Legendary Guitarist Jef Lee Johnson Passes Away in Philadelphia

Jef Lee Johnson

Last night Philadelphia guitarist Jef Lee Johnson passed away at Roxborough Memorial Hospital due to complications from pneumonia and diabetes. He was 54 years old.

The revolutionary noise-jazz, frenetic funk and oddball blues six-stringer wasn't as well known as other players his age such as Vernon Reid and Jean-Paul Bourelly. Yet, the Germantown-born Johnson is a legend amongst those in the biz, players and singers such as George Duke, Chaka Khan, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, who knew well the guitarist's inventive worth.

Most recently, Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding showcased Johnson's guitar skills on her most recent recording, the smooth-as-silk soulful Radio Music Society.

Speaking this morning with Johnson's longtime friend and collaborator, Grammy winner Aaron Levinson, each of us reminisced about spending time with the guitarist and recalled the quiet, Zen-like manner in which he approached everything that he did. “He was a strange, wonderful cat,” Levinson said, still somewhat in shock. “He could do it all.”

For me, Johnson's wonder was translated best through his richly diverse solo albums. They truly told his majestic story, the intimate eerie blues of Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson, the menacing avant-wail of Noise from the Jungle, the quietly soulful Blue. When I interviewed Johnson for a 2010 cover story for Philadelphia City Paper, I found a humble genius before me, a guy who just wanted to work and read, a man not into the folderol of fame but rather the intensity of each note. He will be missed.

Jef Lee Johnson cover ©Philadelphia City Paper 2010

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 1:00 PM