Cover photo for David "Red" Rhys-Johnson's Obituary
1949 David "Red" Rhys-Johnson 2024

David "Red" Rhys-Johnson

November 8, 1949 — March 3, 2024

Long Beach, WA

Born 1949 in Long Beach, California

M      U      S      I      C

Died 2024 in Long Beach, Washington


“All deep things are Song. 

It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls! 

The primal element of us; of us, and of all things. 

The Greeks fabled Harmony of the Spheres: it was the feeling they had of the inner structure of Nature: that the soul of all her voices and utterances was perfect music.”

-Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Poet"


How do you fit a “life” into the words of an obituary? It is like reading the notes on sheet music instead of hearing the notes played, and yet the importance of story remains, the importance of a life, whether flawed, must be honored and “seen”, written in words so the future can file it away properly. 


David Wayne “Red” Rhys-Johnson was an energetic, emotion-filled, soulful man with a dose of chaos (until 9pm when the flame of energy diminished quickly). He found his bliss early in life through the piano. “Rhys” was his Mother’s maiden name, which he proudly reverted to its original Welsh spelling, and very appropriately means - “enthusiastic and passionate”. Always hot, (almost never was it cold enough for him!) “Red” was his color, initially in beard, but also in face flush… which would happen often when he played piano - and OH, COULD HE PLAY THE PIANO!  Music, music creation, performing, his beloved dogs, spending time in nature, family and friends… These were his passions, this was his life.

David was born in Long Beach, California in 1949 to Mary Francis and Marvin Johnson. As an infant, his family moved to Illinois for a short time, where brothers Steven and William “Bill” were born - the three brothers were born within 3 years of each other! When he was just 4 years old, his mom, now single, toted David and his 2 infant brothers across the country by train, landing in the small desert town of El Centro. It was there Mary met and fell in love with Roy Bevins, David’s beloved step-dad. The family soon moved to the San Diego area, settling in the town of El Cajon, where David’s brother John was born. The family remained in El Cajon throughout his childhood, and as the oldest of 4 boys, he and his brothers spent many good years there. 


At the age of 9, the family bought a piano which forever changed the trajectory of his lifeHis mom finding a way to pay for lessons, his future was immeasurably changed. By 13, he was playing piano regularly at the family church. One of his fondest memories was when the pastor, who encouraged him to play for the services, purchased a Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie speaker. As David said, “I cut my teeth learning to play on one of the most iconic organs ever devised!” As a teenager he would look out at the congregation, seeing his mom with the most proud look on her face. Over the course of her life, thousands of times, Mary would say “Aren't you glad I gave you piano lessons?” and he would always say, "Yes Mom, it’s the best thing you ever did for me!”  


After a tumultuous few years in his late teens, he found a new path forward, ending up in Santa Barbara, CA, where he met his first wife, and his first daughter Rae was born. The tumult changed from a personal one to a social one, where as youth ministers in Isla Vista, they and their fellow ministry students faced a mob of anti-war demonstrators breaking windows and starting fires on all adjacent buildings except the Christian Center, in which they stood in prayer. David, and the others at the Christian Center, all bore witness to the infamous burning of the IV Bank of America building during a very poignant time in history.


From Santa Barbara, it was on to Tuolumne County, and a calmer, slower small town way of life in the Sierra Nevada Foothills where his second and third daughters, Cecily and Kyra were born. Though he lived in Tuolumne County for less than a decade, the area would remain firmly in his heart for the rest of his life. The Sierra Nevada mountains were as much a part of his soul as music, and many of those days were spent building a life composed of directing the church choir, teaching P.E. and music at the local Mother Lode Christian School, as well as working various other jobs, hiking, hunting, fishing, and making dear, life-long friends.

As is sometimes the way with life, what we build in our 20’s, we are unable to see through to our 30’s - and this was no exception for him. After divorcing, he remarried and moved to San Jose where he welcomed his fourth child and first son, Aaron. Shortly after, they moved back to the Foothills, but this time to the Auburn area, and a different part of the Sierras. His fifth and final child, Matthew was born, and for several more years, life unfolded in a variety of content and musically focused ways. 

