The genius of Tony Johnson, better known to St. Louis radio listeners as Tony J, was that he made a name for himself as a beloved personality by delivering what is traditionally the most boring element of drive time radio – the traffic report.
Johnson passed away on Monday, January 13 after a battle with brain cancer. He was 49.
“The world will never know how much talent he had,” said 95.5 FM The Lou evening personality DJ Kut. Faithful St. Louis urban radio listeners have an idea.
The information of his report was essential information for rush hour commuters, but Tony J made you want to hear it, even if you were just sitting at home looking for a good laugh. His traffic reports were like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolate: you never knew what you were going to get.
Sometimes he’d announce them in the speed of mid-tempo R&B jam. Other times he’d kick into them like a rap freestyle. He even announced them with the twang of a country song. The only thing that was constant was the hilarious way he would over annunciate the “traffic.” Loud and hard, with a high pitch, he emphasized the “c” sound to the added breath delivered an “a” sound at the end. He went with it – using the spelling “Traffica” to brand himself.
He was funny and he loved St. Louis. Those were the two factors that kept him so connected to the city that adopted him as their own. Originally from Chicago, he set up roots in the region and developed a cult-like following. He lit up the airwaves of Q 95.5 and later Hot 104.1 FM for several years by bringing comic relief to morning and afternoon broadcasts on Q and Hot.
He loved being a St. Louis celebrity – so much so that he had a custom painted Geo that served as his own mobile billboard. He extended his brand beyond the radio with the Traffic Music Awards in 2008.
The concept of the awards was to highlight the best and brightest of St. Louis. Unlike the name suggests, the recognition was in more areas than music. In addition to nominations like “Best Album” and “Best R&B Artist,” some of the categories over the years included ‘Best Barbershop,” “Best Beauty Salon,” “Best Publication,” “Best Television Personality,” and “Best Politician,” to name a few. The nominations created buzz and the ceremony often included the who’s who of the St. Louis hip-hop scene.
“I going to keep doing it because I love this city and it has as much talent as anywhere in the world,” Tony J said ahead of the 2012 Traffic Music Awards.
He kept them up for ten years – even after he parted ways with Radio One St. Louis.
“He was a genuinely good dude that helped bring all the DJs, artists and STL music scene together, “Kris “DJ Vodu” Hatten said via Facebook.
Johnson also worked as an actor and comedian. Before his health declined, he was an on-air talent for Mix 99.5 FM.
His diagnosis didn’t diminish his faith and optimism.
“The doctors said that there is nothing else they can do for me, so I’m going to need your prayers,” Johnson said, offering fans an update on his health several months ago.
Condolences poured into Facebook and Instagram from his former listeners and the artists he supported through the Traffic Music Awards.
“When I was living in St. Louis and managing hip-hop artists, you were always so kind to me and my folks,” Jo Ann Smith posted on his timeline. “The whole city is in mourning today.”