NEW YORK - Wycliffe Johnson, a keyboardist and producer known as "Steely" who helped to steer Jamaican music for nearly two decades and to modernize the dancehall genre, has died. He was 47.
Johnson died Tuesday at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Patchogue, N.Y., following a heart attack, longtime friend and fellow producer Cleveland Browne said Sunday.
Johnson, who lived in Kingston, Jamaica, had been diagnosed with kidney failure last December while in New York City, where he had sought specialized medical care, Browne said. Doctors told Johnson he had a blood clot in his brain.
Although Johnson was best known for helping to produce numerous hits in Jamaica during the 1980s and 1990s, he first drew acclaim as a keyboardist on Sugar Minott's 1978 album "Ghetto-ology," and later as a member of Roots Radics, a pioneering early 1980s dancehall band. As an 18-year-old, he played keyboards on Bob Marley's recording of "Trench Town."
Johnson then joined with Browne, and the duo became known as "Steely & 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 such as No Doubt and Heavy D. They also helped Sean Paul and Sasha on their 2004 chart-maker "I'm Still in Love With You."
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Johnson was born Aug. 18, 1962, and had 10 brothers and sisters. He began playing the piano when he was 9 or 10, but had no formal musical training, said his mother, Alice Johnson.
By the time he was about 14, he was already playing in concerts with a band, she said. At one show, her son was dwarfed by all the other group members.
"He was the smallest one," his mother said Sunday. "And they took a jacket and put it on him, and because he was so short at the time, the jacket came right down to his foot."
Browne said that he and Johnson had been working on a tribute album of Jamaican reggae classics from the 1960s and 1970s, but that it was put on hold in late 2008 because of Johnson's declining health. Browne said he's unsure whether the album will ever be released.
Johnson was survived by five children. A service for him is scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Swallowfield Chapel in St. Andrew, Jamaica.