Artist News

Wilko Johnson dies

By | Published on Thursday 24 November 2022

Wilko Johnson

Former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson has died, aged 75.

A statement posted on the musician’s social media accounts yesterday reads: “This is the announcement we never wanted to make, and we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died. He passed away at home on Monday 21 Nov. Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time”.

Johnson formed Dr Feelgood in 1971 with singer Lee Brilleaux, bassist John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin and drummer John ‘Sparko’ Sparks. Centred on Johnson’s distinctive guitar sound, they were best known as a live band, and it was 1976 live album ‘Stupidity’ that was their most successful recording, reaching number one in the UK.

Shortly afterwards, in March 1977, Johnson left the band to be replaced by John ‘Gypie’ Mayo. Although their next album, ‘Sneakin Suspicion’, went to number ten, the band’s popularity waned after this. Mayo left the group in 1981, followed in 1982 by Martin and Sparks. Brilleaux continued as the band’s only original member with a varying line-up until his death in 1994. And the band continues today with no members of the original line-up.

In 2009, Johnson appeared in ‘Oil City Confidental’, a Julien Temple-directed documentary about his life growing up on Canvey Island and with Dr Feelgood. After producers of HBO series ‘Games Of Thrones’ saw him in the film, he was invited to appear in the show, playing the role of mute executioner Ilyn Payne in five episodes over its first and second series. He also published an autobiography, ‘Looking Back At Me’, in 2012.

Johnson announced in 2013 that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and had been given ten months to live – perhaps up to a year if he had chemotherapy, which he declined. Shortly afterwards, he announced a farewell tour, not expecting to live past October that year.

However, he did survive longer than expected, later learning that he had a rare, slow-growing tumour, which was not as aggressive as doctors had first thought. Doctors also believed that tumour to be inoperable but, in 2014, he underwent an experimental new surgery, which saw doctors remove his entire pancreas, his spleen, and parts of his stomach and intestines.

The operation was a success and in October 2014 he was declared cancer free. “This tumour weighed 3kg”, he said, accepting the Icon Award at that year’s Q Awards. “That’s the size of a baby. Anyway, they got it all. They cured me”.

He continued to perform live, and in 2018 released his first new album of original material in 30 years, ‘Going Back Home’.

“Man, there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive”, he said at the time. “It’s tricky when you get to 70 years old, because what am I supposed to be singing? ‘I love you, baby, but you done me wrong?’ Come on! That’s kind of a problem. But I never thought that I’d be the sort of person to write songs about different sorts of real life experiences until I got sick”.

Commenting on Johnson’s passing this week, the surgeon who operated on him in 2014, Emmanuel Huguet, said: “I feel honoured to have known Wilko. He was uplifting and life enhancing for me. Like so many other people, I loved him”.

Johnson was due to play London’s 100 Club on 23 Jan, with further dates scheduled through the spring and summer.