Conducted by Richard Younger
The legend of Bob Johnston looms large in the career of Bob Dylan. More than any other producer, Johnston is responsible for producing what many Dylan fans regard as the songwriters greatest sustained body of workHighway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Self Portrait, and Bob Dylan Live 1966.
Johnstons renowned work with Dylan redefined and re-energized Music City in the 1960s. As the head of the Columbia Records Nashville office (where he replaced Don Law), Johnston worked with, among others, Marty Robbins, Simon & Garfunkle, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cashyielding such landmark albums as Simon & Garfunkles Bookends, and Johnny Cashs Live at San Quentin Prison (containing "A Boy Named Sue"). In addition, Johnston scored and produced soundtracks for film and has had his songs covered by Joan Baez, Bill Haley, Aretha Franklin and Ricky Nelsonjust to name a few.
The secret to Johnstons success was perhaps best expressed by Johnny Cash in the film The Other Side of Nashville: "Bob Johnston is a producer that is an artists 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 himselfto let him run with it."
Don Robert Johnston was born May 14, 1932, in Hillsboro, Texas. His grandmother co-wrote "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." His mother Diane, wrote songs for Gene Autry, and after Bob came out of the Navy he collaborated with her on songs for pioneering rockabilly artist Mac Curtis. Bob also pursued his own career as a solo artist, earning his first break after an engineer at a Fort Worth studio sent one of his songs to producer Clyde Otis. Otis recorded Johnston in 1956 ("Born To Love One Woman") and hooked him up with New York publishing kingpin Bobby Mellin, leading to releases on the Dot and Chic labels and personal appearances. For Johnston, however, success would ultimately come behind the control boards, not on stage.
The crucial turning point in his career came one night when he found himself "sandwiched in between Tommy Sands and Ricky Nelson somewhere in L.A.," Johnston recalls, "with all the little girls hollering, We want Ricky! We want Ricky! I got about halfway through and had to quit. It was embarrassing. I looked like shit cause I didnt have any money, and he looked like four million dollars. I thought, This isnt a good way to earn a living. So I started to write and produce, and forget about the recording end."
By the early 60s Johnston was producing for Kapp, freelance arranging for Dot, and co-writing songs with his future wife, Joy Byers. Johnston today admits that for contractual reasons his contributions to Byerss work (including Timi Yuros Top Ten "Whats A Matter Baby" and songs on nine Elvis Presley film soundtracks) were uncredited. After producing Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a comeback record for Patti Page, Johnstons opportunities mushroomed, gaining him carte blanche for future projects. It was while working in New York that his musical paths crossed with Dylans. The rest is music history.
Johnston today remains active in the music business and impassioned about his work. His main focus these days is World Communications Music, the music company he heads with Dr. John Fullerton and Peter Goodfellow. The aim of their publishing and recording conglomerate, Johnston says, "is to give the power back to the artist" by including them in on royalties and sales. The man who never took anybodys shit doesnt try to hide his disdain for the record business: "Its always been a garbage dump out there... Theyre content to sell all this brainless shit that sounds just like everything else, and then take all the profits. Its time for a change."
The following interview was culled from several phone conversations with Johnston during the past year. Johnstons thoughts and words come in torrents, and its easy to get swept up in his sense of mission and pride. Although one always seems to catch him either heading out the door, on three phone lines, or in the middle of a recording session, Johnston was consistently amiable and eager to resume the conversations. Its clear from speaking with him that music was never about "a gig." For the veteran songwriter and producer those landmark sessions with Dylan, Simon, Cohen, Cash and others were important documents of music that changed peoples livesand, it can be argued, the course of history.
How did you get involved with working on Highway 61 Revisited?
I dont know. I cant tell you the honest truth [because Im not sure myself]. What I heard from the people at CBS was that Grossman and Dylan didnt like Tom Wilson, who was producing him. Wilson had come in when John Hammond found Dylan, and they said they didnt like him. Whether Dylan didnt like him or loved him, I have no idea if thats the truth or not. [When] they came and told me that they were gonna get somebody else, and I went to John Hammond and asked him to please help me cause I wanted [to work with] Dylan more than I ever wanted [to produce] anybody in my life.
Someone once asked Dylan how he met me and he said, "I dont know. One night, Wilson was there and the next night Johnston was there."
Id just stepped in cause I had been used to producing and recording and a lot of the other people were just beginning. When I walked into a place it became mine.
Who was your boss when you worked with Dylan?
John Hammond, who was the greatest music man that ever lived, Mr. CBS. He discovered all the blues people, all the jazz people, Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon and hundreds of others. He was my mentor all the way down the line. He was the one I would go to for help. He always managed to see that I was in there before anybody else, so I give him all credit.
What were your initial impressions of Bob Dylan?
