Jef Lee Johnson was one of those unrecognized genius guitarists who haunt the history of the instrument. His is not exactly a local hero story: where a brilliant guitarist labors in the neighborhood clubs, unknown to anyone outside his town. Johnson was respected widely enough to have worked with: George Duke, Al Jarreau, Patti Labelle, James Carter, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Mariah Carey, Stanley Clarke, Aretha Franklin, Ronald Shannon Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Esperanza Spalding, Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, and a host of others. It is more a tale of a talent who never broke out as a solo artist, failing to find the wider recognition brought about by your name on the marquee.
Born in Philadelphia on June 26, 1958, Johnson grew up the youngest of five children in a musical family. He was influenced by the music of Herb Alpert, Eric Dolphy, Motown, Sergio Mendes, Leonard Bernstein, and the Vanilla Fudge.
“I was just listening to television, cartoon music, ‘Johnny Quest,’ the Warner Bros stuff. Anything that had a guitar in it, I would gravitate to ‘Hee Haw’, Roy Clark, and Buck Owens. I’m talking commercials: Miller High Life, the Champagne of Bottled Beers.”
No wonder his guitar style would ultimately be marked by extreme eclecticism, encompassing gutbucket blues, pedal steel licks, bebop runs, Amos Garrett-style multi-string bends, and more.
In the ’70s Johnson discovered fusion and electric Chicago blues, inspiring him to take lessons at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and play in bands with friends. While still a teenager, he would back groups like Sister Sledge, Blue Magic, Archie Bell & The Drells, and The Flamingos. Johnson later moved to New York where he worked with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and was signed by Jackson’s A&R man to a solo deal.
I discovered him through his first album, 1996’s Blue, astounded by this cross between Prince, Hendrix, and Sly. His music’s extreme variety made it difficult to pigeonhole, and thus market—a condition that would afflict him throughout his career. Blue was followed by 12 more albums composed, performed and produced by Johnson.
In 2001, the guitarist released a trio album, News From the Jungle, with Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland, but his solo career was hampered by taking a back seat to session dates, engineering, and production duties for other acts.
“One of the best compliments I ever had is George Duke saying, ‘I love having you in the band because I can go wherever I want to go, and you’ll keep things in line.’ Or he’ll do what he does and I’ll go wherever I want.”
In Europe Johnson enjoyed the solo recognition that eluded him in America. There, he established a strong presence on the music scene, working with Reggie Washington, Jean-Paul Bourelly, and Ursus Minor with Tony Hymas.
Johnson’s original composition “Jungle” was featured in an episode of Homicide in 1998. “You Walk You Crawl” and “Silence No Secret,” were part of the soundtrack for the mini-series Kingpin in 2003. He continued to play and tour on both sides of the Atlantic in the 2000’s and was part of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society from 2011 until his death in 2013.
I got to see him a couple of times, when I lived in New York City. Those shows revealed an unevenness that may have also contributed to his lack of solo success. But, as with Jeff Beck, it was the chance you took with someone pushing the envelope. You can see in the videos that Johnson was willing to go where the Muse took him at any time, which rarely makes for a consistently “good” show— but can often make for a great one.
“We are doing something people are feeling. That’s all I’m concerned about. It’s like I’m nudging you, instead of telling you something. That’s really what I want to do.”