Varnell Harris Johnson, who held senior executive roles at Capitol-EMI, Blue Note, Jive, Island, Elektra Records and more throughout his career in music and who was president of the Living Legends Foundation, has died. He was 76.
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Johnson — or “VJ,” as his peers knew him — passed away on Wednesday (June 21) at 6 p.m. ET of congestive heart failure, Billboard has learned.
Johnson has been credited for recruiting several Black executives, including many women, into key music industry positions. He had an ear for talent and had a hand in bringing Tina Turner over to Capitol Records as a solo artist, and brought the Isley Brothers with him from Elektra to Island. With his knowledge of how influential gospel music was to the community, he helped establish the gospel-focused Verity Records.
“This is a major loss,” says David C. Linton, friend of Johnson and chairman of the Living Legends Foundation. “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.”
Living Legends Foundation vice president Jacqueline Rhinehart, a marketing professional, remembers him as “the quintessential record man. He was a straight shooter and someone who was great at maintaining relationships at all levels of the industry … He never lost his role as an influencer — it wasn’t reliant on what job he held at what label.”
“He was a people person, a good person to know,” Ray Harris, a veteran record promotion executive and a founding member of the Living Legends Foundation, says. “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 was born in Philadelphia. He played football and basketball at Simon Gratz High School and graduated at 16. He then enlisted in the Army at 17, serving as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. Following an honorable discharge, he went to Temple University and graduated with a marketing and advertising degree. Harold Childs, a Philadelphia neighbor, influenced Johnson to get into the music business.
His career in music started as a gofer at A&L Record Distributors before becoming general manager for Philly Groove Records. His was then hired as a marketing/promotion director at GMC, which led to him landing at EMI/United Artists’ newly formed R&B division in Los Angeles in 1979.
Johnson moved to parent company Capitol Records as vice president of A&R, working with artists including 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. His next gig, as vice president of promotion and marketing at Capitol’s Manhattan/Blue Note Records division, brought him back to the East Coast. There, he worked with Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Phyllis Hyman, The O’Jays and Shirley Jones.
Johnson was hired as vice president of marketing and promotion at Jive Records in 1992. He worked with R. Kelly, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS One and Aaliyah at Jive. Next, he made his mark at Elektra Records, where he served as vice president and worked with Keith Sweat, Kut Klose and Ron Isley, and then was offered the position of senior vice president and general manager for Island Records’ Black music division; the Isley Brothers followed him, joining a roster with Dru Hill, Karen Clark Sheard and Kelly Price.
Johnson went on to run Junes Entertainment Inc., his own consulting firm, and most recently resided in New Jersey. He is survived by his wife Darlene, son Varnell, (nicknamed “June”) and daughter Tracey.
Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.
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