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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 Butler, Lloyd Price, Ben 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 Jackson, Sam 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.