Record producer who played a significant role in the recording career of Bob Dylan
Tuesday 18 August 2015
Bob Dylan’s curious decision to begin To Be Alone With You, a track on the album Nashville Skyline (1968), with a casual remark to his producer – “Is it rolling, Bob?” – ensured that Bob Johnston’s significant role in the singer’s recording career could not go unnoticed. Johnston, who has died at the age of 83, himself underplayed his contribution – “All I did was turn the tapes on,” he told an interviewer – but it was he who had helped redirect Dylan’s music two years earlier by taking him to Nashville, where the singer encountered a very different style of working from the one he had known in New York.
While recording tracks for the album Blonde on Blonde in that more relaxed environment, Dylan was able to keep a group of highly paid session musicians waiting most of a night in February 1966 while he finished the verses of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. At four o’clock in the morning, after 10 hours of inactivity, the players were finally summoned from the studio lounge to pick up their instruments and deliver an 11-minute performance whose air of stately exhaustion perfectly suited the song, which turned out to be one of Dylan’s masterpieces.
‘Is it rolling, Bob?’ Dylan asks Johnston at the start of To Be Alone With You
Johnston was about as far from the kind of record producer exemplified by Phil Spector – the producer as control freak, as auteur – as could be imagined. Chiefly associated with artists whose origins were in the folk and country idioms, he was a facilitator, an enabler, a creator of sympathetic ambience. His list of credits included six albums with Dylan, three with Leonard Cohen, seven with Johnny Cash and two with Simon and Garfunkel at a time when those artists were at the height of their fame and productivity. His other clients included Marty Robbins, the Byrds, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Loudon Wainwright III, Willie Nelson, John Mayall, Carl Perkins, Alvin Lee and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
According to Cohen, Johnston’s contribution, while not obviously assertive, was crucial to the success of a session. “It wasn’t just a matter of turning on the machines,” Cohen told a writer for the music magazine Goldmine. “He created an atmosphere in the studio that really encouraged you to do your best, stretch out, do another take, an atmosphere that was free from judgment, free from criticism, full of invitation, full of affirmation.”
Johnston’s own description of his modus operandi was more pragmatic. “If Dylan wanted to record under a palm tree in Hawaii with a ukulele,” he said, “I’d be there with the tape machine. I’m an artists’ producer. I give my artists lots of freedom, and if they fuck up – it’s their life.”
His methods were not universally admired. Al Kooper, a New York musician who played the Hammond organ on Dylan’s sessions, dismissed him as “the kind of guy who just pats you on the back and says you’re fantastic and just keeps you going”.
He was born Donald William Johnston in Hillsboro, a small town in central Texas, to Diane and Jay. His mother and grandmother were songwriters, and after serving in the US navy he began a career in the music business, recording several rockabilly singles under the name Don Johnston. By 1964 he had moved to New York, where he worked as a producer for Kapp Records and as a freelance arranger and songwriter. He married a fellow songwriter, Joy Byers, some of whose songs were recorded by Elvis Presley for the soundtracks of his Hollywood films; later Johnston claimed to have had a hand in writing several of them.
After joining the staff of Columbia Records, an early assignment with the pop singer Patti Page delivered a top 10 single called Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and an album titled Patti Page Sings America’s Favorite Hymns. But his career took off in June 1965, shortly after Dylan had fallen out with the producer of his previous three albums, Tom Wilson, following the session at which Like a Rolling Stone was recorded. The nature of the dispute remains a mystery, but Johnston was invited to take over and his first day with Dylan delivered Positively 4th Street, which became the follow-up single to Like a Rolling Stone, and two other tracks, Tombstone Blues and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, for the album Highway 61 Revisited. The remainder of the album, including the epic Desolation Row, would be completed under his supervision.
With Dylan, Johnston went on to produce the albums John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait. His work with Cohen included Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, and a live album. With Cash he recorded the successful albums taped in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. He produced all but the lead track of Simon and Garfunkel’s album Sounds of Silence (the exception, their first hit single, had been supervised by Wilson) in 1966 and the entirety of the following year’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Most of his work was now done in Nashville, his success refocusing the spotlight on the city’s self-contained and somewhat neglected music industry, to its lasting benefit.
Brought to London by Tony Stratton-Smith, the boss of Charisma Records, he helped the Newcastle group Lindisfarne to their biggest success with the album Fog on the Tyne (1971). His output diminished in later years, but he helped Willie Nelson to record a solo acoustic album sarcastically titled The IRS Tapes (1992), whose royalties went towards paying the singer’s tax debt, which amounted to several million dollars.
