Legendary Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen producer Bob Johnston dies

The man who produced Blonde on Blonde defined his work modestly: ‘All I did was turn the tapes on’

Bob Johnston, the producer of a slew of classic 196os albums – including Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room – has died, aged 83. Johnston passed away peacefully in a Nashville hospice on Friday.

Johnston was a staff producer for Columbia Records in the 6os, which was how he came to be at the controls for a series of classic albums. As well as six Dylan records, seven by Cash and three by Cohen, he also produced Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde for the Byrds and four albums by Flatt and Scruggs.

Speaking to the writer Louis Black, Johnston described his work modestly: “I saw brilliance being destroyed, album after album, group after group, because producers went in and were overly ready … It wasn’t art! All I did was turn the tapes on!”

Leonard Cohen, however, said there was more to it than that: “Bob Johnston was very sophisticated. His hospitality was extremely refined. It wasn’t just a matter of turning on the machines. He created an atmosphere in the studio that really invited 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. Just the way he’d move while you were singing: he’d dance for you. So, it wasn’t all just as laissez faire as that. Just as art is the concealment of art, laissez faire is the concealment of tremendous generosity that he was sponsoring in the studio.”

Al Kooper, who played keyboards on Blonde on Blonde, credited Johnston with creating the conditions in which the album could be made, specifically in persuading Dylan to record it in Nashville. “The credit has to go to Bob Johnston. It was his idea. He had tried to get Dylan to record in Nashville in late 1965. He knew about the chemistry. And I also think he felt more comfortable there because he lived there. And he knew all the musicians intimately.”

Johnston left Columbia in the early 70s, dissatisfied with his earnings, going freelance as a producer. He quickly scored a UK No 1 album with Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne. In latter years, he produced infrequently, usually with acts of his own generation or older, including Willie Nelson and Carl Perkins.

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