Wycliffe Johnson dies at 47; helped modernize dancehall music genre

Times Staff And Wire Reports

Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson, a keyboardist and producer who helped steer Jamaican music for nearly two decades and modernize the dancehall genre, has died. He was 47.

Johnson died Sept. 1 at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Patchogue, N.Y., following a heart attack, said Cleveland Browne, a drummer and producer who was the other half of the duo popularly known as Steely and Clevie.

Several weeks ago Johnson had surgery for a blood clot in his brain, and he had been treated for kidney problems related to diabetes and hypertension. He had moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to New York City for medical care.

Although he was best known for helping to produce numerous hits in Jamaica during the 1980s and 1990s, Johnson first drew acclaim as a keyboardist on Sugar Minott's 1979 album "Ghetto-ology," and later as a member of Roots Radics, a pioneering early 1980s dancehall band.

As an 18-year-old, Johnson played keyboard on Bob Marley's recording of "Trench Town."

Johnson then joined with Browne, and as Steely and Clevie they went on to help transform dancehall, a rawer, more sparse variant of reggae, with their early embrace of digital studio technology.

Besides working with top Jamaican talent, the duo collaborated with global acts including No Doubt and Heavy D. They also helped Sean Paul and Sasha on "I'm Still in Love With You," which rose to No. 5 on the charts in 2004.

Olivia Grange, Jamaica's minister of youth, sports and culture, said in a statement released after Johnson's death: "We must give thanks for Steely's creativity and abundance of talent, which enriched our music immeasurably."

Johnson was born Aug. 18, 1962, and had 10 brothers and sisters.

Largely self-taught as a musician, he began playing piano when he was 9 or 10 and was performing with a band when he was about 14, said his mother, Alice Johnson.

With Browne, Johnson had been working on a tribute album of Jamaican reggae classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Johnson's declining health had put the album on hold, and Browne said he was unsure whether it would be released.

Johnson is survived by five children.


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