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Influential St. Louis soul singer Roland Johnson dies at 74

Soul great Roland Johnson spent five decades performing across St. Louis and shaping the region's R&B scene. He died Nov. 15 at 74 years old.
Chris Boyd
Soul great Roland Johnson spent five decades performing across St. Louis and shaping the region's R&B scene. He died Tuesday at 74.

Roland Johnson, an influential soul singer who spent decades shaping the St. Louis music scene, has died. He was 74.

Johnson died Tuesday at his Florissant home. During a career that spanned five decades, the soul vocalist shared the stage with local blues and R&B greats. Collaborators in the St. Louis region remembered him as a dedicated showman.

“Roland was such a dear friend and a deep soul,” said Paul Niehaus, founder of Blue Lotus Recordings, which signed Johnson. “He could captivate an audience and get them in the palm of his hand. Whatever it was that he was tapped into, it was profound and deep. And anyone that saw him perform knew that deep within their heart, and that's what soul music is about.”

Johnson and Niehaus started working together in 2015 while recording a compilation album for the St. Louis Blues Society. That led to Johnson’s album, “Imagine This,” released in 2016 and later nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award. He released “Set Your Mind Free” in 2019. The album’s last track, “Mean Mistreatin,” exemplifies Johnson’s dedication to his craft and his freestyle lyrics, Niehaus said.

“He improvised this completely from his head, with no lyrics written down,” Niehaus said. “When we went back to cut it down, we could not find anything that we wanted to cut out of it and we realized, no, this is the song.”

After those two albums, Johnson released several singles, including a duet with soul singer Emily Wallace. He also collaborated with the Funky Butt Brass Band, which on Wednesday shared a memory of a performance with Johnson.

“Roland had that crowd, and the band, in the palm of his hand the entire time,” the band members said in the Facebook post. “We’ll miss our friend, but his light will continue to shine bright.”

Johnson was known for his fashion, stage presence and frequent performances at venues across the region. Fans could often see him at Beale on Broadway, Hammerstones, 1860 Saloon and Off Broadway.

Born in St. Louis on March 7, 1948, Johnson was the youngest of 16 children. He was kind and respectful and after winning a singing contest as a boy, knew that music was his calling, said his older sister, Carolyn Stafford.

“And then he would be around wherever the singers were,” Stafford said. “That was really like his whole entire life, he loved music and he loved to please people. He loved the effects that he got from actually entertaining.”

Johnson capitalized on his love for music and started a career. He honed his craft and was dedicated to ensuring his music and live performances were the best he could give.

“If you talked with any musicians that worked with him, they would say, ‘Oh you’ve got to be perfect with him,’” Stafford said.

And Johnson’s love of music spread throughout the family. His daughter Adrienne Danrich started performing at 8 while onstage with Johnson. Danrich said her father’s mentorship helped her become the artist she is today.

“My daddy has been there with me every step of the way, teaching me, holding me up,” Danrich said. “He came from nothing and he built an empire. He leaves behind a legacy — not only his music, but in the souls of his children … there are so many people out there who have a connection with my father, and I have never known them. But my dad made them feel like they were the only people on this Earth.”

Johnson's family also will remember him as strong willed and humble, wanting the best for his loved ones. Samantha Brown, another daughter, said he was a selfless person, often putting himself last when thinking of others.

“He loved people,” Brown said. “No matter what news you gave him, he would always say something to make you laugh and just put a smile on your face and he’d say, ‘It’s OK.’ It was of a father and loving and caring person.”

Stafford said the family hopes to put together a jam session honoring Johnson.

Johnson’s wife, Anita Johnson, and his son Tony Roland Owens died earlier. Besides his daughters, he is survived by two other daughters, Angie Latimore Dickerson and Rolanda Turner; sons Larry Dickerson, Nathan Johnson and Brit Lockhart; and grandchildren.

Funeral services are pending through Cotten Branch Mortuary.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.