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Bob Johnston, record producer known for his work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel, was born 91 years ago today
Johnston with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash when they recorded “Girl from the North Country,” 1969
Photo by Al Clayton
Bob Johnston, record producer known for his work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel, was born 91 years ago today.
Born into a professional musical family, Johnston’s grandmother, Mamie Jo Adams, was a songwriter, as was his mother, Diane Johnston. His mother had written songs for Gene Autry in the '50s and scored a hit in 1976 when Asleep at the Wheel covered her 1950 demo, "Miles and Miles of Texas."
After a stint in the Navy, Johnston returned to Fort Worth, then he and Diane Johnston collaborated on songwriting for rockabilly artist Mac Curtis. From 1956 to 1961, Johnston recorded a few rockabilly singles under the name Don Johnston.
By 1964, he had moved into production work at Kapp Records in New York, freelance arranging for Dot Records and signed as a songwriter to the music publisher, Hill and Range. He also married the songwriter, Joy Byers, with whom he began to collaborate.
In recent years, Bob Johnston has claimed that songs still credited to his wife, Joy Byers, were actually co-written or solely written by himself. He has cited old "contractual reasons" for this situation. The songs in question include Timi Yuro's 1962 hit, "What's A Matter Baby," plus at least 16 songs for Elvis Presley's films between 1964 and 1968, including "It Hurts Me," "Let Yourself Go" and "Stop, Look and Listen."
Two songs credited to Byers, the aforementioned, "Stop, Look and Listen" and "Yeah, She's Evil!," were recorded by Bill Haley & His Comets before being used by Elvis (the latter song was retitled, "The Meanest Girl in Town," when Presley recorded it). Presley recorded "The Meanest Girl in Town" on June 10, 1964, while Bill Haley recorded his version a week later — on June 16.
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).
After a couple of years in New York, Johnston became head of Columbia in Nashville, 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.
Dissatisfied with his salary earnings as a Columbia staff producer, particularly after several hit albums which earned him no royalties, Johnston became an independent producer, most successfully with Lindisfarne on Fog on the Tyne, which topped the British album chart in 1972.
During a period of financial difficulty, when he was under scrutiny from the IRS, Johnston moved to Austin and did no record production for some time. He eventually returned with work on Willie Nelson's 1992 album, The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? (Nelson obviously had his own financial difficulties at the time).
In the late 1980s, Johnston produced Carl Perkins' album, Go Cat Go, which featured numerous guest stars including Paul Simon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well as unreleased recordings of Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes by John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. This album's release was delayed until 1996.
In 2000, Johnston produced the operatic pop singer, Romina Arena. The unreleased album included the song "Make You Feel My Love," written by Bob Dylan.
In more recent years, Johnston returned to working with fresh talent including singer-songwriters Natalie Pinkis (USA), Eron Falbo (Brazil) and indie rock band Friday's Child (USA). Falbo's album, 73, was released in 2013.
At the beginning of "To Be Alone with You" on Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan famously asks — "Is it rolling, Bob?" — talking to Johnston, his producer.
Among the major records Johnston produced included Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (with the exception of "Like a Rolling Stone") (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969), Self Portrait (1970) and New Morning (1970).
Also, Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence (1966), Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966); and Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968); The Holy Land (1969); At San Quentin (1969); Hello, I'm Johnny Cash (1970); The Johnny Cash Show (1970); I Walk the Line (1970); Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1971). And Leonard Cohen: Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and Live Songs (1973).
Johnston died on August 14, 2015 at the age of 83 in a memory facility and hospice in Nashville.