Robert Sherlaw Johnson was born in Sunderland in 1932 and died in November 2000. He was educated at Gosforth Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and at King's College in the University of Durham. After graduating, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano and composition. In 1957 he won the Charles W Black award and went to Paris where he studied piano with Jacques Février and composition with Nadia Boulanger, as well as attending some of Messiaen's classes at the Conservatoire. After that, he taught in schools, played the piano for a touring ballet company and a group of Spanish dancers, and established a considerable reputation as a concert pianist, specialising in performances of piano music by major 20th-century composers.
In 1961 he joined the staff of Leeds University, later becoming Lecturer in Music at the University of York. From Autumn 1970 until his death he held a lectureship at Oxford and a Fellowship at Worcester College. In 1971 he was awarded the degree of DMus by Leeds University and in 1984 was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Music. He was invited by the Eastman School of Music at Rochester University to be their visiting Professor of Composition in 1985.
A CD recording of Sherlaw Johnson's piano music, performed by the composer, is available on the Proudsound label.