LifeNotes: Influential Producer Bob Johnston Dies


Bob Johnston (L) in 2006 when BMI signed singer/songwriter Harper Simon (son of BMI Icon Paul Simon) and Bijou Phillips (daughter of the Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips) laid tracks for a country music collaboration produced by Johnston. Pictured (L-R): Bob Johnston, Harper Simon, Bijou Philips and BMI’s Shelby Kennedy. Photo: BMI.

Bob Johnston, the producer who made Nashville a destination for recording by visiting pop stars, passed away on Friday, Aug. 14 at age 83.

He is celebrated in the current Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum exhibit “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” Johnston famously brought Bob Dylan to Music City to record such cornerstone albums as Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969) and Self Portrait (1970).

These records are widely viewed as opening the way for many other non-country artists to come to Nashville. Johnston also brought in Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Moby Grape and others who are celebrated in the exhibit.

He was born Donald William Johnston in Hillsboro, Texas, into a musical family. His mother, Diane, was a songwriter best known for “Miles and Miles of Texas.” Bob Johnston broke into the music business as a songwriter for Elvis Presley movies in the 1960s. He married Joy Byers, who is also a successful songwriter.

He moved into record production at Columbia in New York. Johnston worked on some of Aretha Franklin’s early records for the label and scored his first hit by producing Patti Page’s 1965 comeback single “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.”

Johnston began producing Dylan with 1965’s landmark Highway 61 Revisited. He also produced the hit Simon & Garfunkel LPs Sounds of Silence (1966), Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (1966) and Bookends (1968).

He was also successful with country artists. When others at the company resisted the idea, he embraced Johnny Cash’s notion of recording a live album at Folsom Prison, which became a blockbuster hit. Cash and Johnston also worked together on At San Quentin and on such hits as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1968-72.

Columbia’s Marty Robbins was another successful client. Johnston produced the superstar’s “Tonight Carmen” (1967), “Ribbon of Darkness” (1965), “I Walk Alone” (1968), “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” (1970) and more.

Johnston also produced such Columbia country acts as Earl Scruggs, Claude King, Doug Kershaw and The Statler Brothers. He eventually became an executive in the label’s Nashville office.

He guided the records of the trio The Pozo Seco Singers, from which graduated country star Don Williams. He produced the 1970s pop hits of future country star Michael Martin Murphey – “Wildfire,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Carolina in the Pines.”

Johnston’s producing career continued into the 1980s and 1990s. The Byrds, Loudon Wainwright III, Pete Seeger, Tracy Nelson, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Carl Perkins, Shel Silverstein, Dan Hicks, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Ely, Hoyt Axton, Wayne Toups, Jimmy Cliff, Billy Joe Shaver, Lindesfarne, John Mayall and The Waterboys were among the highly diverse artists he worked with over the years.

In 1992, he produced Willie Nelson’s notable The I.R.S. Tapes. In recent years, he has worked with a number of independent, alternative rock and folk artists.

Johnston had been in a Nashville hospice in recent weeks. He is survived by his wife Joy Byers and his son Kevin. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.


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Category: Artist, Featured, Obituary

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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