By way of tribute to Bob Johnston, whose death was confirmed over the weekend, we thought we’d post John Robinson’s substantial interview from Uncut issue 202. Here, the producer looks back on his groundbreaking work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen among others…
Such is his irrepressible nature, Bob Johnston can’t stop himself from sharing a good story – even when he’s declining an interview and is on the point of putting the phone down. You’re calling from England? He knows about England.
“Guy stood on the front steps of my house in Nashville on a Sunday night,” he says. “Tells me he’s got a group in England who he wants me to record. He says to me, ‘I have a castle in Crowborough. If you record the group, and get them to 99 on the charts, you can come and live in the castle for a month’…
“I said, ‘Can I really? What will you give me if I get them a number one?’ He said, ‘You can stay there a year.’ So I went over to England and recorded Lindisfarne for Fog On The Tyne…”
He pauses, recalling his meeting with Charisma records boss Tony Stratton-Smith and this commission as a freelance producer. This was 1970 – after Johnston had spent several years recording artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash. For all his time spent as head of Columbia in Nashville, and all these successes, you can tell the 81-year old Texan still enjoys the punchline of the tale.
“They went to number one,” he says triumphantly. “And I moved into the castle.”
But he’s not interested in talking right now. He’s got a book coming out, and doesn’t want “too many versions of himself” out there at the same time. That, however, seems impossible. A man of warm regards and bitter enmities; who has rubbed shoulders with the greats while never hoping for their glory; a man, what’s more, whose fantastically tall stories all turn out to be true, there is, quite simply, only one Bob Johnston.
Charlie McCoy, the multi-instrumentalist who played on every Bob Dylan album from 1965 to 1970, recalls his first recording with Dylan as an apparently completely accidental event. When McCoy was in New York for a visit, his Nashville pal Bob Johnston arranged for him to go and see a Broadway show. Johnston suggested he drop by the Columbia studios on 51st Street to pick up the tickets.
“He introduced me to Dylan,” recalls Charlie today, “and he said to me, ‘I’m getting ready to record a song, why don’t you pick up that other guitar and play?’ We had time for one take, one playback and then the bass player left for another session. And that was ‘Desolation Row’.”
Bob Johnston has historically explained his role as a producer in terms of staying out of the way of the artist and what they have to communicate. Certainly, he has no respect for those who leech off or otherwise obstruct talent. That might be a business executive. Equally, it might be a lesser artist. In New York, Bob recorded Simon and Garfunkel.
“Don’t kid yourself,” he says. “It was Paul Simon. I wanted Simon to do the harmony too – I think that would have been better than Artie. But they had been at high school together and that’s how they did it. Artie never did like me very much.”