Varnell Johnson, a veteran music executive and former president of the Living Legends Foundation, has passed away, reports Billboard. He was 76.
Johnson’s passing was confirmed by David C. Linton, his close friend and current chairman of the Living Legends Foundation. His cause of death was congestive heart failure.
“This is a major loss,” Linton said. “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 a people person, a good person to know,” added Ray Harris, 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.”
Born in Philadelphia, Varnell Johnson graduated from Simon Gratz High School at 16 years old. After high school, he served as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. Following an honorable discharge, he enrolled at Temple University, graduating with a degree in marketing and advertising, where he was first introduced to the music business.
He began at A&L Record Distributors and then was named general manager for Philly Groove Records, which featured the production of one of the architects of "The Sound of Philadelphia"—Thom Bell and the acclaimed R&B trio The Delfonics.
He became vice president of A&R at Capitol Records where he helped to curate classic singles and albums by Tina Turner, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, George Clinton, René & Angela, A Taste of Honey, Freddie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Ashford & Simpson, and many others. At Capitol’s Manhattan/Blue Note Records division in New York, he went on to work with The O’Jays, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Phyllis Hyman, and Shirley Jones.
Following his tenure at Capitol, Johnson became vice president of marketing and promotion at Jive Records where he worked with A Tribe Called Quest, KRS One, and Aaliyah.
As vice president of Elektra Records, he was instrumental in the careers of Keith Sweat, Kut Klose, and Ron Isley. He was also the senior vice president and general manager for the Black music division of Island Records.
Until his passing, Johnson operated Junes Entertainment Company, his own consulting firm in New Jersey. He is survived by his wife Darlene, son Varnell, (nicknamed “June”), and daughter Tracey.
We at EBONY extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Varnell Johnson.