The Wilko Johnson Story Continues…
All four of the original Dr Feelgood band lived on Canvey Island. Just to remind you, they were: Wilko Johnson, John Martin, John B Sparkes and Lee Collinson. The meeting of this quartet was set to happen. At this point in the story another vital member of the crew should be introduced: enter Chris White. The parents of Lee Collinson (Lee’s real name, pre-Brilleaux) had built a house very near to where Chris and his parents lived. As the two children were of a similar age they soon became best friends. They remained lifelong friends and Chris is still the manager of Dr Feelgood today.
It was through Chris that Lee was introduced to another neighbourhood kid, John Sparkes (Sparko). It was natural for these local kids to play on the many creeks and inlets that existed on Canvey Island. Chris and Lee both had rowing boats that they could launch from their own back gardens and Canvey became one huge adventure playground of pirates, hidden treasure and secret maps.
Wilko Johnson Finds Johnny Kidd & The Pirates
Not that far away on the same Island was the slightly older John Wilkinson. The soon-to-be Wilko Johnson had passed the 11-plus and went to Southend because Canvey did not have a grammar school. Wilko was also interested in playing pirates, but in his case it was records by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. They were a pioneering British rock and rollers that had grabbed his attention.
Wilko had formed his first band, the Roamers, in 1964. They included old primary school friend John Martin (the Big Figure) an aspiring drummer who he had known since their mothers used to push them around in prams together. The two boys lived just around the corner from each other. After the great flood of 1953, when Wilko got evacuated to his mum’s relatives in Sheffield and heard an item on the radio by Wilfred Pickles who was encouraging a little Canvey Island lad to sing “Me and My Teddy Bear”. The lad in question was little Johnny Martin, the first Feelgood to perform on the radio!
Hearing Johnny Kidd and the Pirates was a real revelation to a young Wilko . The tune that caused his head to really turn was probably “I’ll Never Get Over You” (not “Shakin’ All Over” as the film Oil City Confidential tends to suggest). Although “Shakin” had been a big hit in 1960 and Wilko would no doubt have heard it, including the great lead guitar played by session musician Joe Moretti, it was the playing of a young Mick Green who joined the Pirates in 1962 that created his real interest – especially when he realised that there was only one guitarist on the “I’ll Never Get Over” track.
Wilko had seen Johnny Kidd and his three-piece group (bass/drums/guitar) mime to the track on TV and guessed that “the other guitarist must have been sick or something”, he thought that no way could just one guitarist be doing all that – then he found out it was just the one player, the eighteen-year-old Mick Green. From that day on Green became an obsession for Wilko.
Soon after , Wilko Johnson found a secondhand copy of the slightly earlier 45 of Kidd’s that featured Green in even sharper form on “I Can Tell” (the B-side of “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”). This sealed it – Wilko wanted to play exactly like Mick Green, he would even play the 45s at the slower speed of 33rpm just to try and work out what this master player was doing.
Green had in fact developed a technique where he could play rhythm and lead lines at the same time with a strumming style that did not use a pick, creating an amazing sound that seemed to defy all logic. Apparently Johnny Kidd wanted just a three-piece band because it looked better with him in the middle and the bass player and guitarist on either side with the drummer at the back. So in effect Mick Green had to devise a way of playing that suited this symmetry that made Kidd look good.
The next part of Wilko’s plan to play like Mick Green was to go and see him live. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were a hard gigging band and an opportunity soon arose for Wilko Johnson and his young Canvey Island girlfriend Irene Knight to attend a college date in London. Standing right at the front of the gig the young Wilko was mesmerised by Green’s playing and automatically jumped up on stage at the end of the set before the musician had time to leave it and praised the maestro, getting his autograph on the school book that was in his pocket – Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”.
Green was touched and encouraged the young fan to keep at his own guitar playing. Later on when Wilko became a star in his own right, he would always give credit to Mick and was hugely responsible for the renewed interest in his career and the reformation of the Pirates. They even wrote some songs together, but that is jumping ahead…
Wilko Johnson had several other favourite guitarists. Hubert Sumlin, for example, who played on many of Howlin’ Wolf’s greatest records. But Wilko really did want to play exactly like Mick Green. Luckily for the sake of originality, Wilko Johnson developed his own style by, as he says so himself, “getting it wrong”! Still Mick Green provided the inspiration and template to an eager young player who would go on to forge his own unique brand of playing.
