam and Dave, and Clarence Carter on a series of shows at New York's Apollo Theatre in 1968. He says that Johnson's vocals then and in recent years were always "phenomenal." He also was impressed with Johnson’s arranging skills.

Singer Skip Mahoney and his group, The Casuals, opened for The Unifics in 1970 at an Anacostia nightclub called the Harlequin Lounge. Mahoney writes via email that "Al gave us some tips on how to improve our show that inspired us to get better. He was a down-to-Earth brother."

A viewing takes place tonight from 6 to 7:30 p.m., followed by a memorial service from 7:30 to 10 p.m. at Union Temple Baptist Church, 1225 W St. SE. The funeral takes place at the church at 11 a.m. Saturday. The interment follows at noon at Cedar Hill Cemetery, 4111 Pennsylvania Ave., Suitland.

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  • Richard L. Spencer

    Joe Phillips is not now and has never been in the Winstons. He is a rip off artist who has been "plagiarizing"our brief 15 minutes for 10-12 years now.I am one of the founding members so I should know...Richard L. Spencer

  • SteveK

    Numerous reputable websites list him as a member.



  • Brad Clements

    Not only was Al Johnson an impossibly gifted musician but he was such kind person. He was a pure pleasure to work with and I'm glad I had the chance to spend so many years working with Al during the nineties. He never missed a cue, ever. His charts were impeccable. But I will remember Al for his kindness above all else.

  • Beverly Lindsay-Johnson

    I met Al Johnson and the Unifics in 1970 when I was 16 years old at a show at the legendary Cheetah Club in New York City. They were performing with the 5 Stairsteps.

    Then I was re-introduced to Al Johnson in the 1990s through WPFWs Captain Fly. The numerous times I was in his company, I admired him as a genius of music as he was a composer, producer, arranger, musician and singer.He worked so many R&B singers and produced hit tunes for them.

    I used to see Al walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, SE bobbing his head looking off into space. I knew there must have been a tune in his head.

    When I was winding down the production of my documentary, Dance Party: The Teenarama Story, I needed a few scores written for the piece. There was no one else I would have wanted to write this music but Al Johnson. I called him and asked would he do this for me. I met with him at his house and showed him the rough cut of the documentary. I could see the wheels in his head turning as he was coming up with a tune, as we spoke. I was so excited.

    In two weeks, he gave me a tape with 3 instrumentals, and as a bonus, he gave me an extra bonus having created vocals for the instrumentals in case I needed them. I didn't ask him to write lyrics, only instrumentals. But he took it upon himself to write and perform vocals to the pieces. That's who Al Johnson was.

    The documentary went on to receive an Emmy Award. I always credited Al Johnson for his contribution.

    I adored him and idolized him for the tremendous talent that he was.

  • GQBlue

    I am so proud to say he is from my hometown. Such a talent a gone far too soon.