LONDON — Wilko Johnson, guitarist for the British blues-rock band Dr. Feelgood, whose career experienced an unexpected renaissance after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, has died. He was 75 years old.
According to a statement published on behalf of Johnson’s family on Wednesday on his official social media pages, the musician died on Monday evening at his home in southeast England.
Born John Wilkinson in 1947, Johnson grew up in Canvey Island, a swampy, industrial oil town on England’s Thames estuary. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Newcastle University and worked as a school teacher before forming Dr Feelgood with other local friends.
In a time of gaudy glitz and indulgent prog rock, they played a then unfashionable brand of blues and R.&B, dressed in cheap suits that Johnson later described as “mother bank robbers.”
Johnson’s choppy, relentless guitar style and thousand-yard brilliance helped Dr. Feelgood gain a dangerous edge — scary enough to land him a role later in life as the silent executioner Ser Ilyn Payne on Game of Thrones.
The anarchic outfit inspired bands that would soon launch the British punk explosion and teetered on the edge of global fame, scoring a number one UK album, US tours and a deal with CBS records. Then in 1977 Johnson left 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 manager’s instructions on behavior, “I’m sure we’d be multi-millionaires. But we didn’t. We were the Canvey Island goons. We were great friends and we fell out.”
Johnson then performed with Ian Dury’s band the Blockheads and spent years building a devoted fan base, mainly 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 “last” album, “Going Back Home” with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
“All of a sudden I’m in a situation where nothing matters anymore,” he told The Associated Press in 2013. “I’m usually miserable… I’d worry about the IRS or whatever we worry about it getting in the way of real things. And suddenly it doesn’t matter. None of this matters.
“You walk down the street and you live intensely. You say, “Oh, look at that letter!” You look around and think, “I’m alive. Isn’t it wonderful?’”
In another twist, a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. After surgery to remove a 3-kilogram (6.6 lb) tumor, Johnson announced in 2014 that he was cancer-free. In 2018, he released another album, ‘Blow Your Mind’, and was performing with Wilko Johnson’s Band until last month.
Johnson is survived by his sons, Simon and Matthew, and grandson, Dylan.