Mick Green was probably the greatest R’n'B guitarist that Britain has ever produced. I have not seen another band that could rock like the original Pirates. With Johnny Spence on bass and the late great Frank Farley on drums they did just that on a good night. That includes their late 1970s to early 1980s gigs, plus even some of their later 2000 reunion gigs. Oh to be able to have seen them with Johnny Kidd as Mr Wilko Johnson witnessed.
Many years later Wilko said of Green: “I’m better known than him but that’s just the way of this stupid world”. Mick very sadly died of heart failure in January 2010 at the age of 65 and did get his fair share of fame by the end of his career. Mick Green has not left our story just yet, as his influence on Wilko Johnson was to reappear later.
Wilko Johnson was born on 12 July 1947 on Canvey Island in Essex. His birth name was John Wilkinson but he changed his name by deed-poll. Wilko came to fame via the band Dr Feelgood, which was fronted for over two decades by Lee Brilleaux. Dr Feelgood were to become perhaps the definitive British Rhythm and Blues band, taking their music from the fledgling London pub rock scene of the early 1970s to become major record selling artists within a few years. Dr Feelgood are often cited as the forerunners or honorary godfathers of the punk music revolution that was to come.
The original magic four piece of Dr Feelgood did not last long as a unit. Wilko Johnson was to leave during early 1977, after recording the Stupidity album. But Lee kept the band going in various guises until his premature death from cancer in 1994. It was Lee’s wish that Dr Feelgood continue and they perform around the world to this day. Wilko has always had his own band in existence since leaving the Feelgoods in 1977.
Now for more detail…
The Wilko Johnson Story: 1. Canvey Island
Our story begins like all good tales, in an unusual setting. On an island of mystery with, as many believe, psycho-geographical powers. Canvey Island is unique. A reclaimed island in the Thames Estuary, it is only just above sea level, so is prone to flooding. Mainly agricultural before it became a fast-growing seaside resort after the turn of the last century. The famous North Sea Flood of 1953 was a major disaster, causing over 13,000 residents to be evacuated and at least 58 deaths.
However, the community recovered and grew. Mainly because it was used as an overspill for families from London boroughs, like Dagenham and Walthamstow. Canvey island also expanded as a home to the petrochemical industry after an oil terminal was built in 1936. Some large industrial projects have been abandoned over the years leaving a half-built oil refinery, empty storage tanks and an unused mile-long jetty. The neighbourhood is a strange mix of high-tech machinery and abandoned projects where nature and wildlife have taken over.
You really have to visit the Island to sense the strange atmosphere that it can invoke yourself. It was here that a young John Wilkinson grew up. Wilko Johnson describes the effect that his early childhood surroundings had on him at the start of the great Oil City Confidential film (Julien Temple 2010). He remarks that perhaps the profound event of being born below sea level gave him a “submarine-like consciousness.” The beginning of this film has some great information about Canvey and most of the band members have very personal comments to make about the place. Wilko’s house fell down after the great flood, which he says is why he now lives up a hill. But he still lives close to Canvey Island.
Lee Brilleaux was not a native of Canvey, in fact he was born in Durban, South Africa. This was because his father had taken a fixed contract job abroad as a lathe operator. The young Lee was able to speak Sawhili before he could English due to his Zulu nanny. The family returned to Ealing in west London when Lee was five years old. They relocated to Canvey to be near his grandparents. So with two local lads: John Martin (the Big Figure – Dr Feelgood’s original drummer) and John B Sparkes (Sparko – the first bass player), our characters are now in place. We are ready for the action to begin. More from the Wilko Johnson story next time.
Welcome to this new fan site dedicated to the former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. Please bookmark the front page and keep on returning to see the site grow over the coming weeks, months and years.
Everyone knows that Wilko was the original Dr Feelgood guitarist. His choppy guitar style and out-of-the-loop fashion-sense kept the band at the forefront of the pub-rock movement of the 1970s and beyond. Many people fire Dr Feelgood as being the precursors of Punk. Dr Feelgood split up in acrimonious terms and Wilko formed his own band, Solid Senders, which did not last too many years.
Following a short period with Ian Dury and The Blockheads (which resulted in them recording the album together), the Wilko Johnson Band was formed with ex-Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Salvatore Ramundo on drums. Sav gave way to Steve Monti, who in turn was replaced by Dylan Howe.
And that’s where we are today.
Future articles will cover the life and music of Wilko Johnson in much more detail.