He started his career as an assistant to G. Devarajan in the 1970s, and debuted as an independent composer in late seventies with Aaravam. He was a recurrent collaborator for directors Padmarajan, Bharathan, Sathyan Anthikkad, T. V. Chandran, Kamal, Lohithadas, Balachandra Menon and Mohan. He has composed music for more than 300 Malayalam films, the most by any composer except for Devarajan. He was the first Music Director from Malayalam cinema to be honored with the National Award. He died of a heart attack in Chennai on 18 August 2011.
Johnson was born in Nellikkunnu, Thrissur, Kerala, on 26 March 1953. His father was a bank employee. Johnson was a singer in the choir of Nellikkunnu St. Sebastian's Church. He obtained training in guitar and harmonium from his colleagues during this early periods itself. He used to sing in youth festivals and musical shows and joined the orchestra team of some local troupes and played harmonium in many concerts. He also used to sing in female voice in ganamelas(a stage show where film songs are sung by local or professional artists).
In 1968, Johnson and his friends formed a club named Voice of Thrissur. Johnson was the main instrumentalist in the club where he played wide varieties of instruments – guitar, harmonium, flute, drums and violin.
Within a few years, the club became one of the most sought after musical troupes in Kerala, and had more than fifty members. This club used to give accompaniment music to playback singers Jayachandran and Madhuri in their musical shows. It was Jayachandran who introduced Johnson to G. Devarajan, one of the most prolific composers of South Indian cinema then. Devarajan literally adopted Johnson and brought him to Chennai in 1974. Johnson bought an accordion, during this period, from R. K. Shekhar (A. R. Rahman's father), and began assisting Devarajan in filmscoring and composing.
Johnson began his independent career by composing the film scores of Bharathan's Aaravam (1978), Thakara (1980) and Chamaram (1980). He composed his first soundtracks for the film Inaye Thedi, debut film of director turned still photographer Antony Eastman and actress Silk Smitha. It was Devarajan himself, who suggested Johnson to the director. Then came Bharathan's Parvathi and Balachandra Menon's Premageethangal. Premageethangal was a notable success with four of its songs – "Swapnam Verumoru Swapnam", "Nee Nirayoo Jeevanil", "Muthum Mudipponnum" and "Kalakalamozhi" attaining cult status.
He came to prominence through his collaboration with Malayalam author and director Padmarajan. Koodevide was their first venture, which had one of the most famous songs of Johnson "Aadivaa Kaatte", a pathbreaking song in Malayalam music history. It was one of the first songs in Malayalam to so many western classical elements. The song was born out of Padmarajan's need for a western song for his innovative film. Song composition took place in Woodland's Hotel, Chennai. Another notable feature of this song was the lyrics by O. N. V. Kurup, who for the first time wrote lyrics for a pre-composed song. Johnson worked for 17 films with Padmarajan, including his last film Njan Gandharvan. This productive collaboration saw the detailed screenplay and cinematography of Padmarajan become a fertile ground for expressive musical narration and thematic scores for Johnson. This is seen in some of the greatest motion pictures of Malayalam cinema, like Nombarathipoovu (1987). Another notable collaboration of Johnson was with director Sathyan Anthikkad, with whom he associated in almost 25 films. He was able to provide some of his most popular songs with Anthikkad and this combo is widely accepted to be one of the greatest director-composer collaborations in Malayalam cinema. Acclaimed Malayalam director Bharathan also collaborated with him in multiple films including Parvathy, Palangal, Ormakkayi, Kattathe Kilikkoodu, Ente Upasana, Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam, Ozhivukalam, Malootty, Chamayam and Churam. His major other collaborations with directors include Mohan (Oru Katha Oru Nunakkatha, Sakshyam, Pakshe and Angane Oru Avadhikkalathu), Sibi Malayil (Kireedam, Chenkol, Dasaratham and Nee Varuvolam), Sreenivasan (Vadakkunokkiyantram and Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala), Lohithadas (Bhoothakkannadi, Kamal (Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal, Shubhayathra, Ee Puzhayum Kadannu and Paavam Paavam Rajakumaran), and Balachandra Menon (Shesham Kazhchayil, Premageethangal, Kilukilukkam, Kelkatha Shabdam and Nayam Vyakthamakkunnu).
