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Remembering PJ, Radio Driver

obituary:by Fred Zindi

When the news of Peter Johns’s death broke out last Monday some people started to speculate that his death was as a result of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). It wasn’t. I’m sorry that I didn’t write sooner — I just could not find the words.

On November 27, 2019, I remember writing that Peter had been hospitalised. He never left that hospital till the end. Whatever the cause of his death, our hearts are broken and we share our grief with his family.

I have fond memories of visiting Peter on several occasions at his house on the corner of Cumberland and Enterprise roads in Newlands, Harare before he left for the United Kingdom. His dining room was filled with thousands of 12-inch albums which were packed against the wall and neatly categorised from R‘n’B, reggae, soul, calypso, sungura to jazz and mbaq’anga. We always had fun sitting in the back yard talking about almost everything, but most importantly, music.

We would sit and rehearse stings and jingles he was going to use for his next show, such as: “If it’s too loud, you are too old”.

This week, I spoke to John Matinde, a former Radio 3 DJ and manager who recruited Peter Johns to radio in 1981 about his death. His words were simple and he was still in shock. He said: “Go well driver, Peter Johns”.

Peter is gone too soon, and will be missed. My wish is to be re-united with him in heaven (hopefully not too soon for me).

In my vision of heaven, we are re-united not just with our loved ones who went before us, but also the people we love that come after. My love goes out to all that knew and loved Peter Johns. I have so many fond memories of him, he was such a great man. I feel so lucky that he shared his love and knowledge of the latest trends in music with me.

We remained good friends even though our music tastes and lives went in different directions.

In 1989, Mike Mhundwa, aka Big Sam, a fellow Radio 3 DJ and I were booked on a six month contract by the owners, Tim Breen and Zac Almeida to play at Scamps Night Club. Peter Johns would come every Friday to watch us. As soon as our contract expired, Peter ran to the management and convinced them that he had a huge following and wanted a chance to play at Scamps. He got it.

Peter Johns, who was affectionately known by such sobriquets as “PJ Your DJ” or “The Radio Driver”, also hosted the “Midday Jam” on Radio 3 (now Power FM) in Zimbabwe. Peter Johns spent over 20 memorable years on the club scene and as a radio DJ. In that time, Peter established himself as a popular radio DJ with programmes like Weekend Love and Mellow Madness.

Soon, his energetic remixes and sharp original productions found themselves in sets and over time, his mixed tapes and club nights, solidified his status as one of Zimbabwe’s best DJs. He was very passionate about his career as a DJ and took a professional attitude to it. He was an inspiration to many DJs and upcoming radio announcers. He was also influential in the development of other DJs including Tich Mataz, Innocent Manase, the Hitman, Leander Kandiero, Kelvin Sifelani and others. He brought professionalism to radio broadcasting. He was simply number one. His contemporaries, John Matinde, Hilton Mambo, Admire Taderera and Josh Makawa also learnt a few tips from him.

PJ is credited with interviewing the bad boy of Ragga music, Shaba Ranks, during his visit to Zimbabwe in the 1990s. He interviewed several other celebrities, including Maxi Priest, King Sounds and Jimmy Cliff. The introduction of satellite television brought another great break for PJ – TV broadcasting. Sponsored shows, such as Coca-Cola on the Beat, gave him a marvelous break. His star was to continue shining until circumstances changed. Peter often talked about the experience he had one New Year’s eve as he recalled the good times he had in Zimbabwe. PJ played for a private party aboard a train across the Victoria Falls gorge in 1999.

“The highlight was of course the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve when the train stopped on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. What a way to see the new millennium!” he said.

In 2002, through restructuring by the then Information moinister Jonathan Moyo, and a change of policies at State radio stations, PJ was left with no choice, but to leave the radio station he had served for a great many years, albeit with bitter-sweet memories. “The bulk being sweet,” as he put it.

Earlier in the late 1980s Peter used to visit me in London where I had become a Ph.D student. His focus was strictly on new music. I would take him to record shops such as Virgin Records and HMV in Oxford Street, Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus and Body Music in Seven Sisters Road, which he would happily take to Zimbabwe as excess baggage.

