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RIP Denise Johnson: An all-time great soul singer and charming, energetic force

The Manchester-born singer brought class and soul to everything she touched

  • Ralph Moore
  • 28 July 2020

In some very shocking news for electronic music fans, singer Denise Johnson has died suddenly aged 56. She was one of the most beloved musicians to have emerged from Manchester’s music scene and brought class and soul to everything she touched. Born in 1963 in Manchester, she grew up in the suburb of Hulme on a diet of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone and caught her first break playing live with the soul band Fifth of Heaven in the late 80s (including a debut gig at no less than Wembley Arena in support of Maze and Frankie Beverly). But her first recorded vocal to fly was on Hypnotone’s ‘Dream Beam’, a soulful funky drummer acid house classic released in 1990 on Creation Records. This was the original connection to fellow label signees Primal Scream, who she would later make history with as a starring vocalist on 'Screamadelica', winner of the very first Mercury Prize album award in 1992. Her delivery on ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’ alone is the stuff of legend.

I first met Denise Johnson (way) back in ‘94. I was studying English Literature at Warwick University and also Music Editor of the still-published student paper, The Boar. Over the first couple of years, I’d interviewed artists such as Andy Weatherall protégées One Dove to The Orb backstage before their shows: but then in November 1994, Primal Scream added a couple of last-minute dates to their sold-out UK tour, which included one on campus in Coventry. Coming off the back of ‘Screamadelica’ and their follow-up album ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’, I was determined to chat to the biggest band to have ever played on campus before the show.

There was just one problem: the band were totally burned out. Their press officer at Creation Records wasn’t helping. They’d just come back from a gruelling US tour supporting Depeche Mode: and this was at the point when Dave Gahan was in the grips of heroin addiction. And we were neither NME, Rolling Stone, nor Lester Bangs. Regardless, I gave it my best shot. Bobby Gillespie proved elusive and evasive before the show… but Denise Johnson – who had her own solo torch song on 'Free' from the latest Scream album, and seemed like the band’s glue as well as its much-needed sense of humour – happily shared stories of being on tour with Gahan and Gore and was kind, warm and chatty to this twenty-year-old writer. It’s an image and a memory that’s remained etched in my mind to this day.

Asked recently what the highlight of her career had been on an interview for Manchester Digital Music Archive, she was quick to say the Depeche Mode tour for 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion'. (But even Primal Scream couldn't keep up with them. As Phil Sutcliffe wrote in Q: "Insiders allege the Scream were so shaken by Depeche Mode's level of excess that, thenceforth, they fervently foreswore sin… Behold, then, Depeche Mode: the band who frightened Primal Scream into temperance.")

From 1990-1995, Primal Scream were in their imperial phase and Denise was in the live touring band from ‘90-‘95, and that was after repeatedly turning down the offer to join several times. She set out with a job to do and that was why the band loved her so much. That Depeche tour didn’t break her, it made her stronger. The tabloids and broadsheets have all mentioned the ‘Screamdelica’ connection over everything else so we’re not going to hammer that point here: she sung her lungs out on ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’ and later on the extended ‘Dixie Narco’ EP, with the track 'Screamadelica' being another 10 minute epic also produced by Andy Weatherall that didn’t feature on the original album that took its title. If ever there was a track that showcased Johnson at her best, it’s this one.

So when they travelled to Warwick, it was still during the white heat moment of the Primal’s mid 90s career. Their single ‘Rocks’ had just rocketed into the Top 10 and the accompanying album had seen her fly all the way to Memphis (Dusty style) to record with the band and acclaimed producer Tom Dowd. Denise herself again sung on several of the album’s standout moments, including ‘(I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind’ (later remixed by Portishead) as well as ‘Funky Jam’, ‘Free’ and the album’s standout title-track. She was a key part of the band’s DNA in those years and it says a lot that the band themselves (along with Johnny Marr) have posted the iconic smiling shot of Johnson from the album’s inner sleeve. She was so much more than a session singer.

Denise worked with both Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr's Electronic (she sung backing vocals on their top 10 hit ‘Get The Message’) and New Order extensively in the last two decades, even popping up on the latter's most recent album 'Music Complete’ on both ‘Plastic’ and ‘Nothing But A Fool'. Live, she spent a lot of time on the road with A Certain Ratio, who are just as shocked as everyone else by yesterday’s news. As we write this, we still don’t know what caused her death. “Denise had been ill in the week prior to her death but told friends she was “much better” on Friday,” her family said in a statement.

As Manchester mourns, it’s clear that she was incredibly loyal to that city, not just with the bands but also the connecting tissue. Over the course of her career, she performed with Bernard Butler, Doves, Paul Weller, ACR, Electronic, was close friends with fellow singer Rowetta from The Happy Mondays (they grew up together) and she continued to work with Electronic after ‘Get The Message’. Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr let her voice fly on several songs on their second album, including the exhilarating ‘Until the End Of Time’. All still stand up today.

Denise's debut solo album was due to feature covers of iconic Manchester tracks including ‘True Faith’: again, she was a key part of New Order’s soul, as she was with so many of the bands she performed with. “She was a beautiful person with a huge talent,” they wrote poignantly last night. That sums things up nicely, although there are still plenty of other records to go and explore. More recently, Denise had become a vocal Twitter user, constantly chatting to friends and fans (including myself) about everything from Top Of The Pops re-runs with Kirsty MacColl to the state of football today (she was a proud Manchester City fan).

Denise was as active as ever on social media only two days ago, all of which adds up to a shocking and sudden tragedy that the music world is still reeling from less than 24 hours later. Indeed, she was due to release her new solo album 'Where Does It Go' on September 25, and fans across the land were all looking forward to hearing it. Of course, there’s no reason for it not to see the light of day still, but its release will inevitably be tinged with sadness.

To sign off: Denise Johnson was one of the best soul singers this country has ever produced. She was a charming, energetic force both onstage and off. Inspired at a young age by The Sound of Music soundtrack, her place in the history books is secured thanks to her sterling work with New Order, Primal Scream, ACR and Electronic. The world of rock was a very white place to live in the 1990s (and that’s an understatement) so her championing of fellow female vocalists like Carleen Anderson cannot be understated. In an era where white men stomped around in heavy cowboys boots, Denise Johnson shone light and bright. Manchester has lost a very special soul this week.

Ralph Moore is Mixmag's Editor-at-large, follow him on Twitter

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