Face closed, gaze hallucinated, body shaking with jerks, his guitar carried high, almost horizontally. On stage, Wilko Johnson impressed. Like his playing, inspired by that of the pioneers of rock’n’roll and electric blues as well as his idol, the Englishman Mick Green (1944-2010). In the same momentum in rhythmic sweeping and solo bursts, with an iron fist. Member of the group Dr. Feelgood, from 1971 to 1977, then leader of his own formations, the English guitarist and singer Wilko Johnson died Monday, November 21, ” at his home “, in England at the age of 75. The news was transmitted by his family in a statement released Wednesday, November 23, late morning, without specifying the cause of his death.
Born John Peter Wilkinson, in Canvey Island (Essex), a petrochemical site in the Thames estuary, on July 12, 1947, Wilko Johnson – he changed his name in the late 1960s – had grown up in a daily life of paternal violence. “A bastard, I hated him, he had declared, in October 2013, to the British musical monthly Mojo. At his funeral, me [Wilko Johnson est alors âgé de 16 ans] and my brother laughed. Freed. » In 1964, Wilko Johnson began playing rock and rhythm’n’blues, notably with drummer John Martin, known as “The Big Figure”, future founding member of Dr. Feelgood.
He also took up painting – we owe him the design of the Dr. Feelgood logo, the face of a doctor in dark glasses, a carnivorous smile –, studied English literature at the University of Newcastle (Tyne and Wear) . His specialization, the writings of the Middle Ages and the old Icelandic. Graduated in the late 1960s, he taught for a time, then returned to Canvey Island, where he met the singer and harmonica player Lee Brilleaux (1952-1994) and bassist John B. Sparks, aka “Sparko”. At the end of 1971, with Martin, they founded the group Dr. Feelgood.
In the early 1970s, when sophisticated glam rock dominated, with David Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, and progressive rock, with King Crimson, Genesis or Yes, it was a return to the basics of rock and rhythm. ‘n’blues in clubs and pubs, especially in and around London. The music press described this current as “pub rock”, a current whose most significant representatives were Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Kilburn & The High Roads – led by Ian Dury (1942-2000)future leader of The Blockheads –, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Brinsley Schwarz or Rockpile, with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.
On the cover, in black and white, four scabby. The music was recorded in the studio, from a cast, as played in concert
In the spring of 1974, the British subsidiary of the American phonographic company United Artists became interested in the group. In January 1975 appears the album Down by the Jetty. On the cover, in black and white, four scabby. The music was recorded in the studio, from a cast, as played in concert. The monophonic sound recording gives density to the songs, whose main composer is Johnson, among which She Does It Right, The More I Give, Roxette, I Don’t Mind Where All Through the City. Everything is correct, the hoarse voice of Brilleaux, also a nervous harmonica player, Johnson’s guitar, the rhythm.
In October 1975 appears Malpractice. Same look, same sound, this time in stereophony, which is barely noticeable, same rock urgency. Wilko Johnson notably signs there Back In the Night, You Shouldn’t Call the Doctor (If You Can’t Afford the Bills) and co-compose Going Back Home with Mick Green, and Because You’re Mine with Nick Lowe and “Sparko”. Their third album, Stupidity, in September 1976, recorded during concerts, testifies to the scenic strength of the group.
During the recording sessions of Sneakin’ Suspicion, while United Artists hopes that this fourth album will be a gateway to the United States, the group breaks up. When the album was released in May 1977, Wilko Johnson was no longer part of it. Fired, according to him, left voluntarily, according to the others. Gypie Mayo (1951-2013) will replace him with talent until 1981. In 1982, “Sparko” and “Big Figure” stop in turn, and Lee Brilleaux will remain the only original member of the group until his death in 1994.
Boogie-rock and astronomy
Wilko Johnson formed Solid Senders in the fall of 1977 with bassist Steve Lewins, drummer Alan Platt and keyboardist John Potter. The inspiration hardly changes, except that, in places, a little reggae emerges and the piano gives a boogie-rock aspect to certain themes. A single album, Wilko Johnson Solid Senders, great, with Blazing Fountains, Dr. Dupree, Too Bad Where Burning Down, was released in 1978 by Virgin Records. Then, in 1980, Ian Dury called on the guitarist to join, briefly, The Blockheads.
In 1980 his first solo album, Ice On the Motorway, at Fresh Records. While in the Blockheads, Johnson befriended bassist Norman Watt-Roy, who in 1983 joined what would be his regular band, The Wilko Johnson Band. On the basis of a trio with Watt-Roy and various drummers (Dylan Howe, since the end of the 2000s), the guitarist recorded half a dozen albums, including the very good Don’t Let Your Daddy Know (Bedrock Records, 1991).
Less active after the death of his wife in 2004 – he had met her in the mid-1960s and she had become his agent – he indulges his passion for astronomy, a powerful telescope being installed on the roof from his house. In 2005 appears the album Red Hot Rocking Blues (Jungle Records), collection of covers of Dylan, Van Morrison, Johnny Otis, Chuck Berry… In October 2009, the documentary film Oil City Confidential, by Julien Temple, a tribute to the Dr. Feelgood years, is presented. Wilko Johnson also appears, in 2011 and 2012, in the television series Game Of Thrones, where he plays the character of Ser Ilyn Payne, mute executioner.
At the end of 2012, examinations revealed that he had an advanced form of pancreatic cancer. He refuses chemotherapy treatment, announces a farewell tour and begins, in the fall of 2013, a recording with Roger Daltrey, the singer of The Who, Going Back Home (Chess Records). An operation for his cancer took place at the end of April 2014, a few weeks after the release of the album. In October 2014, Wilko Johnson announced that he was cured and could resume more regular activity as a musician. He finds the stage – his last concert took place at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in London, on October 18, 2022 -, records again. In June 2018 is published what will remain his last album, Blow Your Mind. Direct, unfussy, timeless rock.
Wilko Johnson in a few dates
July 12, 1947 Born in Canvey Island (Essex).
1971 Founds the Dr. Feelgood Group
1977 Leaves Dr. Feelgood
1978 First and only album with Solid Senders
1983 Formation of The Wilko Johnson Band with bassist Norman Watt-Roy
1991 Don’t Let Your Daddy Know
2014 Going Back Home, with Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who
2018 Blow Your Mind
November 21, 2022 Died at his home in England, aged 75