Obituary: Bob Johnston, music producer

Music producer who nurtured talent including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. Picture: Julien M�nard
Music producer who nurtured talent including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. Picture: Julien M�nard
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Born: 14 May, 1932, in Hillsboro, Texas. Died: 14 August, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee, aged 83.

BOB Johnston was the quiet genius behind some of the greatest albums of the 20th century, including Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, breakthrough recordings by Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel, and Johnny Cash’s live albums from the Folsom and San Quentin prisons. As a result, Johnston, of Scots-Irish origin, became one of the most influential record producers of the heady 1960s and 70s. He also wrote or co-wrote many songs himself, including several for Elvis Presley, mostly for the largely forgettable movies, but these songs were credited to Johnston’s wife Joy Byers “for contractual reasons”. They included It Hurts Me, a 1964 minor hit for the King and co-written by Charlie Daniels.

As a producer, Johnston liked to say that “I just turned on the tape machine” but the reality was the opposite. Dylan and Cohen credited him with forwarding their careers by putting their art before costs, schedules, sales or likely hits, in sharp contrast to most producers of the era.

It was Johnston who persuaded a reluctant Dylan to switch from his New York studios to Nashville, Tennessee – “Music City” – a move which transformed his music. Cash said Johnston saved and revitalised his fading career by hooking him up with Dylan and organising the famous visits to the two Californian state prisons which yielded two classic Cash albums.

In the 1968 album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Cash had the inmates, many of them lifers, yelling and cheering when he sang: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Live at San Quentin the following year, he got a similarly rowdy but rapturous reception when he premiered the song A Boy named Sue and for another classic line: “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.”

In order best to capture their essence in the studio, Johnston tried to get his artists’ sound as close to “live” as possible, preferring few takes and little post-production, overdubbing or enhancing.

He was perhaps most proud of his Dylan albums, the two mentioned above plus John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait. Highway 61 Revisited (1965) has often been listed as one of the great rock albums of all time and the track Desolation Row helped establish the singer as one of the finest poets of the 20th century. Dylan always credited Johnston for bringing in Nashville session musician Charlie McCoy to provide the steel-stringed acoustic guitar backing on the track.

Blonde on Blonde (1966) has topped several listings as the greatest rock album of all time and was also one of the first double-albums. Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “There are more worn-out copies of Blonde on Blonde in existence than any other album in American history.”

Johnston was the subject of one of the most famous four-word phrases in rock history: “Is it rolling, Bob?” Dylan asked the question, to check whether Johnston had started the tapes at the beginning of the track To be Alone with You on the 1969 Nashville Skyline album.

The phrase would normally have been cut from the tape but it took on massive importance among Dylan fans since it was the first time most of them had heard his speaking voice – gravelly baritone in contrast to the high-pitch of his recordings until then.

The phrase has been used in countless rock articles and was the title of a delightful reggae tribute album of Dylan songs produced by Dr Dread and featuring artists including Toots Hibbert and Gregory Isaacs.

Referring to his producer, Dylan wrote in Volume One of his memoirs, Chronicles: “Johnston had fire in his eyes. He had that thing that some people call “momentum”. You could see it in his face and he shared that fire, that spirit… he was born one hundred years too late. He should have been wearing a wide cape, a plumed hat, and riding with his sword held high. Johnston disregarded any warning that might get in his way.”

The Canadian singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen had already released his first album in 1967, which was a slow-burner in North America and more popular in Europe, when he met Johnston. The Texan produced his next two albums, first Songs from a Room (1969), including the track Bird on the Wire, with Johnston himself on keyboards.

American singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson has said he would want the first lines of Bird on his gravestone: “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” Johnston went on to produce and play piano on Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate, which helped make the Canadian a global star.

“Bob Johnston created an atmosphere in the studio that really invited you to do your best,” Cohen said. “An atmosphere that was free of judgment, free of criticism, full of invitation, full of affirmation. He would also move while you were singing. He’d dance for you.”

Johnston played a major role in boosting the careers of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, producing their second album Sounds of Silence (1966) which features the now classic tracks The Sound of Silence and I am a Rock. The album was re-released in 2001 with the previously excluded “bonus” tracks Barbriallen (the 17th-century Scots folk song Barbara Allen), The Rose of Aberdeen and Roving Gambler.

Donald William Johnston, who later became known as Bob, was born in the small town of Hillsboro, Texas, on 14 May, 1932. As it turned out, a boy called Willie Nelson was born only ten miles away and a year later in the one-street town of Abbott in 1933 and the two Texans would go on to work together as a producer/artist team.

The Johnstons had been among the earliest settlers in North America from the British Isles, landing at Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1651.

Bob was born into a musical family. His grandmother, Mamie Jo Adams, of Irish extraction, has sometimes, erroneously, been credited as a co-writer of the classic When Irish Eyes are Smiling but Bob said this was a misunderstanding because she had been a friend and musical collaborator of the writers Olcott, Graff and Ball.

Bob was brought up in Fort Worth, Texas, where his mother, Diane Johnston, was a prolific songwriter, including for famous cowboy singers Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. She had a major hit with her song (I Saw) Miles and Miles of Texas, recorded by the Texas-based band Asleep at the Wheel.

Bob Johnston died in a hospice in Nashville after suffering from memory loss. Two of his sons, Andy and Bobby, predeceased him and he is survived by his wife Joy (Byers) and their son Kevin.