Al Johnson, lead singer for 1960s rhythm and blues vocal group the Unifics, dies at 65

Craig Herndon/The Washington Post - Al Johnson, the lead singer of the 1960s rhythm and blues vocal group the Unifics, died at 65.

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Al Johnson, who was the lead singer of the 1960s rhythm and blues vocal group the Unifics and who later produced and arranged recordings by such performers as Roberta Flack, the Whispers and Jean Carne, died Oct. 26 at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly. He was 65 and lived in Capitol Heights.

He had a heart attack during treatment for a colon infection, said his son, Al Johnson III.

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Known for their elaborate choreography and dapper attire — they always performed wearing white gloves — the Unifics virtually defined the sweet soul vocal group sound in Washington during the late 1960s.

Their hits included “Court of Love” (1968), in which Mr. Johnson sang the role of a legal complainant testifying in court about a woman who wrote him a “Dear John” letter. The group followed that recording with “The Beginning of My End” (1969), a tear-jerker about a girl who drives off after quarreling with her lover and then dies in a car accident.

While Mr. Johnson often sang seated on a stool, the other Unifics performed elaborate steps and hand gestures, sometimes pantomiming a song’s entire story line.

The group formed in 1966 at Howard University, where Mr. Johnson studied architecture. While other singers came and went, Mr. Johnson sang the lead part until the Unifics broke up in 1972.

He later led the short-lived group Positive Change, then continued as a solo performer and arranger. He and Carne, a jazz-influenced vocalist, recorded a 1980 hit duet, “I’m Back for More.”

Mr. Johnson’s extensive arranging credits included popular recordings such as Terry Huff and Special Delivery’s “The Lonely One” (1976), Tata Vega’s disco-flavored “I Just Keep Thinking About You Baby” (1979), and Peabo Bryson and Flack’s duet “Can We Find Love Again?” (1983), which Mr. Johnson produced and wrote with Flack.

He also arranged Vega’s Motown album “Totally Vega” (1977), which included Mr. Johnson’s composition “Ever So Lovingly.”

Alfred Orlando Johnson Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1948, in Newport News, Va. His father died when he was 9. His mother worked as a nurse and later as a police officer.

His marriage to Karen Bryant ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Sonja Davis Bennett Johnson of Capitol Heights; a son from his first marriage, Al Johnson III of New Carrollton; three stepchildren, Tonia Robinson of District Heights and Bryan Bennett and Anthony Bennett, both of Washington; his mother, Betty Cox of Newport News; two brothers, Jerome Johnson of Washington and Larry Johnson of Newport News; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Johnson sang in a series of Christian music recordings by new age harpist Jeff Majors, including “Psalm 23” from the album “Sacred” (1998), which Oprah Winfrey once featured on her television talk show.

The Unifics reformed in 2004 for regional gigs featuring Mr. Johnson and Tom Fauntleroy, who had performed with the group during its infancy at Howard.

Beginning in 2005, Mr. Johnson directed the orchestra for the Four Kings of Rhythm and Blues, an oldies touring revue featuring Lloyd Price, Jerry Butler, Ben E. King and Gene Chandler. When one of the “kings” couldn’t make a show, Mr. Johnson performed that headliner’s songs.

Mr. Johnson, whose production work often involved choosing songs for recording artists, understood the implicit appeal of romantic ballads.

“For something that causes so much pleasure, love causes a whole lot of pain,” he told The Washington Post in 1988.

“Love songs allow you to experience the emotion without having to do the roadwork or, if you have been through the mill, make you feel that it was somehow for a worthy cause.”

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