Bob Johnston wrote songs under the name Don Johnston from 1956 to 1961 before moving into production work, and then becoming a staff producer at Columbia Records. He eventually worked as an independent producer. But when the young singer/songwriter reconvened in Columbia’s Studio A on 30th Street in Manhattan a few weeks later – itching to expand his newly-minted and confounding revolution into a full-length album, following his historic and controversial appearance at the Newport Folk Festival over the weekend – Dylan arrived to find “Rolling Stone” producer Tom Wilson dismissed, and the amiable Texan Bob Johnston waiting coolly in his place.
To be sure, that says as much about Johnston’s musical ethos as anything could, favoring as he did musicians who were eager and able to disappear into the service of the sacred unnameable, who could abandon ego and trusted methodology in favor of real-time discovery. While Columbia was originally reluctant to record a live album in a prison, it was Johnston who helped forge the album ahead. Johnston did not mince words when stressing the importance of Dylan recording in Nashville.
Speaking to Uncut’s February 2014 issue [Take 202] Johnson recalled, “When I first went in there for Highway 61”. Following that success, he began working with Dylan. Johnston is the “Bob” that Dylan is talking to when he asks, “Is it rolling, Bob?” at the start of the song “To Be Alone With You”, on Nashville Skyline. “You can tell me to hit the f***in” door.
That recording would inspire Dylan to move his Johnston-produced Blonde on Blonde sessions from New York to the Tennessee city in 1966. He was keen on getting Dylan to record in Nashville, and with the help of a last-minute virtuoso guitar performance by visiting Nashville session ace Charlie McCoy on “Desolation Row”, he was able to get Dylan to warm to the idea. “I was better than everybody else”, Johnston said.
Gray added, “I think one of (Mr. Johnston’s) strengths was giving artists their creative freedom”. “It radically (changed) Nashville’s image, which would have a huge impact on country and folk music and in particular, singer-songwriters”. At Folsom Prison, the album that was recorded live and released in 1968, went to No. 1 on the country charts. Johnston also worked with Simon & Garfunkel (Sounds of Silence; Parsely, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme), Leonard Cohen (Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate) and Johnny Cash (The Holy Land; Hello, I’m Johnny Cash; I Walk the Line).
Listen to some of the more celebrated LPs Johnston worked on here.
Mr. Johnston was preceded in death by his sons Andy and Bobby. Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.