Wilko Johnson, the longtime guitarist for British blues rockers Dr. Feelgood has died at 75. Johnson’s family confirmed the news of his passing on Wednesday morning (Nov. 23), writing, “This is the announcement we never wanted to make, & we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died. He passed away at home on Monday 21st November. Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time. RIP Wilko Johnson.”
Johnson (born John Wilkinson) was born in 1947 and raised on Canvey Island, a bleak industrial oil town in England’s River Thames estuary and he worked as a schoolteacher before forming the long-running group with some hometown friends who’d been performing as The Pigboy Charlie Band. After changing their name — inspired by a beloved Johnny Kidd and the Pirates cover of a Piano Red blues standard — Dr. Feelgood began playing gigs in 1971, earning early praise for Johnson’s distinctive choppy, chugging fingerpicking guitar sound and singer Lee Brilleaux’s growly vocals on such favorites as “Roxette,” “Back in the Night” and covers of blues standards “Bonie Moronie” and Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine.”
Though they bristled at the term “pub rock,” the band were known for their raucous, energetic performances, best captured on their UK No. 1 live album 1976’s Stupidity. The group — whose albums were a mix of covers and blues standards along with originals largely written by Johnson during his tenure — has released more than a dozen albums to date; Johnson only appeared on their first three studio efforts (Down By the Jetty (1975), Malpractice (1975) and Sneakin’ Suspicion (1977) and Stupidity, before splitting from the group in 1977 amid reported conflicts with singer Brilleaux.
Johnson went on to form the bands the Solid Senders, as well as the Wilko Johnson Band, before briefly joining English pub punker Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, in 1980. He continued to perform and record with his eponymous band through the 2000s, releasing more a dozen albums and EPs, while also occasionally taking on acting roles, including a quirky slot as mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne on four episodes of Game of Thrones. Between his signature slashing style and thousand-yard stare on stage, Johnson is credited with influencing a generation of performers in British punk and post-punk bands (Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, The Jam, The Clash) who sometimes mimicked his bug-eyed look and quirky style on stage.
After cancelling a show last minute in Nov. 2012 due to illness, Johnson shared that he was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in Jan. 2013, opting to skip chemotherapy after doctors told him he had less than a year to live. He released what was deemed his “final” album Going Back Home with the Who’s Roger Daltrey in March 2014 and then revealed that he had been misdiagnosed and was cancer-free later that year after undergoing a lengthy surgery to remove a massive tumor in his abdomen.
Among those paying tribute were fellow British rocker Billy Bragg, who said that Johnson was a “precursor of punk. His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence – twitchy, confrontational, out of control – was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop. Rotten, Strummer and Weller learned a lot from his edgy demeanour. He does it right RIP.” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein also weighed in, writing, “I frequently remind people how Dr Feelgood was an influence on the early New York and CBGBs music scene. Great guitarist and performer.”
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page also paid homage to the player whose unique style was beloved among his fellow six-stringers. “I’m sad to hear today of the passing of Wilko Johnson, the Dr Feelgood guitarist and singer/songwriter. I saw Wilko perform at Koko in Camden in May 2013 and the atmosphere was electric. This show was originally billed as his farewell tour, but, thankfully, he continued performing and thrilling crowds until recently. I really admired him and we’ll all miss him. RIP Wilko.”
Johnson continued playing shows until just weeks before his passing and at press time no cause of death had been revealed.
Read the family’s death announcement and see some tributes to Johnson an d aclassic 1975 performance below.