LONDON (AP) — Wilko Johnson, the guitarist for British blues-rock band Dr. Feelgood who had an unexpected career renaissance after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, has died.
He was 75 years old.
A statement posted Wednesday on Johnson’s official social media accounts on behalf of his family said the musician died Monday night at his home in southeast England.
Born John Wilkinson in 1947, Johnson grew up on Canvey Island, a swampy industrial oil town on England’s River Thames estuary. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Newcastle University and worked as a schoolteacher before forming Dr. Feelgood with other local friends.
In an age of glitzy glamor and indulgent progressive rock, they played a then-unfashionable brand of blues and R&B, dressed in cheap suits that made them look, Johnson said later, like «sleazy bank robbers.»
Johnson helped give Dr. Feelgood a dangerous edge with his breathy, relentless guitar style and stare for a thousand feet—a stare terrifying enough to earn him a role later in life as the silent executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in «Game of Thrones».
The lawless ensemble inspired the bands that would soon fuel the UK punk explosion and teetered on the brink of global fame, scoring a UK No. 1 album, US tours and a CBS deal. records. Then, in 1977, Johnson retired amid friction with the charismatic singer Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994.
Johnson later said that if the band had been able to follow their managers’ behavioral instructions, “I’m pretty sure we’d be billionaires. But we didn’t. We were old men from Canvey Island. We were great friends and we fell out.»
Johnson went on to perform with Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, and spent years playing to a devoted fan base, primarily in the UK and Japan.
In 2012, Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told it was terminal. The prospect of death unexpectedly revived his creative energies. He refused chemotherapy, decided to go on one last tour and recorded a «final» album, «Going Back Home», with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
“All of a sudden I found myself in a position where nothing matters anymore,” he told The Associated Press in 2013. We worry they’re getting in the way of real things. And suddenly it doesn’t matter. All of that doesn’t matter.
“You walk down the street and you feel intensely alive. You’re ‘Oh, look at that sheet!’ You’re looking around you and you think, ‘I’m alive. Isn’t that amazing?’”
In another twist, a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. After surgery to remove a 6.6-pound tumor, Johnson announced in 2014 that he was cancer-free. He released another album, «Blow Your Mind,» in 2018, and played concerts with his Wilko Johnson Band until last month.
Johnson is survived by his sons Simon and Matthew and grandson Dylan.