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Black Music Month: Lester Johnson and the Legacy of the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign

Black Music Month: Lester Johnson and the Legacy of the Ebony Rhythm Funk

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — June is Black Music Month and all month long at WISH-TV, we’re highlighting the influence of African Americans on the music industry.

On Tuesday, we highlighted Lester Johnson, a pivotal figure in Indianapolis’ music scene as part of the Ebony Rhythm Band. The legend stopped by WISH-TV to chat with Daybreak’s Jeremy Jenkins about his journey from the vibrant streets of Indiana Avenue to becoming a respected musician and advocate for soul, jazz, and funk music.

“We would go up and down the street, the musicians would be rehearsing in the clubs in the daytime, and we would be fascinated by the sounds we heard,” Johnson reminisced about his early days. “Indiana Avenue was really rich in terms of music, even as a high school kid,” Johnson said.

Originally named the Ebony Rhythm Band, the group later known as the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign was established in 1969 in Indianapolis, initially recording locally under LAMP records. Alongside fellow local acts like the Diplomatics, Amnesty, and the Vanguards, they contributed to the burgeoning music scene. Following in the tradition of Motown’s Funk Brothers, the Ebony Rhythm Band also served as the house band for other artists under the LAMP label.

Johnson talked about the heyday of Indiana Avenue, describing it as a cultural hub bustling with musical creativity. “There were a lot of cultural and musical things going on that you couldn’t find anywhere else,” he emphasized.

In 1971, the band relocated to California and rebranded as the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign. During this period, they shared stages with notable acts such as Curtis Mayfield, New Birth, The Grass Roots, Doby Gray, the Whispers, the Commodores, and Three Dog Night. The turning point came in 1973 when Wayne Henderson of the Jazz Crusaders produced their debut album titled “Reach For It,” featuring Henderson on trombone.

Returning to Indianapolis later that year, the group achieved moderate success with their single “How’s Your Wife (And My Child),” which peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot Soul 100 chart in 1975. The B-side track “Oh Child” received significant airplay on the East Coast but did not chart nationally.

As the city undergoes changes, Johnson highlighted the Avenue’s role in shaping his musical journey. “It was more than just jazz. It was a wide variety of music,” he said, recalling luminaries like Big Maybelle and Lloyd Price who graced the local clubs.

Johnson also reflected on the enduring influence of Indianapolis’ jazz, funk, and soul scene today. “There is a lot happening. There’s probably almost as much happening now, to be honest, as it was then,” he noted. “People like Rob Dixon, Sleepy Floyd, Reggie Bishop—they’re pushing the boundaries of jazz with influences from hip hop and other genres.”

When asked if there were any musicians he would like to work with, Johnson expressed admiration for contemporary soul blues singer Tad Robinson. “Tad Robinson is probably the greatest soul blues singer you could find within 2000 miles in any direction,” he stated.

Johnson’s contributions continue to shine in the community. He is scheduled to perform at the Indianapolis Cultural Trail expansion event on Thursday at the Indianapolis Urban League’s north parking lot between Indiana Avenue and St. Clair Street.

“I just hope to see a lot of my friends and family and other people who love music,” he said enthusiastically about the event, which promises to celebrate community and music in equal measure.

The event is free and will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

For more information about Lester Johnson and the upcoming Indianapolis Cultural Trail Expansion event, click here.