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Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

By Published: February 22, 2013
I emailed Jef Lee often picking his brain about his songs whenever I picked up another CD of his. His sense of harmony was amazing, in particular his guitar harmony/voice-leading. While usually not a man of many words by way of emails, on several occasions he'd be specific and write a few paragraphs. On one song "Today" from his recording "Things Are Things," I'd told him I wanted to record the song but was having a hard time figuring out the movement of the chords, the harmony. I asked to meet with him so he could show me what he'd done. His response to me was "make it your own." Thing is, what he did with the song is so beautiful I wanted to replicate. You can't ever "replicate" Jef Lee Johnson. He is one of a kind. —Lili Anel
Lili Anel
Lili Anel


But something was so deeply wrong when we were in the studio the last time [around 1st week of January 2013]. We played, recorded, ate corn chips and waited to talk... when we did, he was barely keeping it together... all I could do was keep hugging him and saying "We all luv you, let us luv you." He told me the story about his collapse... how Chaka found him and took him to hospital. We spoke about Roy Hargrove. He said Roy was super keen to keep sure Jef was doing ok— they had been in hospital at the same time. —Deb Silver

I'm sure everybody's talking about his genius, I can definitely piggyback that. He was a genius, god-like guitarist. He's played on so many things with me and my sister, and we never finished some things, you know, we're just all musicians doing music. He definitely was a genius musician, not just guitar, I love his bass playing, his writing, his singing, everything, I loved it all. He's been in my life for years. We've been playing together on and off in different situations. Time goes by and next thing you know somebody's not here. He's one of my favorite musicians in my lifetime. I was blessed to play with him.

Everything happens for a reason. There's so much talent, and those who know know, and that's all that really counts. There are so many artists who are unknown, or only their family and friends know them, and they didn't become whatever. But what you become is not really what counts. Because if people focus on that kind of shit they're actually missing the beauty and the power and the honesty of the person. That might have been his struggle, but those of us who knew him and appreciated him were happy to hear whatever we heard, or whatever he offered, and he touched us. And I let him know that. That's what counts. And he thanked me for letting him realize that. Everybody has an opinion, and my opinion is that the political PR shit don't mean shit. It doesn't mean nothin' to me, somebody's Grammy or whatever. But if you're happy with yourself, living for yourself, if you're enjoying playing—which he did, he really did. —Jerry Barnes

We are very deeply saddened by Jef's sudden death and we are very grateful for the many outpourings of love and appreciation for him and his work.

Memories about Jef growing up are a little blurry at the moment however a few things stand out:

When he was a child he tried to do magic tricks; not very good but very funny (maybe in retrospect he was developing his manual dexterity and slight of hand for the guitar).

He would stay in his room and practice guitar all day—all day. He would come out of his room and make these sandwiches he called "lizard rolls" and go back into his room and keep practicing. (We never got any explanation about why the sandwiches were called "lizard rolls"— they had nothing to do with either lizards or rolls; they were actually double-decker ham on toast.)

I think my parents knew he was a special talent early on and gave him a lot of room to be who he was—the one time they suggested he get some sort of graduate degree in case the performing thing didn't work out, Jef said he would not teach; he would either play or nothing at all. My parents didn't bring it up again.

He always had great sense of style.

I don't know much about the order of his recordings especially the early gospel work... I wasn't around very much at that stage of his career. Jef was an amazing guitarist from the beginning and as his career began to take shape it wasn't a real surprise... it was just a natural outcome of those days of solitude and lizard roll sandwiches.

—JoAnne Johnson & The Johnson Family

Painting Jeff Schlanger,

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