An exclusive interview with
Bob Johnston

Conducted by Richard Younger

The legend of Bob Johnston looms large in the career of Bob Dylan. More than any other producer, Johnston is responsible for producing what many Dylan fans regard as the songwriter’s greatest sustained body of work–Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Self Portrait, and Bob Dylan Live 1966.

Johnston’s renowned work with Dylan redefined and re-energized Music City in the 1960s. As the head of the Columbia Records’ Nashville office (where he replaced Don Law), Johnston worked with, among others, Marty Robbins, Simon & Garfunkle, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash–yielding such landmark albums as Simon & Garfunkle’s Bookends, and Johnny Cash’s Live at San Quentin Prison (containing "A Boy Named Sue"). In addition, Johnston scored and produced soundtracks for film and has had his songs covered by Joan Baez, Bill Haley, Aretha Franklin and Ricky Nelson–just to name a few.

The secret to Johnston’s success was perhaps best expressed by Johnny Cash in the film The Other Side of Nashville: "Bob Johnston is a producer that is an artist’s dream. Bob Johnston likes to sit back and watch an artist produce himself, and then he puts it together. Bob Johnston is smart enough to know when he gets an artist who believes in himself–to let him run with it."

Don Robert Johnston was born May 14, 1932, in Hillsboro, Texas. His grandmother co-wrote "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." His mother Diane, wrote songs for Gene Autry, and after Bob came out of the Navy he collaborated with her on songs for pioneering rockabilly artist Mac Curtis. Bob also pursued his own career as a solo artist, earning his first break after an engineer at a Fort Worth studio sent one of his songs to producer Clyde Otis. Otis recorded Johnston in 1956 ("Born To Love One Woman") and hooked him up with New York publishing kingpin Bobby Mellin, leading to releases on the Dot and Chic labels and personal appearances. For Johnston, however, success would ultimately come behind the control boards, not on stage.

The crucial turning point in his career came one night when he found himself "sandwiched in between Tommy Sands and Ricky Nelson somewhere in L.A.," Johnston recalls, "with all the little girls hollering, ‘We want Ricky! We want Ricky!’ I got about halfway through and had to quit. It was embarrassing. I looked like shit ‘cause I didn’t have any money, and he looked like four million dollars. I thought, ‘This isn’t a good way to earn a living.’ So I started to write and produce, and forget about the recording end."

By the early ’60s Johnston was producing for Kapp, freelance arranging for Dot, and co-writing songs with his future wife, Joy Byers. Johnston today admits that for contractual reasons his contributions to Byers’s work (including Timi Yuro’s Top Ten "What’s A Matter Baby" and songs on nine Elvis Presley film soundtracks) were uncredited. After producing Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a comeback record for Patti Page, Johnston’s opportunities mushroomed, gaining him carte blanche for future projects. It was while working in New York that his musical paths crossed with Dylan’s. The rest is music history.

Johnston today remains active in the music business and impassioned about his work. His main focus these days is World Communications Music, the music company he heads with Dr. John Fullerton and Peter Goodfellow. The aim of their publishing and recording conglomerate, Johnston says, "is to give the power back to the artist" by including them in on royalties and sales. The man who ‘never took anybody’s shit’ doesn’t try to hide his disdain for the record business: "It’s always been a garbage dump out there... They’re content to sell all this brainless shit that sounds just like everything else, and then take all the profits. It’s time for a change."

The following interview was culled from several phone conversations with Johnston during the past year. Johnston’s thoughts and words come in torrents, and it’s easy to get swept up in his sense of mission and pride. Although one always seems to catch him either heading out the door, on three phone lines, or in the middle of a recording session, Johnston was consistently amiable and eager to resume the conversations. It’s clear from speaking with him that music was never about "a gig." For the veteran songwriter and producer those landmark sessions with Dylan, Simon, Cohen, Cash and others were important documents of music that changed peoples lives–and, it can be argued, the course of history.


How did you get involved with working on Highway 61 Revisited?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you the honest truth [because I’m not sure myself]. What I heard from the people at CBS was that Grossman and Dylan didn’t like Tom Wilson, who was producing him. Wilson had come in when John Hammond found Dylan, and they said they didn’t like him. Whether Dylan didn’t like him or loved him, I have no idea if that’s the truth or not. [When] they came and told me that they were gonna get somebody else, and I went to John Hammond and asked him to please help me ‘cause I wanted [to work with] Dylan more than I ever wanted [to produce] anybody in my life.

Someone once asked Dylan how he met me and he said, "I don’t know. One night, Wilson was there and the next night Johnston was there."

I’d just stepped in ‘cause I had been used to producing and recording and a lot of the other people were just beginning. When I walked into a place it became mine.

Who was your boss when you worked with Dylan?

John Hammond, who was the greatest music man that ever lived, Mr. CBS. He discovered all the blues people, all the jazz people, Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon and hundreds of others. He was my mentor all the way down the line. He was the one I would go to for help. He always managed to see that I was in there before anybody else, so I give him all credit.

What were your initial impressions of Bob Dylan?

