Bob Johnston, a staff producer at Columbia Records who worked tirelessly on legendary LPs like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, died Friday for a Nashville hospice. He was 83.
A friend of Johnston’s confirmed the producer’s death to your Austin Chronicle, saying, “For a couple of days before, swinging, swaying, and waving around his hands, telling stories loudly, entertaining and consuming those that saw and heard him. Once he was restricted to [a] bed and linked to machines, hospice only gave him 2 or 3 days to live. He was on morphine to assist any pain he was experiencing. Bob’s wife explained he pass[ed] away peacefully. The grand master waved his magical wand during the last time, then disappeared off into your night.”
Bob Dylan Performing
Johnston was given birth to to a musical family on May 14, 1932 in Hillsboro, Texas; his mother Diane Johnston wrote songs for Gene Autry and also the single “Miles and Miles of Texas,” which became an Asleep for the Wheel hit within the Seventies. After writing songs for Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley, Bob Johnston later scored a position as an in-house producer at Columbia Records. It was around this time that Dylan split from his go-to producer Tom Wilson after recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan would soon team with Johnston for 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited.
“All I know is always that I was out recording eventually, and Tom had been there – I had no reason at all to think he wasn’t usually there – and I looked up eventually and Bob was there,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969 about precisely how he and Johnston were first paired.
Recalling working together with Dylan, Johnston told Goldmine this season (via Billboard), “Dylan played a bit song, and I said, ‘That looks like the Salvation Army band.’ He said, ‘Can we obtain one?’ I said, “No, it’s two o’clock from the morning!’ I got a trombone player along with a trumpet, put a drum around a guy’s neck. Everybody marched on the market and sang ‘Rainy Day Women,’ and many types of the other stuff. I didn’t just languish there, ‘What does one wanna do now?’ That’s what I did in her youth. Eight years with Dylan.”
Johnston also coordinated the collaboration between Dylan and Nashville session guitarist Charlie McCoy that triggered that album’s “Desolation Row.” That recording would inspire Dylan to relocate his Johnston-produced Blonde on Blonde sessions from New York on the Tennessee city in 1966. Dylan and Johnston would pair for four more LPs after their landmark Blonde on Blonde double-LP: 1967’s John Wesley Harding, 1969’s Nashville Skyline – when Dylan asks “Is it rolling, Bob?” on “To Be Alone With You,” he’s conversing with Johnston – and 1970’s Self Portrait and New Morning.
Johnston had also been on hand to record both Cash’s jailhouse live LPs, 1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin together with other Cash albums. While Columbia was originally unwilling to record a live album in the prison, that it was Johnston who helped forge the album ahead. “I grabbed the phone and called Folsom, Quentin, got hold of Folsom first, got through towards the warden, told him, ‘Warden, my name’s Bob Johnston. Johnny Cash is gonna surface there, do an album, and present a f****’ concert.’ He said, ‘My God, when?’ I said, ‘Talk to him,'” Johnston told Goldmine.
Johnston also worked Simon & Garfunkel on 1966’s Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, produced Leonard Cohen’s Songs From a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, and helmed albums through the Byrds, Jimmy Cliff, Pete Seeger and Marty Robbins. Johnston have also been behind the board for Willie Nelson’s infamous IRS tapes.
In 2011, Johnston brought up his successful hands-off approach to using the services of the artists and just how he never said excitedly what songs to feature or not include for their albums.
“How could I? ‘I aren’t keen on that song, Paul. Let’s get reduce ‘Parsley Sage’ and do yet another one. It’s too f****’ slow.’ F*** that! I told Dylan and Cohen and Cash and Simon and the competition, ‘You will not have a contract beside me. I got an agreement with CBS. You can figure out to hit the f*****’ door. You don’t possess to call CBS. Just let me know to get the f*** from here, and I’ll be gone,” Johnston said. “None of ’em ever messed while using sound, except Paul Simon, a bit bit. But everyone else, it had been what I did. I was better than all the others. And the competition, you compare my work. Blonde on Blonde was voted the very best album in rock history. And you compare all the work in what I did and compare additional people’s records. I sold a billion f****’ albums, worldwide.”