Bob Johnston obituary

Record producer who played a significant role in the recording career of Bob Dylan

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


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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