May 14: Legendary producer the late Bob Johnston was born in 1932

Photo by Al Clayton

“Is it rolling, Bob?”
– Bob Dylan at the beginning of To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline)

“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. Columbia’s leading folk and country producer, 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. … Johnston lived on low country barbecue, and he was all charm.”
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

“I had the best in the world in my hand – there was no place I couldn’t go with him, so that’s where I went. I think Blonde On Blonde is the best record Dylan ever cut… Blonde On Blonde was the first symphony cut in Nashville!”
– Bob Johnston (Uncut magazine)

Donald William ‘Bob’ Johnston (born May 14, 1932, Hillsboro, Texas, died August 14, 2015) was an American record producer, best known for his work with Bob DylanJohnny CashLeonard Cohen, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Great interview from youtube (by Harper Simon):

Bob Johnston worked briefly as a staff producer for Kapp Records, then for Columbia Records in New York, where he began producing a string of notable and highly influential albums. He was already producing Patti Page when in 1965 he was successful in gaining the assignment to produce Bob Dylan, followed by Simon and Garfunkel, The Pozo-Seco Singers, Johnny Cash, Flatt & Scruggs, and then Leonard Cohen. His style of production varied from a ‘documentary’ approach capturing a fleeting moment (exemplified by Dylan’s albums and Cash’s live albums) to providing subtle arrangements with strings, background vocals and seasoned session musicians (exemplified by Cohen’s studio albums).

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I have no idea what the first song I recorded with Dylan was. It was on Highway 61, but I wouldn’t know what it was, because I had Simon at night, and Dylan in the day most of the time, or afternoon. I had 27 artists I was working with, the Byrds on the coast, Patti Page, and the ones in New York. I didn’t know where I was. I knew I loved it, and I would sleep going out to Long Island in a limo, and fix breakfast for the kids. See them, turn around and sleep back into town. That’s the sleep I got for two or three years.

I went over with Paul Simon and recorded the Sounds of Silence album. He was totally different! Dylan never did anything twice in his life! Nobody ever counted off for him. He’d get that guitar and go, “This goes C-R-G.” I told everybody that I ever got with, if you quit, you’re out of here, because you’ll never hear that song again. He’ll go get a pen and start playing, and you’ll forget about that song, and it’ll be the ending. I said, “We can overdub anybody but him, so don’t anybody ever stop.” And nobody really ever did.
– Bob Johnston (Austin Chronicle)

After a couple of years in New York, Johnston became head of Columbia in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had known many of the session musicians, such as Charlie Daniels, for years. He produced three of Cohen’s albums, toured with him and also composed music to the Cohen lyric “Come Spend the Morning”, recorded by both Lee Hazlewood and Engelbert Humperdinck.

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Photo: Ilpo Musto

“There’s a record that hasn’t come out yet. I had Dylan at night, and Cash was coming down at midnight. Cash walked in and said, “What are you doing here?” Dylan said, “I’m recording.” Johnny said, “I am, too. Let’s go get some dinner. Come on, Bob.” I said, “No, I’ll wait here.” So they went out and got some dinner, and while they were gone, I built a night club out in the studio, with lights and glass and their guitars and all that s***. They came back in, looked out there, saw that, looked at each other, looked at me, went out there, and started playin’. They played thirty two songs. Dylan said, “We’re done.” They never released it. It’s been recorded since 1969, and they never released it.”
– Bob Johnston (Golminemag.com)

 

Selected songs from his extensive production carreer:

I thought Dylan’s music was so important, what he was doing and what he was putting down. It was joyous to me. . . . Whenever he’d ask me, ‘‘What do you think?’’ I’d say, ‘‘What possible difference could it make, what I think?’’’
– Bob Johnston (from Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

Dylan played a little song, and I said, “That sounds like the Salvation Army band.” He said, “Can we get one?” I said, “No, it’s two o’clock in the morning!” I got a trombone player and a trumpet, put a drum around a guy’s neck. Everybody marched out there and sang “Rainy Day Women,” and all the other stuff. I didn’t just languish there, “What do you wanna do now?” That’s what I did for a living. Eight years with Dylan.
– Bob Johnston (Goldminmag.com)

Photo: George Schowerer
Photo: George Schowerer

Johnny Cash said of Bob Johnston:
 “Bob Johnston is a producer that is an artist’s dream. Bob Johnston likes to sit back and watch an artist produce himself, and then he puts it together. Bob Johnston is smart enough to know when he gets an artist who believes in himself–to let him run with it.”

Bob Johnston worked through the 1970s, as before,  with country, folk, and rock artists. He could not hope to get as interesting or as good artists as he did  between 1965 and 1970. Nobody could.
He hasn’t worked as frequently in the later years, but there have been some work coming out from time to time. His last album was with Brazilian artist Eron Falbo with the album, 73 in 2013.

It’s been less than two year since we lost this tremendous talent, may he rest in peace!

– Hallgeir & Egil

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