He is also noted for his collaboration with the Malayalam lyricist Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri. Their association began in 1989 with Sathyan Anthikkad's social satire Varavelpu. Most of Johnson's notable works were in the late eighties and early nineties. In 1991, he scored a record number of 31 films, including 29 with Kaithapram. Johnson won National awards for two consecutive years. He won his first National Award in 1994 for the motion picture Ponthan Mada (1993). The next year he got his second award for Sukrutham. Both the awards were for the background score in films.
After an extremely successful career of more than a decade, Johnson took a sabbatical from film scoring by the end of the nineties. The quantity of his works began perishing during this time. By the beginning of the 2000s, he didn't sign any new projects that even his most noted collaborator Sathyan Anthikkad had to find a new composer. In 2003 he did the background score for the NFDC movie Parinamam (The Change) directed by P. Venu.In 2004, he sang the song "Theekuruvi" from Kangalal Kaidhu Sei, which was composed by A. R. Rahman. Perhaps it is the only song recorded by him for any composer other than himself. He returned strongly to the field with Photographer in 2006, which fetched him numerous awards.
Johnson has released four non-film albums. His first album Sneha Deepika was released in 1989 on Tharangini audios. It had nine Christian devotional songs – "Aathma Swaroopa", "Unni Yesu Pirannu", "Manninum Poovinum", "Thumbapoo Polulla", "Bhoomikku Pulakam", "Manassakumengil", "Kulir Choodum", "Arthungal Innoru" and "Vidarnna Punchiri". The featured artists were K. J. Yesudas, K. S. Chithra and Sujatha. His second album Onathappan, a collaboration with M. G. Radhakrishnan and Berny-Ignatius, consisted of nine festival songs. The track "Mundon Paadam" was composed by Johnson, sung by M. G. Sreekumar and had lyrics penned by Bichu Thirumala. His third album Nannipoorvam Johnson, consisted of twelve tracks – "Chandanakkavilinnu", "Panineeru Peyyum", "Vasundhare", "Virunnu Vanna", "Prapanjam Sundaram", "Enthe Nee Varathe", "Nilasandhyayil", "Veruthe Onnu", "Ponnazhikkuttu", "Pranayappirave", "Kalindhi", and an introductory speech by Sreenivasan. The lyricists were R. K. Damodaran, Gireesh Puthenchery, Kaithapram, Bichu Thirumala, M. D. Rajendran, K. Jayakumar, S. Ramesan Nair and Poovachal Khader and the songs were rendered by K. J. Yesudas, P. Jayachandran, K. S. Chithra, M. G. Sreekumar, Aparna Rajeev, Dr. Rashmi Madhu and Johnson himself. In 2009, he released his second Christian devotional album entitled Parishudhan. It had eleven tracks – "Vazhiyum Sathyavum Nee Thanne (Vijay Yesudas), "Mullukal Kuthi" (Chithra), "Ariyathe Polum" (G. Venugopal), "Neethimanayavane" (Sujatha), "Traditional song" (Louis), "Mazhayum Veyilum" (Rimi Tomy), "Oru Viral Sparshathal (Sudheep), "Loka Palaka" (Chithra), Neethanthamam (Vijay Yesudas), and "Kannukalil Theliyum" (Manjari).
His skilful integration of textual rhythm of the lyrics together with rich tonal arrangement, redefined songwriting in Malayalam cinema, since the late 1980s. In his film scores, Johnson combines native South Indian melodic patterns with the harmonic structure of classical music and this has attained an expressive form of narration through film score. He composed for about 300 films, making him the second most composed music director in Malayalam, after his guru G. Devarajan. Though he has obtained no formal training in classical music, he was able to incorporate the beauty of Carnatic ragas in his songs. Most of his songs were composed on Kalyani raga.
Johnson's favourite male singer was K. J. Yesudas, who has recorded many songs for him, while S. Janaki and K. S. Chithra were his favourite female singers. Chithra had some of her most noted songs with Johnson.
Johnson is fondly called Johnson Master (Johnson Mashu) by Malayalee audiences. Even his contemporaries and competitors refer him with the tag 'Master' ('mash' in Malayalam).