He left Radio 3 in 2002 when he went to the United Kingdom. There he continued with his career as club DJ, internet radio broadcaster and host at many functions especially those involving Zimbabweans in the diaspora. Through PJ’s connections in the UK and United States, and his continued thirst for up-to-date knowledge of musicians and their music, the dynamic DJ was exposed to newly emerging trends in music from the UK and US.

In the UK, Peter caused waves with internet radio, one which he established from his flat and was broadcasting worldwide in a show he called Finer Jamz 21.

In 2010 he suffered a mild cardiac arrest and was operated on.

In August that year, I paid Peter a visit at his Lewisham, South London flat just after his first heart operation. PJ showed me the cuts on his chest and the sight really frightened me. He also showed me the equipment which he was using for broadcasting Finer Jamz 21. Immediately after, Peter asked me to help him carry his mobile disco equipment downstairs into his car. He had a function in Birmingham, a Zimbabwean wedding. I tried to persuade him not to go as he was sick. He told me that he had already taken a deposit and it would be unprofessional for him to cancel the gig at the last minute. He had asked Kelvin Sifelani, another DJ based in the UK. to cover for him. But Sifelani also had a function on the same day. Besides, he said, the people who had hired him preferred to see Peter Johns at the decks and not anybody else. Sick as he was, Peter insisted on driving to Birmingham some 120 miles away. I decided to go with him.

At the function, I noticed that Peter’s music had completely metamorphosised from the R‘n’B and pop music he used to play while in Zimbabwe to Zimbabwean popular music. He opened the show with Calisto Nyamhute’s Special Meat. This was followed by Tanga Wekwa Sando’s Wake, then Prince Tendai’s Character, followed by Assegai Crew’s Kanyama Karipi. I thought the wedding couple had made those requests, but I later discovered that it was purely Peter’s own choice.

After that he played several of Oliver Mtukudzi hits and Michael Lannas’s Come To Me (Hapana Mazwi). I was impressed. This man knew his music and had a great passion to please his audiences, I concluded.

Flash back! In July, 2014, Peter briefly came to Zimbabwe just to update himself with things on the ground. I drove him to Star FM and we negotiated with Comfort Mbofana for a slot at the station. He was given a slot on Star FM as a surprise guest. He played his old school hits that had made him popular in Zimbabwe on Radio 3’s Drive Time Show in the 1990s. Star FM listeners had a great time when they reminisced on the good old days when the popular disc jockey came on The Crossover which was hosted then by Otis Fraser. On his playlist was music by Earth Wind and Fire, The Gap Band, Mary-Jane Girls, The Whispers, Shalamar, D-Train, The Commodores, Kool and The Gang and many more from the old school days. It was a welcome return to radio for the revered DJ. The Star FM switchboard was abuzz with calls from fans who expressed joy when they heard the legend who was last on air some 12 years before.

“Well, I have not been on radio due to health problems,” he said.

However, there was excitement among his fans mostly the mature who used to religiously listen to his shows back in the day. Here are some of the remarks which came from his fans:

“PJ we miss you please come back,” said Angella, a fan from Cranborne.

Another fan said: “I used to listen to your shows man, the Monday’s Mellow Madness, was a great show, man we love you.”

“We used to listen to your shows at school and because we didn’t have a good radio we would put the small wireless in a bucket to increase the volume,” said a phone-in fan.

What a sad loss for Zimbabwe and the rest of the world.

Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. In Zimbabwe, Christopher and Monica Mutsvangwa, Robson Mhandu, Tich Mataz, Zac Almeida and thousands of his fans have expressed their sadness at such a loss. From the UK, Matinde, Rachel Boulton-Cohen, Levi Zindi and Arthur Tendai Janjawa have also paid their tribute, to mention only a few.

I want to extend my deep condolences to Johns’s family — his former wife Ricky, his two sons Mark and Matthew to his sister, Eva and his last partner, Susan from Zambia. My heart aches for you all. I will always have very fond memories of Peter. Sending hope for peace to all of his family and friends.


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