The Courier-Mail

Pro­ducer turned stars into le­gends


BOB John­ston was a mu­sic pro­ducer who played a key role in land­mark record­ings such as Bob Dy­lan’s Blonde on Blonde and Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison.

He is be­ing re­mem­bered as a mav­er­ick who helped bring folk rock to Nashville.

Peter Cooper, an editor at the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame and Mu­seum, said John­ston helped open up Nashville to mu­sic and mu­si­cians from other places.

“John­ston was re­spon­si­ble for Dy­lan com­ing to the mu­sic city and Blonde on Blonde was one of at least three record­ings Dy­lan and John­ston made in Nashville,” he said.

In his memoir, Chron­i­cles: Vol­ume One, Dy­lan wrote that John­ston called him one day and asked if he was think­ing about record­ing. “Of course I was,” Dy­lan added.

On the al­bum Nashville Skyline, when Dy­lan can be heard ask­ing, “Is it rolling Bob?” at the be­gin­ning of a song, it was John­ston he was talk­ing to, said Michael Gray, another editor at the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame.

Dy­lan wrote that work­ing with John­ston “was like a drunken joyride”.

He de­scribed the pro­ducer as “built like a wrestler, thick wrists and big fore­arms, bar­relled chest, short but with a per­son­al­ity that makes him seem big­ger than he re­ally is ...”

He added: “His idea for pro­duc­ing a record was to keep the ma­chines oiled, turn ’em on and let ’er rip ...”

While John­ston did not have a sig­na­ture sound in the man­ner of a Phil Spec­tor or Ge­orge Martin, he was cred­ited with hav­ing brought out the best in mu­si­cians’ cre­ative tem­per­a­ments.

John­ston’s own de­scrip­tion of his modus operandi was more prag­matic. “If Dy­lan wanted to record un­der a palm tree in Hawaii with a ukulele I’d be there with the tape ma­chine. I’m an artist’s pro­ducer, ” he said.

John­ston’s in­flu­ence is show­cased in an ex­hibit at the mu­seum called Dy­lan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Mu­sic City.

Ron Cor­nelius, a long­time friend of John­ston whose folk rock band West recorded al­bums with John­ston in 1967 and 1968, said: “They would not have that ex­hibit ... if it weren’t for Bob.”

Born Don­ald Wil­liam John­ston but known as Bob, he grew up in a mu­si­cal fam­ily in Texas. His mother and grand­mother were both song­writ­ers. His mother wrote for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Eddy Arnold. He be­gan pur­su­ing a ca­reer in mu­sic af­ter a stint in the US Navy. In the early 1960s, af­ter a short ca­reer as a rock­a­billy artist, he be­gan writ­ing songs for Elvis Pres­ley movies and trav­el­ling to Nashville to record demos.

By 1964 he’d moved to New York and even­tu­ally got a job at Columbia Records. One of the first record­ings he pro­duced there was Patti Page’s Hush, Hush Sweet Char­lotte, which be­came a Top 10 hit in 1964. Fol­low­ing that suc­cess he be­gan work­ing with Dy­lan, even­tu­ally per­suad­ing him to re­lo­cate to Nashville to work with ses­sion mu­si­cians there.

John­ston, a coun­try-mu­sic lov­ing Texan, also helped re­vi­talise Johnny Cash’s ca­reer when he sup­ported Cash’s plan to record a live al­bum in­side a prison, some­thing la­bel ex­ec­u­tives had re­peat­edly re­jected.

In 1968, Cash put on a per­for­mance for the in­mates of Folsom State Prison. The re­sult­ing al­bum won wide­spread ac­claim.

“He was a mav­er­ick,” Cooper said. “He was the guy who ful­filled Johnny Cash’s vi­sion of record­ing al­bums in pris­ons.”

John­ston also pro­duced mul­ti­ple stel­lar al­bums by Leonard Co­hen, Si­mon and Gar­funkel, Flatt & Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Marty Rob­bins and sev­eral other now-leg­endary artists, all within a 10-year span.

His ca­reer con­tin­ued through the 1990s and into the new mil­len­nium when he pro­duced al­bums for Wil­lie Nel­son and was the mas­ter­mind be­hind the Carl Perkins trib­ute al­bum Go, Cat, Go!

He mar­ried fel­low song­writer Joy By­ers, some of whose songs were recorded by Elvis Pres­ley. She sur­vives him along with one of their three sons and three grand­chil­dren.

Mu­sic pro­ducer Born: May 14, 1932, Hills­boro, Texas Died: Au­gust 14, 2015, Nashville, Ten­nessee
DON­ALD WIL­LIAM “BOB” JOHN­STON Mu­sic pro­ducer Born: May 14, 1932, Hills­boro, Texas Died: Au­gust 14, 2015, Nashville, Ten­nessee

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