2015-08-17 19:19:00

In memoriam: Bob Johnston, 1932-2015

Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash producer's death has largely gone unnoted

He produced some of the greatest records of the 60s and 70s, but Bob Johnston's death last Friday, August 14, at age 83 will, sadly, go largely unnoted.

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with this amazing man a few years ago when we found ourselves in Nashville at the same time and Louis Black, one of SXSW's co-founders, introduced us.

Johnston was clearly having a rough time. There are no dental plans in music, but he was engaged and full of amazing stories about producing some of the best records I have ever heard. Johnston was an employee of Columbia Records and, while on salary, he produced discs by: Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and many more. He never get a piece or "points" on any of those albums, though his contribution was clearly essential.

Dylan fans, you know when Bob says " Is it rolling Bob?" on To Be Alone With You on Nashville Skyline? He's talking to Johnston. He also recorded John Wesley Harding, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, New Morning and Self Portrait among others. When we huddled in a Nashville hotel room, Johnston regaled us with intimate stories from essential recording sessions. Johnston told of working late night on  Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 and successfully searching the streets of New York for Sally Ann band members to provide some extra players to flesh out the song.  

He told us about a young Al Kooper just hanging around during another Dylan session, running into the studio and playing keyboards when the other player went to the bathroom. Kooper wasn't really a keyboard player but his rollicking sound became a signature of Dylan's post-folk work.

He said Paul Simon was a true pro, always in the studio right at 9 am as they recorded Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme. Art Garfunkel was routinely late, moody and uncooperative when he showed up. One time while waiting for the singer, Johnston needed to know why Simon didn't just dump him. It's a high school thing, Simon told him, we were buddies and I stick with my buddy.

When he went to Folsom Prison with Johnny Cash to record the live album there, Cash asked Johnston what he should say when he got to the mic in the prison's packed cafeteria to play. "Just say, 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.'" Cash did and it became a trademark.

The stories are endless. The Leonard Cohen ones alone could fill a book. And Louis Black has written an e-book about his buddy Bob. Follow the link here to learn about this largely forgotten man who shaped a significant songbook from an essential singer-songwriter time in musical history.

If there was any justice, some of the great acts that befitted from Johnston's guidance, or the record company that grew rich on his work, might have helped him in his time of need. They didn't and sadly, there's little new in that tale.

Is it rolling Bob? I hope so, and somewhere, somehow, he is finally getting the peace that he deserves.

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