Wilko Johnson, Grimacing Dr. Feelgood Guitarist, Dies

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Photo from the film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

Wilko Johnson, best known as the strutting, grimacing, six-string rhythm guitarist behind singer Lee Brilleaux in the pub rock band, Dr. Feelgood, died Nov. 21, 2022. His death of pancreatic cancer at his home in Westcliff on Sea, U.K., was announced on his Facebook page on Nov. 23. The musician had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013.

Born John Peter Wilkinson on Canvey Island in Essex, U.K. on July 12, 1947, Wilko–he was usually referred to that way–studied English at Newcastle University and had aspirations to be a teacher. Wilko was lured into music by his first Fender Telecaster, bought from a music store in Southend, Essex for £90.

Throughout the mid-’70s, Wilko duck-walked his way across U.K. stages with Dr. Feelgood, performing the gutsy down-to-earth rock and roll that was a welcome antidote to prog-rock. (The band received even-less-than-cult-status in the U.S.) 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 had four successful albums in Wilko’s time.

He departed in the late ’70s and began an early incarnation of the Wilko Johnson Band, the Solid Senders, before he joined Ian Dury’s band, The Blockheads, in 1980.

All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium Wilko continued to perform in the U.K., Europe and Japan. But it was when filmmaker Julien Temple’s documentary, Oil City Confidential, came out in 2009, with Wilko emerging as the film’s star, that the world noticed his talent.

His career took another twist in 2010, when he was offered an acting part in the television series Game of Thrones, playing the role of mute executioner Ilyn Payne. In 2013, Wilko stated that he had terminal cancer and announced a farewell tour. A year later, he recorded the album Going Back Home, a collaboration with Roger Daltrey, which reached #3 in the U.K.

Daltrey wrote, in tribute: “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. So it’s goodnight to Mad Carew, the uncompromising Bard of Canvey.”

In 2015, Wilko and Julien Temple teamed up again for the documentary The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, a film that explored Wilko’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, and the unexpected reprieve that followed after undergoing experimental surgery. Given a year to live, his acceptance of his fate and how it altered his perception of day-to-day life. “I felt this elation,” he said. “I was almost ecstatic.”

Wilko’s memoir, Don’t You Leave Me Here, was published in 2016 via Little, Brown. His final album, Blow Your Mind, was released in 2018.

Related: Musicians that we’ve lost in 2022

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