“Soul of Manchester” Denise Johnson Passes Away at 56

Manchester-born Denise Johnson, the vocal powerhouse behind the music of Primal Scream, New Order, and A Certain Ratio, has died unexpectedly at the age of 56, after a brief illness.

“It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beautiful dear friend Denise has passed away,” the band A Certain Ratio posted on Facebook. 

“Shocked and devastated to hear of the passing of Denise Johnson. An absolutely beautiful lady,” New Order’s Stephen Morris wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Playing alongside her was something else,” tweeted Johnny Marr.

“The soul of Manchester,” the Inspiral Carpets described her.

Johnson was born in Manchester on 31 July 1963 and raised in a nearby suburb. Her mother was Jamaican and Johnson’s early years were filled with the sounds of reggae and ska. After singing in cover groups throughout her early 20s, Johnson joined soul group Fifth of Heaven. The duo Hypnotone later introduced Johnson to Primal Scream, and they recorded her vocals for 1991’s Don’t Fight It, Feel It. Recording with the band was “more like going for a night out and you might do a bit of singing in between”, Johnson told Louder Than War. She would go on to tour with them for six “truly magical, hair-tearing-out, raucous years.”

Johnson remained outspoken and political to the end on Twitter. Ironically, just three days before her death, she tweeted “Thank feck for Kirsty!” and a touching tribute to the dearly departed Kirsty MacColl. Too early. They left us too damn early.

The timing of Johnson’s untimely passing is especially tragic, as Johnson was preparing for the long-awaited release of her debut solo album, Where Does It Go, on 25 September, a collection of her performances. The tracks include New Order’s True Faith, The Smiths’ Well I Wonder, 10cc’s I’m Not in Love. Johnson had also performed in A Certain Ratio’s live lineup since the early ’90s, and appeared on the veteran Manchester post-punk act’s recordings — including on the band’s first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco…also due out in September.

Johnson’s contributions to the Manchester sound are innumerable and unforgettable, particularly her legendary performance on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. She also performed with Electronic (Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project), The Charlatans, as well as recordings by Michael Hutchence, The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown and Suede’s Bernard Butler.

Denise Johnson’s voice leaves an unforgettable mark on the heart of Manchester and the post-punk sound. Rest in peace.’

Alice Teeple

Alice Teeple is a photographer, multidisciplinary artist, and writer. She is not in Tin Machine.

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