Sylvie joined Charlie Daniels at BMI Nashville today to speak at a memorial tribute to Bob Johnston – the legendary record producer and man behind many of the last century’s greatest artists’ greatest albums: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Johnny Cash to name just a handful. Here’s an excerpt from what she said:-
Look up the words ‘one of a kind’ and you’ll see a picture of a wiry Texan with red-brown hair and beard and fire in his eyes. All of us who knew Johnston know how fiercely that fire blazed. And what kept it burning was an unassailable belief – in art and music and creative freedom – and an unshakeable resistance to authority and whoever might stand in his or their way. As Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles, Bob “was born one hundred years too late, he should have been wearing a wide cape, a plumed hat and riding with his sword held high… Bob Johnston was unreal.”
Bob was a badd ass, a guardian angel and a music man. He was born to be in music. His grandmother Mamie Jo Adams, his mom Diane Johnston and his wife Joy Byers, who is here today – all these women wrote songs and so did Bob.
His greatest fame, though, was as a record producer. Some of the greatest American albums of the last century bear his name – significant, life-changing albums, each a revelation and a testament to Bob Johnston’s ability to put the right musicians together, block interference, let what happens happen, cheer it along and roll the tapes You know what they were; some of the people in this room played on them.
They include six of Dylan’s greatest albums, from Highway 61 to New Morning, and, at the same time, Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest records Sounds Of Silence and Parsley, Sage. Bob told me how he’d work with Dylan until midnight and Dylan would keep asking, “What did you do with Paul last night?” then from midnight to dawn he’d be in the studio with Paul Simon, who’d keep asking, “What did you do with Dylan?”
Bob had 27 artists during that period. Another of them was Leonard Cohen, with whom Bob made three albums. Leonard told me had it not been for Bob he might never have made a second album at all, since his experience of recording his debut was so hellish. But then he ran into Bob in LA, who persuaded him to come here by renting him Felice and Boudleax Byrant’s log cabin, promising Leonard to make the album that Leonard, not the label wanted, and finding him the perfect band – including Ron Cornelius and Charlie Daniels, here today, two men who also came to Nashville because of Bob.
At Leonard Cohen’s request, Bob also joined his touring band in 1970, acting as his keyboard player and manager (at Bob’s insistence unpaid manager – Bob was a man for whom the business part of the music business took far less prominence than a person of his prominence merited. Bob wasn’t one to turn down his artist’s request – but it also didn’t hurt that Bob had just quit Columbia, and the idea of celebrating this with a trip around Europe, at his former employers’ expense struck him as a fine one! Another of his good ideas was persuading Cohen and the band to ride onstage at a French rock festival on horseback, but that’s a whole other story.
And let’s not forget Johnny Cash. The two classic prison albums At Folsom and At San Quentin – Cash told me he’d been trying to record a prison album for years but Columbia had refused to let him do it. But when Bob Johnston became head of Columbia Nashville – a position, I should say, that did nothing to moderate his feelings towards the suits – that changed, in spite of angry calls from Clive Davis threatening to drop them both. It was Johnston who got Cash and Dylan to record together. He tricked Columbia into allowing their duet to appear on Nashville Skyline – how did he pull that off? He simply refused to let anyone from the record company into the studio and put a fake name on the tape box.
“I truly believe”, Bob Dylan once said of Bob, “that in a couple of hundred years they’ll find out he was a prophet. I think he is the only prophet we’ve had since Jesus.” Bob Johnston would have made a pretty wild prophet. I’m sure a lot of us know some of the tales he could tell and did tell – and that I daren’t tell at a memorial. And there were so many stories.
Bob and I first talked a couple of decades ago when I interviewed him for an article I was writing on Johnny Cash. Over the years there were many more interviews and conversations on different subjects, including my Leonard Cohen biography, and also many of those long telephone conversations you have with someone who becomes a friend. I’ll miss those out-of-the blue calls; there’s no conversations quite like a phone call with Bob.
The last time I saw Bob, he had plans to make a movie, to produce a young woman singer he’d discovered, to write his memoir and to work on a project far too elaborate to go into here but that was entirely in keeping with his musical ethos and would mess with the people in power and change the world. We drank a little tequila and – I had my ukulele with me – we sat outside in the back yard and sang Leonard Cohen songs.
A friend told me that, during his last days at the memory facility, Bob would be singing and dancing, telling stories and enchanting everyone around him. It wouldn’t surprise me if, wherever he is right now, that’s what he’s still doing. He was one of a kind, Bob Johnston.