Influential Guitarist Wilko Johnson 1947 – 2022

The co-founding member of British pub rock band Dr. Feelgood was 75.

By Andy Kahn Nov 23, 2022 9:19 am PST

Guitarist Wilko Johnson, who was a co-founding member of 1970s British rock band Dr. Feelgood, has died at age 75. A message posted on social media on behalf of his family confirmed Johnson “passed away at his home in Westcliff On Sea on Monday evening” (November 21).

Born John Peter Wilkinson on July 12, 1947, in Canvey Island in Essex, England, Johnson earned a degree in English from Newcastle University. After graduating, he traveled extensively around the world. In 1965, Johnson acquired a Fender Telecaster guitar from a music supply shop in Southend, Essex.

Johnson developed a distinctive style of fingerpicking and upon returning to Essex, began playing in local bands. In 1971, Johnson co-founded Dr. Feelgood with vocalist Lee Brilleaux, bassist John B. Sparks and drummer John Martin and they quickly became among the most popular acts on the pub rock scene that flourished in the United Kingdom throughout the 1970s.

According to Johnson’s website:

Heavily influenced by legendary guitarist Mick Green from ’60s rockers Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Wilko employs a finger-style, chop-chord strumming action (the ‘stab’, as he describes it). This allows for chords and lead to be played at the same time, giving a fluency and a distinctive sound very unlike the cleaner swat of a pick.

With this economic sound, coupled with that black-suited, scowling look, and the yards he covered across the stage pausing only to twist the guitar lead out from under his feet, Wilko became one of the guitar heroes of the era. His influence was felt in bands up and down the country, and later in the emergent punk revolution (Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Tele after seeing Wilko play).

Dr. Feelgood’s debut album, Down by the Jetty was issued in 1974. Johnson remained in the band for their subsequent releases, 1975’s Malpractice and 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion. Johnson can also be heard on Dr. Feelgood’s 1976 chart-topping live album, Stupidity, which went to #1 in the U.K.

After leaving Dr. Feelgood, Johnson formed an early iteration of the Wilko Johnson Band called The Solid Senders. In 1980, Johnson became a full-time member of Ian Drury’s band The Blockheads, who he performed with until 1984.

Johnson’s solo album, Ice On The Motorway, was released in 1980. He continued to perform with the Wilko Johnson Band throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Several additional solo albums were released during that period as well.

Johnson appeared in several episodes of the HBO series Game Of Thrones. He was also the focus of director Julien Temple’s feature-length documentary film Oil City Confidential. Johnson’s terminal cancer diagnosis was the focus of Temple’s 2015 documentary The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson.

In early 2013, Johnson revealed he had been diagnosed with what was thought to be terminal pancreatic cancer. Later that year he recorded and released a collaborative album with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey entitled Going Back Home.

As reported by the Associated Press, “a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. After surgery to remove a 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) tumor, Johnson announced in 2014 he was cancer-free. He released another album, Blow Your Mind, in 2018, and played gigs with his Wilko Johnson Band until last month.”

The AP quoted Daltrey, who paid tribute to “the uncompromising Bard of Canvey” by sharing

“More than anything Wilko wanted to be a poet. I was lucky to have known him and have him as a friend. His music lives on but there’s no escaping the final curtain this time.”

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page also shared this tribute to Johnson:

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