*The Living Legends Foundation (LLF) is saddened to announce the passing of Varnell Harris Johnson, LLF President and veteran music executive. Widely respected for his music business acumen and mentorship, “VJ,” affectionately known by his peers passed away on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at 6:00 p.m. ET, of congestive heart failure; he was 76. Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.
Johnson had a broad and varied career as a senior executive in record promotion, marketing, A&R, and management, including 15 years at Capitol Records and its related labels, and working with an array of successful R&B, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and gospel acts. During his tenure as President of the Living Legends Foundation, Johnson expanded its membership and reach, and helped oversee the organization’s star-studded 30th-anniversary awards and fundraising gala in October 2022. Known as an executive whose vision and leadership produced results, he was honored by the LLF with the Chairman’s Award in 2017.
“This is a major loss,” says David C. Linton, Chairman of the Living Legends Foundation and a close personal friend. “At the time he broke into the industry, he was able to work in every aspect of the business. Varnell was one of the first Black executives to have total autonomy within the label system. He not only signed some great artists, but he also hired other Black executives and molded so many of our careers. He had a lot of ‘firsts’ in his career. He was always caring, he promoted women, and you could always call him for advice – he was that great link.”
“He was the quintessential record man,” adds Jacqueline Rhinehart, LLF Vice-President, and marketing professional. “He was a straight shooter and someone who was great at maintaining relationships at all levels of the industry.” She recalls that Johnson remained in contact with many of the artists he worked with over the years, speaking frequently with Ron Isley, Frankie Beverly, and Valerie Simpson. “He never lost his role as an influencer – it wasn’t reliant on what job he held at what label,” Rhinehart concludes.
Ray Harris, a founding member of the Living Legends Foundation, remembers Johnson as an esteemed colleague who came out of an influential regional music market, Philadelphia, where the promotion people had a strong camaraderie, one that continued through smack-talking, shop-talking marathon card games at such annual conventions as the Jack The Rapper Family Affair and the Black Radio Exclusive conference. “He was a people person, a good person to know,” notes Harris, also a veteran record promotion executive. “And I have such a deep appreciation for him because he got on board with the Living Legends Foundation right from the beginning. The organization grew substantially thanks to his participation and leadership. He was always a voice of common sense, wisdom, and calm, and we’re going to miss that voice.”
Johnson is credited by many for recruiting several Black executives, including many women, into key positions in the industry. He was also noted for his ear for talent, playing an unsung but essential role in bringing the late Tina Turner to Capitol Records as a solo artist after her break with Ike Turner. He also worked closely with Southern soul group Frankie Beverly & Maze, whose decision to record their first live set, 1980’s Live In New Orleans, earned the group its fifth gold album. Johnson’s relationship with the Isley Brothers was so strong that when he left Elektra for Island Records, the group jumped labels to continue working with him. Recognizing the impact and influence of gospel music among Black record buyers, Johnson also played a key role in establishing the Verity Records division while serving as Vice President at Jive/Zomba in 1994.
A native of Philadelphia, Varnell Harris Johnson attended Simon Gratz High School where he played football and basketball. He graduated at the age of 16. To get out of the neighborhood, he enlisted in the Army at 17 and served in the Vietnam War as a combat medic. After his honorable discharge, he attended and graduated from Temple University with a degree in marketing and advertising. He credited fellow promotion man Harold Childs, a Philadelphia neighbor, with influencing his decision to pursue a career in the recording industry. After a stint as a gofer at A&L Record Distributors, where he made numerous label contacts, Varnell quickly became general manager for Philly Groove Records. He was then hired as East Coast Marketing/Promotion Director by Oscar Fields, the vice president and general manager at GRC, working with acts including Brass Construction, War, and Enchantment.
His success in that role led him to be hired in 1979 as general manager for the newly formed R&B Music division at EMI/United Artists in Los Angeles, working with R&B, jazz, and funk acts including Ronnie Laws, Melba Moore, Noel Pointer, George Clinton, Earl Klugh, War, Switch and many others. He then moved to parent company Capitol Records as vice president of A&R, working with René & Angela, A Taste of Honey, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, George Clinton, Freddie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Tina Turner, and Ashford & Simpson.
In 1984, Johnson relocated to the East Coast; he was then named Vice President of Promotion & Marketing at Capitol’s jazz-oriented Manhattan/Blue Note Records division. There, Johnson worked his magic with such artists as Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Phyllis Hyman, The O’Jays, and Shirley Jones. In 1992, Jive Records President, Barry Weiss hired Johnson over to the label as Vice President of Marketing and Promotion to work with R. Kelly, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS One, and Aaliyah, among others. A move to Elektra Records as Executive Vice President later that year found him working with Keith Sweat, Kut Klose, and Ron Isley.
When he was offered the position as senior vice president and general manager at Island Records’ Black music division, he took it, bringing along the Isley Brothers from Elektra and polishing the trajectories of Dru Hill, Karen Clark Sheard, Kelly Price, and others. After his storied career at major record companies, Johnson continued to offer his extensive expertise via his own consulting firm Junes Entertainment Inc., working with established recording artists.
A resident of New Jersey and an avid golfer, Johnson is survived by his wife Darlene, son Varnell, (nicknamed “June”), and daughter Tracey.
“You know, we define a legend as someone who made an impact,” continues LLF Chairman Linton, currently program director of Jazz 91.9 WCLK Atlanta. “Varnell opened the door for others, he continued to break stereotypes and prove that, given the opportunity, Black executives can shine. Varnell was a legend. The impact he had on our industry and our culture is indelible.”
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