Singer-songwriter and accomplished classical guitarist Michael Johnson, whose mellow voice and thoughtful material earned him two Number One singles on the country chart, “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder,” and a trio of laid-back Top 40 pop hits, including “Bluer Than Blue,” died Tuesday at his home in Minneapolis following a lengthy illness, according to a statement on his website. He was 72.
Johnson was born in Alamosa, Colorado, in 1944 and raised in Denver. Stricken with a severe case of pneumonia at 13, Johnson recuperated at home alongside his older brother, Paul, who had been badly injured in a car accident around the same time. The two taught themselves guitar and, by the end of the year, booked their first gig at the local VFW hall. Johnson would leave college early after winning a talent contest in which first prize included an Epic Records recording contract. A single, “Hills,” penned by Johnson, was unsuccessful but led to a string of appearances at a Chicago pub. In 1966, he studied classical guitar in Barcelona, Spain, at the invitation of master guitarist Andrés Segovia, after which he returned to the U.S. to join New Society, a group founded by New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks. He then became a member of the trio Denver, Boise and Johnson, co-writing songs with fellow member John Denver.
Prior to signing with Atlantic Records in 1971, Johnson acted in the off-Broadway musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. After a trio of LPs, he teamed in Nashville with producers Brent Maher (The Judds) and Steve Gibson (Lynn Anderson) to record the ballad “Bluer Than Blue” for EMI America. The single, penned by Randy Goodrum, reached Number 12 on the pop chart and topped the Adult Contemporary (Easy Listening) chart for three weeks. The accompanying music video for that single was among the first 20 to air on MTV in 1981. The follow-up, a cover of the show tune “Almost Like Being in Love” was also a Top 40 hit, and 1979’s “This Night Won’t Last Forever” reached the Top 20. Beginning in 1985, Johnson placed a string of hits on the country chart, including two Number Ones. Other Top Tens (on the RCA label) included “I Love You By Heart” (a duet with then-labelmate Sylvia), “Crying Shame,” “I Will Whisper Your Name” and “That’s That.” His 1995 single “Cain’s Blood” was a Top 30 single a year earlier for the group 4 Runner.
Legendary personal manager Phil Kaufman, a longtime friend of Johnson’s, remembers him as a skilled musician and entertainer, telling Rolling Stone Country, “He was not just a great guitar player but he had a great stage presence as well. He would do these little riffs that guitar players would kill for.”
Johnson toured extensively, including with Wynonna, Clint Black and Alison Krauss and Union Station. He and Krauss recorded the 1997 duet “Whenever I Call You Friend.” He continued to release albums on various labels through 2012’s Moonlit Déjà Vu, an LP recorded with his daughter, Truly Carmichael. In 2007, the singer underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery. During his live shows he also spoke about his battle with emphysema.
Johnson is survived by his daughter and two sons, Leo and Stan.