Johnston died in Nashville, his home for many years, where he is survived by Joy and his son Kevin; his sons Andy and Bobby predeceased him.
• Bob (Donald William) Johnston, record producer, born 14 May 1932; died 14 August 2015
The American producer worked with Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen as well as the North East music legends
The man who helped Lindisfarne sing their way into the record of collections of people all over the world has died.
Bob Johnston, who produced the much-loved band’s platinum-selling breakthrough album, Fog On The Tyne in 1971, passed away aged 83 at his home in Nashville earlier this month.
With a back catalogue of production credits featuring the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, Lindisfarne drummer, Ray Laidlaw remembers feeling pretty excited when he found out who would be producing the band’s second album, a follow up to their 1970 debut, Nicely Out Of Tune.
“I was gobsmacked,” he says, speaking from his home in Tynemouth. “His pedigree was incredible. He’d worked with all these great musicians and as far as I was concerned, at that time, had produced Dylan’s best record, Blonde on Blonde.”
After being a staff producer at Columbia Records for many years, Bob became unsatisfied with his salary arrangement, which included no royalty payments for the string of hit albums he’d produced. By the time he came over to work with Lindisfarne, he had become an independent producer.
“Of course we thought it was a big deal. I mean we were full of ourselves as you can imagine,” Ray said. “We were getting lots of nice press and all that, but we hadn’t sold a huge amount of records at that time. It wasn’t until Fog on the Tyne was a massive success that people started buying our back catalogue.”
Ray says he and the band, Alan Hull, Simon Cowe, Rod Clements and Ray Jackson, enjoyed working Bob, who had “a light touch” when it came to collaborating in the studio.
“He was enigmatic. None of us had really met a proper American, high flying music personality. We’d met the lawyers and that, but they were just bloody lawyers. We’d been to the States a couple of times, but for him to be working with us in England was a really big deal.”
Lindisfarne travelled down to Trident Studios in London to record what would become Fog On The Tyne in the summer of 1971.
“We’d been away and rehearsed - rehearsing what we thought was going to be the album, and the first day in the studio, we played it for him (Bob) and he said ‘Great. What else you got?’
“I remember thinking ‘bloody hell, he doesn’t like it’. But it wasn’t that, he wanted to hear every song we had.
“So we spent the whole first day playing him everything. Every song, every half song, every bit of a song. I think the final album ended up being half of what we had planned and half of the stuff Bob had picked out from what we played him.
“That was his job. He wasn’t a Phil Spector. He wasn’t a control freak. He’d encourage and prod you. He let us be ourselves... his role was more of an editing process.
“When you look back at our first album now, it’s a bit like a sampler with loads of different styles on. Bob realised that for people to get us - especially in America - we had to have more of a streamlined style.
“And him coming from the country and folk side of things, he took away all the extraneous stuff and stripped it down to the basics. That was his gift to us. He focused on what we were good at got us to play to our strengths.”
When it was released, Fog On The Tyne, which, as well as its eponymous anthem also included the hit single, Meet Me On The Corner, topped the charts in early 1972.
“That album made all the difference,” said Ray. “It was enormous. Everybody had it and Bob had a big influence on how it ended up being. I found out just recently that Fog On The Tyne was the most successful independent production that he ever did. He did lots of other successful stuff too, but nothing which had the same level of success as he had with us.”
After the massive impact of their second album, Lindisfarne teamed up with Bob again for their next long player, Dingly Dell, released in September 1972.
“By then we wanted to be a bit more ambitious. So the first three songs were all segued together,” says Ray. “There was some strings and stuff on too.
“We’d actually recorded Dingly Dell for Fog on the Tyne, but it didn’t fit, so we kept that one back and used it as the title track for the next album.”
Ray, who is gearing up to embark on the latest chapter of The Lindisfarne Story tour - a history of the band in words and music - which he performs with the band’s former lead singer (1995-2003) Billy Mitchell, says he has kept an eye on what Bob was up to over the years.
“He was hot to trot in the UK and Europe for a few years, in the seventies and then he went back to the States, working with Willie Nelson and people like that.
“I would always have a quick check up on whether he’d been up to anything, because we do a bit about him in the show. How could we not? He was a big part of the Lindisfarne story.”