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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Strawberry Letter 23" fits today's date

Is it cool? (Is it cool?) I don't know, but it's February 14, and it feels right.

Well, I hope y'all had a happy Valentine's Day. Mine was a solid "meh." I mean, I guess you could say I took some time for self-love by sleeping in after a tiring weekend, something I can afford with my Monday schedule being what it is. Otherwise, I worked for a while and was pretty productive.

I think being so class-focused today helped distract me from what usually bogs me down about this day whenever it arrives. Either that, or I'm just content with being the way I am right now. But that kind of stuff doesn't make for a good February 14 blog entry... so of course I'm going to focus on something love-oriented.

With love being the driving force behind more music than any other emotion in one way or another, I had a hard time narrowing it down to one track for today's piece. That was the case, anyway, until I pressed play on a 70s R&B playlist a few hours ago, and the first song to play was the Brothers Johnson's cover of "Strawberry Letter 23." Produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, the cover is one of the slinkiest tunes of its time, and I think it's an ideal soundtrack for the one day of the year when love is so celebrated.

"Strawberry Letter 23" was written and first recorded by Shuggie Otis — who would later decline to join the Rolling Stones to keep doing his own thing — at just 17 years old. Otis' origin has more of a psychedelic air to it than the Brothers Johnson's cover does, but that's to be expected when you know Quincy Jones helmed the cover's production. Jones has crafted some of the straight-up grooviest and most danceable tracks of all time, and his work with the Brothers Johnson produced (no pun intended) just that. Within the pocket of Harvey Mason's drums, George Johnson's watery, wah-wah-pedal-augmented guitar and his brother Louis' active, oft-slapped bass interlock to create a groove that's hard to resist and also does a great job outlining the song's chords. The post-chorus "ooh" section features all of the above and more, with a gentle synth restating the main instrumental melody while George and Louis entangle to create my favorite section of the entire track.

Before any of those sections, though, there's a peculiarity about the way the song begins. It's as if the final 15-20 seconds were tacked onto the beginning, creating a really interesting moment where the chorus key of E-flat Major is introduced before the verse intro begins in its key of G minor. It alerts listeners of two of the main keys right away, but in the moment it feels a bit disorienting. I don't really know what to think of it, but it's there, and it's a very unique part of the track.

Also unique are the lyrics, aided by their love-letter...ish perspective. "Strawberry Letter 23" is an immediate reaction to the letter of the previous number the narrator's lover sent them, hence "A present from you / Strawberry letter 22." The letter's content itself is not disclosed, but the Brothers Johnson more than make up for that with their deliver of Johnny Otis' lyrics. The opening line — "Hello, my love, I heard a kiss from you" — is one of my favorites in all of popular music. It's such an evocative combination of senses, and it sets up the rest of the song to be a vivid romantic reverie. This daydream feeling is accented by Lee Ritenour's rendition of Otis' guitar solo from the original. Lifted upward by his own playing and the high background synths, Ritenour soars above the track's scene for more than 40 seconds before the main groove re-enters.

"Strawberry Letter 23" offers a unique twist on the timeless theme of love, and Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson maximize that twist's potential through their cover. It fits the mood on Valentine's Day, but it's also a straight-up groovy rendition that will get me moving along any day I hear it.


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