As a composer, singer and conductor, Johnson enriched Malayalam cinema with his brand of evocative music that encompassed many genres.
Johnson was a complete musician. The veteran composer was always in constant search of new harmonic and rhythmic patterns. Johnson was not merely a creator of memorable songs. His music encompassed acutely sensitive background scores. He also stunned audiences as a brilliant conductor of ‘live' orchestras.
A self-taught musician, Johnson worked his way up to become one of the most respected composers in the country. His unforgettable film songs earn him a coveted place in the pantheon of music composers in India. Moreover, he also created some unforgettable background scores.
Johnson was one of the best in the business. He always believed that music must be used to heighten the mood, set the ambience of scenes. “If composed well, music can convey more than words, even more than visuals. Music then turns into the lifeline of the film,” Johnson had once said during a chat.
Johnson was the first Malayali to win a National award for his background score (‘Ponthenmada' 1994). This film also had one song, written by O.N.V. Kurup and sung by K.S. Chitra and chorus. So, in reality, Johnson had also won the award for best music director. The jury made a special mention of the song and Johnson's uncanny ability to fuse Western and folk elements into it.
Johnson went on to repeat this feat the next year, winning the award for ‘Sukrutham,' thus becoming the only Malayali music director to win two National awards in this category. Of the five Kerala State film awards for music that Johnson bagged, two of them (‘Sadayam'-1992 and ‘Sallapam'-1996), were for his background scores.
“To an extent, composing background music for a film is more creative and satisfying than composing songs,” Johnson had said. He felt that one needed formal training in music to compose original background scores for films.
Johnson's whole thought process during the composing of a background score was distinctive. His music complemented the screenplay, story, characters; it was not only heard but also felt. No wonder then that directors such as P. Padmarajan, Bharathan, T.V. Chandran, Mohan, Sathyan Anthikkad, Sibi Malayil, Kamal, and Jayaraj kept going back to Johnson to compose the background scores for their films. And he also gave these films some wonderful songs.
“The music director composes the music after watching a film. But the final mix is usually done by the film director. Very often the composer's advice is not sought during the final mix. In such cases, the music becomes deformed. There are some in the industry, those with whom I have worked in many films, who insist that the composer be present when the final mix is being done. And in most such cases the results are obvious,” Johnson had remarked.
Johnson loved to sing. And he did not miss out on a chance to do so. Some of his songs such as ‘Aashane…' (‘Football'), ‘Verum oru moshtavaayorenne…' (‘Cheppadividya'), ‘Mookkilla naakkilla…' (‘Vismayam'), ‘Pulchadi…' (‘Photographer'), ‘Thaazhe paadam koyyan…' (‘Gulmohar') were expressions of that passionate urge. Johnson also sang in a couple of Tamil films; a duet with Minmini in ‘Naathu Nattachu' and with Harini in the film ‘Kangalal Kaidthu Sei.'
And his compositions… Johnson touched a chord in every heart with his immortal, evocative songs. Along with M.G. Radhakrishnan and Raveendran, he gave Malayalam film music a new direction, after the era of the grand masters.
Right from his debut as a song maker in ‘Inayethedi' (1981) Johnson went on to create some of the best songs in the language. For a rather long phase, at a time when he was much sought after, Johnson was in the wilderness. He was lost to music, falling into bouts of depression. The Johnson brand of music made a comeback with ‘ Photographer' (2006).
Johnson will always have a special place in the annals of Malayalam film music. He will be remembered as a musician whose music was blessed with the gift of genius.
Some gems from Johnson's treasure trove of film songs. Next to the songs are the names of the films in which these melodic numbers were featured.
‘Aadivaa katte….' - ‘Koodevide'
‘Swapnam verumoru swapnam…' - ‘Premageethangal'
‘Poovenam…' - ‘Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvattam'
‘Gopike ninviral…' - ‘Katthe Kilikoodu'
‘Devaanganangal…' - ‘Njan Gandharvan'
‘Thankathoni…' - ‘Mazhavalkavadi'
‘Anuragini etha…' - ‘Oru Kudakizhil'
‘Swarnamukhile…' - ‘Ithu Njangalude Katha'
‘Ennittum neeyene arinjillalo…' - ‘Naseema'
‘Aadyamaay kandanaal…' - ‘Thoolvalkottaram'
‘Ponnilkulichu ninnu…' - ‘Sallapam'
‘Sree Rama naamam…' - ‘Narayam'
‘Brahmakamalam…' - ‘Savidham'
‘Neelaraavil…' - ‘Kudumbasametham'
‘Enthe kannanu…' - ‘Photographer'
‘Oru naal subharaathri…' - ‘Gulmohar'
More than managing the orchestra in the studio, the real challenge is in shaping, controlling, and delivering a musical show ‘live.' And Johnson had no competitor in keeping all the musical elements together.
When G. Devarajan organised the golden jubilee of Malayalam film music in 1994, there were more than 100 songs, representative of different ages, conducted over three days. Then it was Johnson who knit together the 35-piece orchestra.
At the end of it, Naushad Ali, the chief guest, called Johnson on stage and gave him a bouquet of flowers, saying that the show would not have been possible without the genius of Johnson. That was just one show that Johnson embellished with his razor sharp memory, keen musical acumen, and passion for his vocation.