LifeNotes: Hit Singer-Songwriter Michael Johnson Passes

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• July 27, 2017

Nashville singer-songwriter Michael Johnson died at age 72 while in hospice care in Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 25.

Johnson made his mark in Music City as both a pop and country hit maker. His Nashville-recorded “Bluer Than Blue” became a No. 1 A/C hit and a major pop success in 1978. He repeated the feat with “This Night Won’t Last Forever” the following year.

In the 1980s, he made the transition to being a country music hit maker with “Give Me Wings,” “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder” and other singles.

Johnson was successful in folk music, as well as in the pop and country fields. Born in Colorado in 1944 [August 8], he took up the guitar at age 13. He won a talent contest that led to a recording contract when he was a college student. He then studied classical guitar in Spain. Back in the U.S., he joined the folk group The New Society, which featured former New Christy Minstrels leader Randy Sparks.

In 1967, Johnson joined The Chad Mitchell Trio. At the time, the group included John Denver, with whom Johnson became a songwriting collaborator. The two also toured together after their Trio gig ended. Next, Johnson became a member of the touring company of the off-Broadway musical “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in
Paris.”

Returning to solo record making, Michael Johnson recorded three folk-pop albums in 1973-76 for Atco Records. After that, he settled in Nashville.

Working with Brent Maher and Steve Gibson, he recorded Randy Goodrum’s song “Bluer Than Blue.” It earned him an EMI America contract and became a big hit. Working for the same label, Johnson charted four other titles on the pop charts in 1978-80, including 1979’s “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” penned by Nashville’s Bill LaBounty with Roy Feeland.

In 1985, Michael Johnson signed with the country division of RCA Records. Late that year, he scored a top-10 hit as the duet partner of the label’s Sylvia with “I Love You By Heart.” His country solo career was introduced with his self-penned “Gotta Learn to Live Without Her” in 1986.

“Give Me Wings,” written by Kye Fleming and Don Schlitz, became a No. 1 country smash for Johnson in late 1986. Hugh Prestwood’s “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder,” became Johnson’s second No. 1 country hit in early 1987.

Johnson co-wrote “Crying Shame” with Brent Maher and Don Schlitz. It returned him to the country Top 10 list in late 1987. He then sang Randy Vanwarmer’s “I Will Whisper Your Name” and Prestwood’s “That’s That,” both of which became Top 10 country hits in 1988.

Michael Johnson continued to record as a country artist for Atlantic (1991-92) and Vanguard (1995). He was the cowriter of the 1995 4 Runner country single “Cain’s Blood.”

Johnson recorded duets with Juice Newton in 1991 (“It Must Be You”) and Alison Krauss in 1997 (“Whenever I Call You Friend”), the latter of which became a video release. He also became a popular troubadour at The Bluebird Café, for whom he recorded a live CD in 2000.

His later albums were also released by such independent labels as Intersound (1997), Yellow Rose (2005) and Red House (2012).

He underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2007. A charitable fund called “Friends of Michael Johnson” was established to help with his medical expenses at the time.

Funeral arrangements for Johnson are still pending.

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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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