Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Remembering the work of music producer Bob Johnston (1932-2015)

photo courtesy of Rolling Stone/Al Clayton/Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame
Anyone who has a record (or CD) by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash  is a beneficiary of the work of music producr Bob Johnston who died last week aged 83.

Johnston was a guiding force behind some of the best known records by those artists.

American singer-songwriter Joe Henry (who has appeared on this blog before) has written a fine tribute to Bob Johnston "Is it rolling Bob?': Remembering Bob Johnston".

Henry has written:

More than any other single practitioner of that post, Johnston helped give shape, heft and durability to some of the most transformative American music of the past five decades, framing the sounds and intentions of an era — when invention was valued on par with accessibility; lines were confused and maps were being redrawn — and helping to foster a culture of autonomy and liberation for visionary artists that remains vital to this day, and continues to evolve.

As a staff producer for Columbia Records (and then as a free agent) Bob Johnston was a guiding force behind the artists on his watch — playing priest and lifeguard, counselor and agitator to such standard-bearers and upstarts as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Byrds, to name a scant few.

Joe Henry reminds us that it was Bob Johnston who stood up to music executives threatening Johnny Cash's career over his plans to make live albums at maximum security prisons Folsom and San Quentin. Both albums were ground-breaking and highly successful.

Johnston produced the early breakout albums for Simon & Garfunkel including Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

Johnston was instrumental in the early career of  Leonard Cohen, producing his breakout second album Songs of Love and Hate. Henry writes:

Once in the studio together, Johnston pushed Cohen's weary and soulful vocals far into the foreground, allowing each song's story and its teller to trump the weather of whatever else might musically be happening around it. He insisted that the guarded Cohen fully inhabit his own authority as a poetic songwriter and transcendent performer. Following the studio sessions, Johnston was charged with assembling a touring band that could conjure in concert the mystic quality of the recorded songs, and said simply of his criteria that he wanted only, "people who look up — I didn't want anybody looking down." 

But it was Bob Dylan where Johnston had his greatest impact. Johnston produced 7 albums for Dylan from the mid 1960's including Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning. 

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