Bob Johnston, a musical maverick who produced career-changing albums for leading folk and country artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, including “Blonde on Blonde” for Bob Dylan and “At Folsom Prison” for Johnny Cash, has died. He was 83.
The veteran producer, who also guided Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate,” died of heart failure Friday in Gallatin, Tex., said his son, Kevin.
Johnston, a producer for Columbia Records in New York in the 1960s, was known as a fierce advocate for creative freedom. He defied Columbia executives who opposed Cash’s idea of performing at Folsom and San Quentin; the Folsom album became a huge hit and helped revive the singer’s career. In “Blonde on Blonde"—considered a landmark in American popular music — he allowed a single song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” to run for 11 minutes.
Johnston also literally tore down walls on his artists’ behalf: At Columbia’s Nashville studios, he infuriated studio managers by removing the baffles that prevented sound leakage but also stifled interplay among the musicians. Dylan wanted all the musicians playing with him to be able to see each other.
To ensure that no mechanical failures would interrupt the flow, Johnston also insisted that studio engineers keep two or three tape machines running during sessions.
“His idea for producing a record was to keep the machines oiled, turn ‘em on and let ‘er rip,” Dylan, who described his collaborations with Johnston as “a drunken joyride,” wrote in his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” in 2004.
Unlike legendary producers Phil Spector and Sam Phillips, Johnston was not known for creating his own unique sound or discovering talent, “but any fan of country, rock and folk music from the 1960s probably has a record Bob Johnston produced,” said Michael Gray, who curated “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats,” an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
“He matched musicians with the artist, kept the tapes rolling and captured everything.”
Johnston was born in Hillsboro, Tex., on May 14, 1932, and grew up in Fort Worth. His mother, Diane Johnston, was a songwriter who wrote for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Eddy Arnold. His father, Jay, was a chiropractor.
After serving in the Navy in the early 1950s, Johnston began composing. He later moved to New York and recorded under the name Bobby Johnston, turning out a minor hit with a Del Vikings song, “Flat Tire.”
He was deflated by an appearance on the Wink Martindale show in Los Angeles, when he followed teen idols Tommy Sands and Ricky Nelson to the stage.
“When Tommy was on, everybody was yelling, ‘We want Ricky!’ When I got on, it was just this huge crescendo of ‘We want Ricky!’” he recalled in a series of interviews with Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black.
“Ricky looked like he just spent maybe about a million dollars for his clothes. Tommy Sands had spent about $500,000. Maybe, I had spent about eight dollars. What I had was a green and black plaid jacket on, dark green and black striped pants, and alligator shoes — I looked like an idiot!” Johnston said.
Johnston swore off performing and went to Nashville, where he wrote songs for Elvis Presley in collaboration with his wife, Joy Byers, and others, including Charlie Daniels.
Besides his wife and son, he is survived by three grandchildren.
In 1964 Johnston returned to New York to work for Columbia, where he produced Patti Page’s “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Nominated for an Oscar, it was credited with reviving Page’s career and greatly bolstering Johnston’s.
When Columbia sought to replace Tom Wilson as Dylan’s producer, the label turned to Johnston.
Against his bosses’ wishes, he talked Dylan into recording “Blonde on Blonde” in Nashville in 1966, when most of the industry regarded it as a musical backwater.
“It changed people’s perceptions of Nashville,” Gray said. “The floodgates opened and dozens of other folk, rock and pop artists started coming” to record, including Cohen, Paul McCartney, the Byrds, and Simon & Garfunkel. “That was all because of Bob Johnston. He really played a key role in opening up Music City in the ‘60s,” Gray said.
Johnston later worked as an independent producer, shaping the music of a wide range of artists, including the British folk-rock group Lindisfarne, rockabilly singer Carl Perkins, and blues singer John Mayall. He not only produced two albums for Cohen but toured with him. For Willie Nelson he produced “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories,” which Nelson recorded to settle a multimillion-dollar tax bill.
In 1968, when Cash told him of his long-held dream of recording a prison album, Johnston bucked the studio brass, picked up the phone and called the warden. Cash said Johnston helped him regain his confidence.
“Bob kept telling me I was an artist,” Cash told former Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn in the book “Johnny Cash: The Life.”
“I liked the sound of the word ‘artist,’ and he helped me understand I needed to put everything I had into the Folsom album.”
Johnston and Dylan collaborated on other albums, including “John Wesley Harding,” “Self Portrait,” “New Morning” and “Nashville Skyline.” At the beginning of one of the tracks from the latter album, Dylan is heard talking to his producer. “Is it rolling, Bob?” he asks.
Johnston often downplayed his contributions to the albums that became classics of the era, often saying he “just turned the machines on.” He refrained from picking songs for his artists and telling them what to cut.
“I just always told them what I thought,” he told Black. “And most of it was ‘Damn, that’s great,’ because they didn’t write anything bad.”