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.