In life we must face our demons. Sometimes we traverse and come out unscathed; mostly we are changed, for better or for worse, and we often change those around us. The darkness internal that we face is sometimes the darkness external that we bring. David occupied some very dark times just preceding and prior to the end of his second marriage. Over the course of the next 10 years, he would move around, go back to school, write a new story, and always, always, continue to play piano.

In the 90’s, David was introduced to, and fell in love with, the Pacific Northwest via his daughter Rae. After a couple of years living between Washington and California, he finally settled permanently in Western Washington, making it his forever home - the climate and environment that suited him best. Over the next 30 years, he would become “Red”, become a grandfather many times over, make friends, build a life, become a dog owner again, make and release numerous CDs, and build his art and music “family”. He would never remarry, but would always teasingly count his beloved dogs as his “girlfriends”, roaming through woods and beaches with them as often as he possibly could.


In addition, during the mid-2000’s he became involved with the Joseph Campbell Foundation. One of the true highlights of personal and academic pride and joy for him was the honor they bestowed him as a "Fellow" in the Foundation. His connection, love, and involvement with the Foundation was unwavering, ascribing to the "power and message of myth" he proudly spent 16 years performing music for their annual gathering at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. 

Red left an indelible mark on all who knew him. His appreciation for music and for other musicians will remain a cornerstone of his legacy. His enthusiasm for connecting through music was contagious, and often once was all it took for someone to fall passionately into a space of wonder and delight with his expression and style of piano playing. As any great artist does, he told you a story that your heart somehow knew, using his fingers (and often his feet as well!) to bring the notes alive with diverse and vibrant emotion. The words that could be said about his effect on people through his music and piano playing could stretch to the stars and back again. 


David died of cardiac arrest on March 3, 2024, as he was loading his truck with sheet music and supplies to play for Sunday services at Naselle Lutheran and Chinook Lutheran Churches on the Long Beach Peninsula. He will be sorely missed by both congregations, and throughout the entire Long Beach Peninsula which he so dearly loved. 


When each of his five children was born, David wrote a special song just for them, and with his passing, these five treasured heirlooms have only deepened in meaning. His love of music continues in so many diverse ways, and extends through his children and his grandchildren, many of whom are also musicians. “Poppy Red” will be remembered by his children: Rae (Steven), Cecily, Kyra, Aaron (Alicia), Matthew (Lynsey), and his grandchildren: Sheamus, Maxfield, August, James, Bennett, Cecilia, Rainen, and Kellen. He will be remembered fondly by his many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunt, and extended family and friends.


A small memorial service will be held on Saturday June 22, 2024 at Chinook Lutheran Church on the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington. More details to follow.


A larger memorial service, celebrating his music on a grander scale, will be held in the Fall of 2024 near Tacoma, Washington. Details forthcoming. 


Announcements and updates will be posted about on this page, as well as on Red’s Facebook page. Inquiries can also be sent to RaeWarde@gmail.com





His friends, family, and music comrades have no end of things they could express. Here a small fraction, mere notes in the symphony of a life:

“His spirit and his music made the world a better place!”

“I feel so privileged to have known him! We shared a love of golden retrievers, and his prowess on the piano was inspiring and such a gift to the ears and the soul.”


“Through Red I met beautiful souls - what wonderful evenings! He really brought people together in the spirit of celebration, creativity, and love.”


“He was never daunted and he could play with everyone. His great smile was contagious, his stomping right foot, the left hand heavy on the bass keys, his right hand upside down then right side up caressing the ivory. He was way more than one of a kind, he was a Louie Armstrong, he was a Victor Borge, he was an Ella Fitzgerald, he was a Van Clybourn. He could, and did play rock and roll, forties dance music… oh hell! You know he could play it all!”


A complex human, he lived simply, fulfilled and immersed in his art and love of learning... 

“I make many people happy and touch their soul when I sit down and play the piano.”


Music... What feeling feels like over time. 

An attempt to screw up what feeling feels like over time. 

Heartbreak and a high C. 

The twang the nervous system wants when it's in revolt... Ululation and a stomp of heels, scat-sense, voice and ear living together in brilliant sin. 

The soul's undersong... a flirtation with the boundaries of silence and space... a reminder that the self wants to disappear, be taken away from itself and returned.” 

-Stephen Dunn, "Music," of the pair "Music/Noise," Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, 1998
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