Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jef Lee Johnson died Monday, Jan. 28, at Philadelphia’s Roxborough Memorial Hospital due to complications from pneumonia and diabetes. He was 54.
Johnson was born in Philadelphia and began his career playing gospel music there in the 1970s, but he gained recognition upon moving to New York, where he played in drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s group Decoding Society, as well as with McCoy Tyner and others. He first recorded on violinist John Blake’s 1985 album Twinkling of an Eye and subsequently became an oft-employed session player. His credits include guitar contributions to recordings by artists as diverse as Billy Joel, Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Common, George Duke, the Roots, Melody Gardot, Erykah Badu, Stanley Clarke, Jeff Beck, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, James Carter, Mariah Carey and Esperanza Spalding (last year’s Radio Music Society).
In the mid-’80s he worked briefly as the lead guitarist in Paul Shaffer’s World’s Most Dangerous Band on Late Night with David Letterman.
In the ’90s Johnson was a member of the Philadelphia funk band Gutbucket. He was also a member of the Soultronics, a band that backed neo-soul icon D’Angelo on his 2000 tour and which also featured members of the Roots, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, keyboardist James Poyser, bassist Pino Palladino and others.
Johnson recorded several albums as a leader, beginning in 1995 with Blue. In 2008 he contributed to the album Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson, a tribute to the late bluesman. The following year he released the two-disc set Longing Belonging Ongoing, and a tribute to Bob Dylan, The Zimmerman Shadow.