His background scoring style has a cult following. His scores from Thoovanathumbikal, Manichitrathazhu, Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal, Chitram, Bharatham, Aparan, Kireedam are considered to be amongst the best.
Johnson won the National Film Award for Best Background Score for the films Ponthan Mada (1994) and Sukrutham (1995) He was the first Malayalee music composer to receive an award in music category and is also the only Malayalee music director who received two national awards in music category. This film has one song Adimarunge ayyayya (അടിമരുങ്ങേ അയ്യയ്യാ) lyrics by O. N. V. Kurup and sung by K. S. Chithra and chorus composed by Johnson. This is a folk song. National film award committee noted that he brilliantly conceive western folk tunes into this song. So award given for best music direction and background score of this film. He has received three Kerala State Film Award for Best Music Director, for the films Ormakkayi (1982), Vadakkunokkiyantram and Mazhavil Kavadi (1989), and Angane Oru Avadhikkalathu (1999). He was awarded the Kerala State Film Award for Best Background Music for the films Sadayam (1992) and Sallapam (1996). He has thus received five Kerala State Film Awards in music category, an achievement he shares with Devarajan. He has received the Kerala Film Critics Awards four times, the most recent in 2008 for Gulmohar. In 2007, he won the Mathruboomi Award for Best Music Director for Photographer (2006). He won the Mullasserry Raju Music Award for the song "Enthe Kannanu Karuppu Niram", also from the same film. In addition, he has received numerous other awards and nominations including Devarajan Master Memorial Award and Raveendran Master Memorial Award.
Johnson, popularly known as 'Johnson Master' died in Chennai on 18 August 2011 at the age of 58, due to a massive heart attack. The Government of Kerala gave all official honours for his funeral which was held in his hometown, Thrissur. He is survived by his wife, Rani Johnson. On 25 February 2012, Renn Johnson, his son and an engineer by profession, worked at Connectivity Data Systems LLC died in a motor bike accident at Chennai. He was on the way to his office. His dead body was taken to Thrissur and was buried beside his father. At the time of Johnson's death, he was composing songs for 4 films, which were completed by his daughter Shan, who was a well-trained singer herself. Shan Johnson died in her rented flat in Chennai on 5 Feb, 2016, after suffering a massive heart attack. Her body was also taken to Thrissur, and was buried beside her father and brother.
The following lists out the films in which Johnson composed the background score but not songs.Rajavu ezhunallunnu – Christian devotional album .Audio by manorama music (2011)Parishudhan (2009)Nannipoorvam JohnsonOnathappanSneha Deepika (1989)
In an interview with Malayala Manorama, Johnson listed the following 13 songs as his favourite songs."Aadivaa Katte" (Koodevide)"Nee Nirayoo Jeevanil" (Premageethangal)"Swapnam Verumoru Swapnam" (Premageethangal)"Poo Venam" (Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam)"Melle Melle Mukhapadam" (Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam)"Gopike Nin Viral" (Kattathe Kilikkoodu)"Devankanangal" (Njan Gandharvan)"Swarna mukile" (Ithu Njangalude Katha)"Thankathoni" (Mazhavilkavadi)"Sundari Poovinu Naanam" (Ente Upasana)"Shyamambharam" (Artham)"Enthe Kannanu Karuppu Niram" (Photographer)"Oru Naal" (Gulmohar)"Rajahamsame"(chamayam)"Chandana cholayil"(sallapam)"Pathirappullunarnu"(Ee puzhayum kadannu)"Pavizham pol"(Namukku parkkaan munthirithoppukal)"oonjaalurangi hindola ragam mayangi""Paathi meyy maranjathenthe saubhaagya"(Paavam Paavam Rajakumaran)"Ariyaathe ariyaathe ...ennile ennil nee""Poothaalam valam kayyilendi vaasantham""Kannethaa doore marutheeram""Sooryaamshuvoro vayalppoovilum""Maunathin idanaazhiyil"(malooty)"Sreeraama naamam japa""Pathiraapalkkadavil ambili"(chenkol)
- "Doore doore saagaram thedi"(Varavelppu)