Wycliffe Johnson, an innovative composer and producer known as Steely, who held sway over two decades of reggae music, died on Tuesday in East Patchogue, N.Y. He was 47 and lived in Kingston, Jamaica.
The cause was a heart attack following pneumonia, said his daughter Kerry Johnson. He had moved to Brooklyn this summer for treatment of kidney problems related to hypertension and diabetes, she said, and died at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital several weeks after surgery for a blood clot in the brain.
The reggae world knew Mr. Johnson as Steely, a boisterous producer with a larger-than-life personality and a belly to match. Best known for his role in the team Steely & Clevie, he was equally influential in his early work as a sideman, and helped to transform reggae at several stages, from roots to dancehall to digital.
An expert keyboardist who worked with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, Mr. Johnson worked at seminal Jamaican recording studios like Coxsone Dodds Studio One, Lee (Scratch) Perrys Black Ark and Sugar Minotts Youth Promotion. By some estimates he participated in more sessions than anyone else in the history of reggae.
Born and raised in the same Trenchtown streets as Marley, Mr. Johnson was largely self-taught. When he was 12, the drummer Cleveland Browne, known as Clevie, invited him home for daily rehearsals with him and his brothers. We basically learned together, Mr. Browne said in a telephone interview on Thursday. Steely became like part of the family.
As a child, Mr. Johnson would hang around Channel One Studio in Kingston, fetching drinks for the influential drum-and-bass duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, known as Sly & Robbie. When those two left Channel One, the band the Roots Radics, with Mr. Johnson as keyboardist and chief arranger, became Jamaicas most in-demand rhythm section.
In the early 1980s Mr. Johnson and the Roots Radics pioneered the muscular, stripped-down reggae sound that would come to be known as dancehall, performing on records like Cocoa Teas Lost My Sonia, Freddie McGregors Big Ship, Yellowmans Zungguzungguguzungguzeng and Michael Prophets Gunman.