Wilko Johnson was a guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor, icon of the British music scene, and treasured East Anglian.
Born John Peter Wilkinson, in Canvey Island, Wilko attended Westcliff High School for Boys.
During his teenage years, he split his time between his academic studies and learning his trade as a guitarist. Diligent in both, Wilko left Essex to study English at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
And after graduating, he spent some time travelling, enjoyed a short spell as an English teacher, and joined Essex rhythm and blues group, Pigboy Charlie Band, who soon evolved into Dr. Feelgood.
Dr. Feelgood were the vanguard of the British pub rock movement, and Wilko’s innovative style and stage presence were the driving force behind the band’s early success. He became famous for his distinctive finger technique and a choppy strumming action that Wilko has described as “the stab”.
The band’s live album Stupidity reached number one in the UK album charts in October 1976. But after artistic differences with his fellow band members, Wilko left Dr. Feelgood in April, 1977.
He went on to form the Wilko Johnson Band. Then in 1980, he joined Ian Dury’s group, The Blockheads. After the Blockheads, he reformed the Wilko Johnson Band, touring the UK and international venues for several years.
In 2009, Wilko featured in Oil City Confidential, a film documentary by celebrated director Julien Temple, which explored Dr. Feelgood’s emergence and success in the 1970s.
Wilko’s acting career began after he was spotted in Oil City Confidential by the makers of Game of Thrones. The casting director was searching for a sinister-looking character to play the role of executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, and one look at Wilko’s infamous cold-eyed, thousand-yard stare was enough to win him the role. He has since featured in four episodes.
In early 2013, it emerged that Wilko had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He announced his farewell tour, and recorded his supposed final album “Going Back Home”, a collaboration with Roger Daltrey, which reached number three in the UK charts.
However, a physician and fan of Wilko’s referred him to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where an oncologist declared his condition operable, although with only a slim chance of success. With little to lose, Wilko agreed to go ahead with the radical procedure.
In October 2014, while receiving the “Icon Award” at the Q music Awards, Wilko declared that he was cancer-free.
In 2015, Wilko featured in another Julien Temple film, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, which explores his experience of diagnosis, Wilko’s calm acceptance of his fate, and his remarkable recovery. It is both an uplifting tale of his battle with cancer, and a celebration of his life.
Wilko continued to perform, and occasionally played an unannounced set at his local pub, the Railway Hotel in Southend. In 2013, the pub’s management recognised Wilko’s long-term support of the local music scene by replacing their sign with a portrait of Wilko, painted by local artist Jack Melville.
Wilko Johnson exemplified the pioneering creativity, talent, drive and dedication required to achieve success in this most demanding of professions.