Before I met him, I had actually seen him in the Village and things like that. He was freaky to me...because I still believe that he’s the only prophet we’ve had since Jesus. I don’t think people are gonna realize it for another two or three hundred years when they figure out who really did help stop the Vietnam War, who did change everybody around and why our children aren’t hiding under the damn tables now worrying about an atomic war. One day they’ll wake up–and they’ll realize what they had–instead of asking what kind of album he did and is it as good as the last one. That was always bullshit to me.

I never cared what he did and I never cared what he did in the studio. I was trying to get down anything he was doing next, so we could have a record of it–so the people could hear it all over the world. I figured that was my job.

My job wasn’t to be a hero and to tell Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson what the f@#k to do! I thought if you want to be a hero or if you want to take credit, get some other people to work with. Don’t work with these people. I wasn’t like some other people who were looking to be the next Phil Spector. I had three sons; all I cared about was seeing that it was gonna be a better world. And I think these people made a better world for us.

Did you have to push Dylan to go to Nashville for Blonde on Blonde, or was he eager?

I didn’t have to do shit. I was in the studio with Bob and I said, "You outta come on down to Nashville sometime. They got no clocks down there, and they’ve really got a bunch great musicians–everybody really cares," and he answered his usual, "Hmmm." When he left and went out of the studio Al Grossman, his manger, and the president of the company, Bill Gallagher, came over to me. Gallagher was the nicest guy in the world, he never got the credit. He was from merchandising or something and he didn’t know shit about music but he was a genius and built that merchandising and marketing and promotion team. Anyway, Grossman and Gallagher both came over and said if I ever again said anything to Dylan about Nashville, I was gone.

I took him to Nashville later because he’d said, "Let’s go down there." It wasn’t me pressuring him in any way. I just happened to mention it one day and that’s what came out of it.

What are your recollections of that first visit to Music City?

It seems like anybody that you ask will say that Nashville began when Dylan came down here. That’s the way I feel about it, too. I think Nashville was a different place before that. The producers and record people ran the business with an iron fist. They did what they wanted to, and the artist was at their beck and call. Everybody had a f@#kin’ deal. I didn’t want any of that. I never had a deal with anybody. Never been sued; never sued anybody. Never took anybody’s shit. But that’s the way it was.

What was Dylan’s manner in the studio?

He never did anything twice, and if he did it twice you probably didn’t get it. It was like–one time through; do another one; ‘listen to this’... He’d pick up a guitar; then he’d get on the piano; then he’d wind up his electric [guitar] and he’d be gone again.

No one ever counted off for him. He’d start tapping his foot and everybody would be going and nobody had any f@#king idea where he was going. I told everybody that I ever came in contact with, "Just keep playing. Don’t stop. We can always overdub somebody else, but you can’t make him go back and do that song again."

After you did a track, would you ask if he liked it?

I wouldn’t say anything. Sometimes he’d ask me. Sometimes he’d just look at me. Once in a while he’d say, "Let’s do it again." Or he’d just start doing it again. But there wasn’t any of that let’s-listen-to-that shit like you have in regular recordings. Never happened like that. I figured this was his music. He usually got the bands together and they were always great bands.

What was your involvement with the Cash/Dylan recordings?

[It was nothing; a very subtle suggestion; it may have appeared accidental to them.] I was recording Cash in the daytime and Dylan was coming in at night. He walked in one night and I had the microphones set up. (Oh, look what I’d done!) I had the microphones set up and the chairs set up in the studio–and they looked at each other–and went out and started singing. It’s coming out on Sony Legends. They already put out Folsom; they’re putting out San Quentin and then they’ll put out Dylan & Cash.

Al Kooper takes unofficial credit for recording New Morning in New York. What’s your take on that?

What a lot of shit! [He laughs.] If he gets "unofficial credit" for New Morning, then I want unofficial credit for producing the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I brought in Charlie Daniels and George Harrison, who played on that (New Morning).

I remember that I thought Dylan’s music was so important, what he was doing, and what he was putting down. It was joyous to me. I never had that thing where–"I’d better watch what I say"–that never bothered me. I never gave a shit about that.

I just do what I do. If I can help that artist in any way, just by telling them what I thought, by telling them the damn truth [about how what they were doing was sounding, then I’d say it.] Not, "Well, we could do this a little better..." What is better? Better may be better for someone producing for Clive [Davis] or Walter Yetnikoff, but it’s not the same thing. I was producing because I felt I was helping the artist.

What are your recollections of Self Portrait?

Well, Dylan came in and said, "What do you think about recording other people’s songs?" Whenever he’d ask me, "What do you think?" I’d say, "What possible difference could it make, what I think?"

I thought it would be great for him to record other people’s songs, instead of just recording his own, if that’s what he wanted to do. He came in the studio with old books and Bibles and started recording. I loved the album, but naturally it got knocked. New Morning got knocked. But sit down and listen to it. Don’t listen to it like, "Well this is the new Dylan album." Just listen to what happened. It’s a wonderful album.

I liked it at the time.

All of his shit’s wonderful. The only thing I regret is not getting him to Presley.

Was that a possibility?

That was a possibility. He had a song, and I wanted Elvis to do it, but I couldn’t…

You’ve just read an excerpt of the interview with Bob Johnston. The complete interview appears in On the Tracks issue #20 and is available from Rolling Tomes.



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