R.I.P. Wilko (John Peter Wilkinson) Johnson: 12 July 1947- 21st Nov 2022
Very, very sad news today that Wilko Johnson passed at home on Monday evening. The musician found fame with the 1970s pub-rock band Dr Feelgood, and later played with Ian Dury before embarking on a four-decade solo career.
Ten years ago, he survived what was initially diagnosed as a terminal case of pancreatic cancer: Johnson refused chemotherapy to embark on a farewell tour. "The decision was quite easy - chemotherapy could do no more than extend my life for a relatively short period and I thought I'd just rather enjoy the health that was left to me," he told BBC Radio.
However, later tests discovered that the guitarist's pancreatic cancer was in fact a rare and less aggressive neuroendocrine tumour. He underwent a radical, 11-hour operation that removed his pancreas, spleen and parts of his stomach and intestines, and was declared cancer-free in 2014. Wilko continued to play live until last month, hosting his final gig at London's
Shepherd's Bush Empire on 18 October.
John Peter Wilkinson was born in Canvey Island, Essex, on 12 July 1947. He attended the selective grammar Westcliff High School, Southend, before reading English language and literature at Newcastle University. He bought his first guitar when he was 18 and began to perfect the playing style for which he would become famous. Like many of his generation, he took the hippy trail to India before returning to work for a brief spell as an English teacher.
But music was his first love and he began playing with an outfit called the Pigboy Charlie Band. The band changed their name to Dr Feelgood, an American slang term for a doctor willing to prescribe mind-altering drugs. A recording deal with United Artists came in 1974 and the Feelgoods quickly released their first single, Roxette, written by Johnson. It defined what would become the familiar Feelgood sound: Singer Lee Brilleaux snarling into the microphone while a black-clad Johnson prowled around the stage, pulverising his guitar and affecting an eyeball-bulging stare. Wilko's playing style, based on that of Mick Green, of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, enabled him to play a mixture of lead and rhythm guitar at the same time. The band recorded two studio albums, Down by the Jetty (1974) and Malpractice a year later.
But they were essentially at their blistering best on stage so there was little surprise when Stupidity, recorded live at gigs in Sheffield and Southend, reached the top of the UK album charts. Johnson was to record just one more album with the Feelgoods, Sneakin' Suspicion, but his relationship with Brilleaux was becoming stormy. He and the singer quarrelled over the album's track listing and Johnson and the band parted. "I didn't leave," he insisted. "They threw me out and told the newspapers I had quit."
In 1980 he joined the Blockheads and played on Laughter, the last album Ian Dury made with his band. However, Dury's increasingly erratic behaviour - fuelled by drugs and alcohol - led to rows with Johnson, although he co-wrote the album's only single, Superman's Big Sister.
When Dury disbanded the Blockheads, Johnson resisted attempts by promoters to get him to form a new Dr Feelgood and instead continued with his Wilko Johnson Band. For the ensuing three decades the outfit, with the odd line-up change, was seldom off the road. They recorded a number of albums, none of which were commercially successful, but the band's natural habitat was on the stage. Johnson's wife Irene, a former childhood sweetheart, died of cancer in 2004. It was a blow that led him to continual feelings of depression that he only managed to shake off when playing live.
In January 2013 it was announced that Johnson had pancreatic cancer. He decided to refuse any chemotherapy so he could continue performing as long as possible. He set off on what he described as the ultimate farewell tour having been given just 10 months to live, with Johnson himself joking that it would be embarrassing if the tour extended into 2014. But the prognosis was pessimistic. Having recorded the album Going Back Home with The Who singer Roger Daltrey - "I thought that was going to be the last thing I ever did," - he underwent an 11-hour operation to remove a tumour and a number of internal organs. When he appeared at the Q Awards in Oct 2014, he announced he was clear of cancer and that he was having to come to terms with the idea that his death was not imminent and that he was going to live on.
And a great extra 8 years we've had. Wilko will be a much-missed figure on the Uk music scene.
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana...