Friday 28 October 2016

Obituary: Bob Johnston American music producer

Born May 14 1932, died August 14 2015

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

Legend: Bob Johnston with Dylan and Cash in 1969.
Legend: Bob Johnston with Dylan and Cash in 1969.

Bob Johnston, who has died aged 83, produced some of the key albums of the 1960s, notably Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

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Simultaneously, he was working on Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (both 1966), records which, by adding a rockier edge to their music, connected the leading songwriters of the folk renaissance with a far wider audience.

Although he was aware of his worth, Johnston maintained that his role involved little more than making sure that the tapes were working. Indeed, at the start of To Be Alone with You Dylan can be heard asking: "Is it rolling, Bob?"

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

"It wasn't just a matter of turning on the machines," observed Leonard Cohen, who at the end of the 1960s recorded Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate with Johnston. "He created an atmosphere in the studio that really invited you to do your best, stretch out, do another take - an atmosphere that was free from judgement, free from criticism, full of invitation, full of affirmation."

Johnston became Dylan's producer in 1965, when he was working for Columbia Records (also known as CBS).

He replaced Tom Wilson, a black, jazz-loving graduate of Harvard with whom Dylan did not always see eye to eye, after they had recorded just one track for what became Highway 61 Revisited. That was Like a Rolling Stone. Its revolutionary sound turned Dylan from a folk act into a pop star, but the recording had been fraught.

By contrast, Johnston hit it off at once with Dylan ("Nicest person I ever met in my life," the producer said). Meanwhile the singer thought 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… Johnston lived on low-country barbecue, and he was all charm."

Despite being told by Dylan's managers that he would be sacked if he raised the idea again, it was Johnston - a country-music-loving Texan - who persuaded Dylan to re-locate to Nashville to work with session musicians there. The outcome was Blonde on Blonde (1966), often voted the best rock album ever made, not least because it captured the spontaneous ferment of Dylan's talent. Johnston facilitated that.

"Dylan played a little song," he recalled, "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."

He continued to be Dylan's producer, on LPs such as John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, until 1970. "I still believe he's the only prophet we've had since Jesus," he reflected.

Johnston also took over from Wilson as the producer of Simon and Garfunkel. It was Wilson who had added - without the pair's knowledge - the electric guitars and drums to the acoustic version of The Sound of Silence which helped to make it their first hit in 1965. Johnston admitted, however, that the meticulous Simon had little use for his help.

In 1968, Johnston was responsible for reviving Johnny Cash's career by arranging his concert at Folsom Prison - a long-held dream of Cash's - again against the instructions of the label. The live album broke chart records and was followed by another from San Quentin which yielded A Boy Named Sue.

"Too much of the business is determined by guys in suits these days, people who are too afraid of being fired instead of determined to make good music," Johnston mused latterly. "In that kind of environment, there can't be another Beatles or Stones."

He was born Donald William Johnston at Hillsboro, Texas, in 1932. His father was a chiropractor, but the musical influence came from his mother, a songwriter.

After a spell in the US Navy, Johnston tried to become a singer himself. He was encouraged in this ambition by a chance encounter with Frank Sinatra in which he noticed how many attractive women there were in his entourage.

By the late 1950s, under the name Bob Johnston, he had had some minor success as a rockabilly act. But after he appeared on the same bill as the teen idol Ricky Nelson without drawing the same adulation - "He looked like he'd spent a million dollars on his clothes; I looked like I'd spent $8" - he realised that he was not destined for the big time.

By 1965 he had found himself a staff job at Columbia, with an office in a broom cupboard. He got his first recognition as a producer with the theme to the Bette Davis thriller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), which won the Oscar for Best Song and was a hit for Patti Page.

Johnston received only modest bonuses from CBS for his part in the success of musicians such as Dylan. By the early 1970s he believed that he could do better as a freelance producer.

He struck gold at once when Fog on the Tyne, his collaboration with the British folk group Lindisfarne, became their breakthrough LP in 1972 and reached No 1.

But thereafter his profile dwindled, though over the next few years he did work with the likes of Loudon Wainwright, Jimmy Cliff and John Mayall.

When his tax affairs came under scrutiny, however, he abandoned music for a while and took on a series of odd jobs.

In 1992, he came to the rescue of the singer Willie Nelson, who was being pursued for $32 million in unpaid taxes, by recording his musical archives before they were seized and suggesting that he make an album to help clear his debts.

This led to The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy my Memories? (1993), which went some way towards doing that. Johnston also masterminded the Carl Perkins tribute album Go, Cat, Go! (1996).

"I was better than everybody else," Johnston said. "Blonde on Blonde was voted the best album in rock history. And you compare all the work with what I did and compare the other people's records.

"I sold a billion albums, worldwide. Paul Simon's greatest hits are 14 times platinum. That's all those records, man, it ain't part of the records. It's all the records."

He is survived by his wife Joy Byers, who wrote songs for Elvis Presley's films, and by a son.

Another two sons predeceased him.

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