Before I met him, I had actually seen him in the Village and things like that. He was freaky to me...because I still believe that hes the only prophet weve had since Jesus. I dont think people are gonna realize it for another two or three hundred years when they figure out who really did help stop the Vietnam War, who did change everybody around and why our children arent hiding under the damn tables now worrying about an atomic war. One day theyll wake upand theyll realize what they hadinstead of asking what kind of album he did and is it as good as the last one. That was always bullshit to me.
I never cared what he did and I never cared what he did in the studio. I was trying to get down anything he was doing next, so we could have a record of itso the people could hear it all over the world. I figured that was my job.
My job wasnt to be a hero and to tell Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson what the f@#k to do! I thought if you want to be a hero or if you want to take credit, get some other people to work with. Dont work with these people. I wasnt like some other people who were looking to be the next Phil Spector. I had three sons; all I cared about was seeing that it was gonna be a better world. And I think these people made a better world for us.
Did you have to push Dylan to go to Nashville for Blonde on Blonde, or was he eager?
I didnt have to do shit. I was in the studio with Bob and I said, "You outta come on down to Nashville sometime. They got no clocks down there, and theyve really got a bunch great musicianseverybody really cares," and he answered his usual, "Hmmm." When he left and went out of the studio Al Grossman, his manger, and the president of the company, Bill Gallagher, came over to me. Gallagher was the nicest guy in the world, he never got the credit. He was from merchandising or something and he didnt know shit about music but he was a genius and built that merchandising and marketing and promotion team. Anyway, Grossman and Gallagher both came over and said if I ever again said anything to Dylan about Nashville, I was gone.
I took him to Nashville later because hed said, "Lets go down there." It wasnt me pressuring him in any way. I just happened to mention it one day and thats what came out of it.
What are your recollections of that first visit to Music City?
It seems like anybody that you ask will say that Nashville began when Dylan came down here. Thats the way I feel about it, too. I think Nashville was a different place before that. The producers and record people ran the business with an iron fist. They did what they wanted to, and the artist was at their beck and call. Everybody had a f@#kin deal. I didnt want any of that. I never had a deal with anybody. Never been sued; never sued anybody. Never took anybodys shit. But thats the way it was.
What was Dylans manner in the studio?
He never did anything twice, and if he did it twice you probably didnt get it. It was likeone time through; do another one; listen to this... Hed pick up a guitar; then hed get on the piano; then hed wind up his electric [guitar] and hed be gone again.
No one ever counted off for him. Hed start tapping his foot and everybody would be going and nobody had any f@#king idea where he was going. I told everybody that I ever came in contact with, "Just keep playing. Dont stop. We can always overdub somebody else, but you cant make him go back and do that song again."
After you did a track, would you ask if he liked it?
I wouldnt say anything. Sometimes hed ask me. Sometimes hed just look at me. Once in a while hed say, "Lets do it again." Or hed just start doing it again. But there wasnt any of that lets-listen-to-that shit like you have in regular recordings. Never happened like that. I figured this was his music. He usually got the bands together and they were always great bands.
What was your involvement with the Cash/Dylan recordings?
[It was nothing; a very subtle suggestion; it may have appeared accidental to them.] I was recording Cash in the daytime and Dylan was coming in at night. He walked in one night and I had the microphones set up. (Oh, look what Id done!) I had the microphones set up and the chairs set up in the studioand they looked at each otherand went out and started singing. Its coming out on Sony Legends. They already put out Folsom; theyre putting out San Quentin and then theyll put out Dylan & Cash.
Al Kooper takes unofficial credit for recording New Morning in New York. Whats your take on that?
What a lot of shit! [He laughs.] If he gets "unofficial credit" for New Morning, then I want unofficial credit for producing the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I brought in Charlie Daniels and George Harrison, who played on that (New Morning).
I remember that I thought Dylans music was so important, what he was doing, and what he was putting down. It was joyous to me. I never had that thing where"Id better watch what I say"that never bothered me. I never gave a shit about that.
I just do what I do. If I can help that artist in any way, just by telling them what I thought, by telling them the damn truth [about how what they were doing was sounding, then Id say it.] Not, "Well, we could do this a little better..." What is better? Better may be better for someone producing for Clive [Davis] or Walter Yetnikoff, but its not the same thing. I was producing because I felt I was helping the artist.
What are your recollections of Self Portrait?
Well, Dylan came in and said, "What do you think about recording other peoples songs?" Whenever hed ask me, "What do you think?" Id say, "What possible difference could it make, what I think?"
I thought it would be great for him to record other peoples songs, instead of just recording his own, if thats what he wanted to do. He came in the studio with old books and Bibles and started recording. I loved the album, but naturally it got knocked. New Morning got knocked. But sit down and listen to it. Dont listen to it like, "Well this is the new Dylan album." Just listen to what happened. Its a wonderful album.
I liked it at the time.
All of his shits wonderful. The only thing I regret is not getting him to Presley.
Was that a possibility?
That was a possibility. He had a song, and I wanted Elvis to do it, but I couldnt
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