Sadness, moments of laughter, words of joy and a beautiful acapella rendition of “Promised Land”: Paul Johnson’s funeral yesterday after his death aged just 50

Yesterday, the funeral took place in Chicago of Paul Leighton Johnson – one of the city’s most famous names when it came to house music. A man who, in his own words, “never let anything hold me back, [and] never let any type of experience let me down or put me down”.

Born in 1971 in the city, Johnson became interested in DJing after seeing Farley Jackmaster Funk play. He started practising his craft in 1984, at the age of 13 – sometimes even throwing parties after finishing his day at school. However, Johnson initially had plans to go into the Army when he grew up – but after he was shot in an accident in 1987 and left in a wheelchair, he decided to pursue music instead.

After the accident, he got back into DJing and moved into the realm of music production. His first records came out on vinyl in 1992. From what I understand, Paul Johnson records used to sell as quickly as they arrived in those days. This led to a series of rave parties across the USA, something that did not go unnoticed in Europe. The decade ended with Johnson releasing “Get Get Down” via Moody Recordings, a Bad Boy Bill label, which subsequently got licenced around the world by Rise in Italy and Defected in the UK, to name but two.

His success continued into the 2000s, with records like “She Got Me On” being licenced by former Ministry of Sound imprint Data. His production schedule and his touring schedule barely relented over the years and he remained a busy and – something that’s quite rare in this industry – extremely respected DJ.

Johnson unfortunately contracted Covid-19 in early July this year. It was something that he initially kept quiet about, but after being admitted to the OSF Little Company of Mary Medical Centre on July 17th, he posted a video on Instagram which shocked many who saw it. Two days later, he posted his final video on the account – it showed him wearing a face mask ventilator in the hospital. Sadly, he passed away on August 4th.

His funeral took place yesterday at the Leak & Sons Funeral Home. Covid restrictions meant that attendance numbers were limited, but the service was streamed online for anyone who wished to see it. I watched it, and I found it quite moving. The service had a religious side to it and I won’t lie – I did come close to tears once or twice. That said, a number of people came up to speak about Johnson, and much laughter and words of joy were said as well.

Possibly the most poignant moment of the service, for me anyway, was when Joe Smooth got up to speak at 1 hour 43 minutes in. Shortly after he appeared, Eric Clark – you may not know his name, but when he speaks, you’ll know him straight away as E-Man – and another male who I haven’t been able to identify start singing the most beautiful acapella rendition of “Promised Land”, a song which Joe Smooth himself released back in the 1980s.

May Paul Johnson’s legacy live on forever…