Freewheeling through time and space, Kris Needs continues his adventures in sound. This month: Denise Johnson
Rarely a day seems to go by without yet another sad loss, but the news that Denise Johnson had unexpectedly passed away recently hit hard.
She was one of the most in-demand singers in the electronic field, springing to prominence when Bobby Gillespie recruited her to sing ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’ during the ‘Screamadelica’ sessions, after being introduced by Hypnotone’s Tony Martin.
I first met Denise in January 1994, when Primal Scream were filming their ‘Rocks’ video at the YMCA off Tottenham Court Road – my trial by fire before DJing on upcoming tours of Europe and Japan. Walking into the first of many Primal Scream dressing rooms, there was already a party in full uproarious swing – Throb brandishing his Jack Daniel’s, Weatherall laughing his arse off, no mirror safe, bedlam erupting. Denise was always sat calmly getting ready amid the chaos.
When we were introduced, she erupted into that beaming smile that never failed to light up a room. Next time I saw her, the Scream were filming their for MTV in New York with George Clinton, who joined her for ‘Rocks’, ‘Jailbird’ and ‘Funky Jam’, the last of which he’d produced for ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’, the fabulous follow up to ‘Screamadelica’. George loved Denise, telling me the thrill he got adding vocal counterparts to her on the title track and ‘Funky Jam’. When remixing her soulful showcase ‘Free’, it reminded him of his early work with The Parliaments (“It’s hard remixing a ballad. Come off pretty good!”).
Standing onstage with George at Brixton Academy, watching Primal Scream hit astral funky flight on the fabled 1994 night they shared the bill with Funkadelic, he turned and bellowed, “That’s the damn funkiest shit I’ve seen for years!”, before confiding he’d love to whisk Denise away on his mothership to join Funkadelic.
Denise described her five “magical, hair-tearing-out, raucous years” with the band, “like going for a night out, and you might do a bit of singing in between” stressing that “Primal Scream is like a party you can leave at any time”.
When she did leave, Denise sang with A Certain Ratio, Electronic, Pet Shop Boys and Michael Hutchence, most recently gracing the funkier tracks on ACR’s ‘ACR Loco’ album. She made a few stabs at a solo career (in 1996, I remixed her house single ‘I Believe’) and, tragically, her first full album, ‘Where Does It Go’, is set for release this month, combining her songs with covers of New Order and The Smiths as well as 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’.
I wish she’d lived to see it, and can only imagine the smile when she did.