Bob Johnston, a staff producer at Columbia Records who worked on legendary LPs like Bob Dylan‘s Blonde on Blonde, Johnny Cash‘s At Folsom Prison and Simon & Garfunkel‘s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, passed away Friday at a Nashville hospice. He was 83.
A friend of Johnston’s confirmed the producer’s death to the Austin Chronicle, saying, “For several days before, swinging, swaying, and waving around his hands, telling stories out loud, entertaining and consuming all those that saw and heard him. Once he was confined to [a] bed and connected to machines, hospice only gave him a few days to live. He was on morphine to help any pain he was experiencing. Bob’s wife told me he pass[ed] away peacefully. The grand master waved his magical wand for the last time, then disappeared off into the night.”
Johnston was born to a musical family on May 14, 1932 in Hillsboro, Texas; his mother Diane Johnston wrote songs for Gene Autry as well as the single “Miles and Miles of Texas,” which became an Asleep at the Wheel hit in the Seventies. After writing songs for Bill Haley and his Comets and Elvis Presley, Bob Johnston later scored a job as an in-house producer at Columbia Records. It was around this time that Dylan split from his go-to producer Tom Wilson after recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan would soon team with Johnston for 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited.
“All I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there – I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there – and I looked up one day and Bob was there,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969 about how he and Johnston were first paired.
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Recalling working with Dylan, Johnston told Goldmine in 2011 (via Billboard), “Dylan played a little song, and I said, ‘That sounds like the Salvation Army band.’ He said, ‘Can we get one?’ I said, “No, it’s two o’clock in the morning!’ I got a trombone player and a trumpet, put a drum around a guy’s neck. Everybody marched out there and sang ‘Rainy Day Women,’ and all the other stuff. I didn’t just languish there, ‘What do you wanna do now?’ That’s what I did for a living. Eight years with Dylan.”
Johnston also coordinated the collaboration between Dylan and Nashville session guitarist Charlie McCoy that resulted in that album’s “Desolation Row.” That recording would inspire Dylan to move his Johnston-produced Blonde on Blonde sessions from New York to the Tennessee city in 1966. Dylan and Johnston would pair for four more LPs after their landmark Blonde on Blonde double-LP: 1967’s John Wesley Harding, 1969’s Nashville Skyline – when Dylan asks “Is it rolling, Bob?” on “To Be Alone With You,” he’s talking to Johnston – and 1970’s Self Portrait and New Morning.
Johnston was also on hand to record both of Cash’s jailhouse live LPs, 1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin in addition to other Cash albums. While Columbia was originally reluctant to record a live album in a prison, it was Johnston who helped forge the album ahead. “I picked up the phone and called Folsom, Quentin, got hold of Folsom first, got through to the warden, told him, ‘Warden, my name’s Bob Johnston. Johnny Cash is gonna come up there, do an album, and give a fuckin’ concert.’ He said, ‘My God, when?’ I said, ‘Talk to him,'” Johnston told Goldmine.
Johnston also worked with Simon & Garfunkel on 1966’s Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, produced Leonard Cohen‘s Songs From a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, and helmed albums by the Byrds, Jimmy Cliff, Pete Seeger and Marty Robbins. Johnston was also behind the board for Willie Nelson’s infamous IRS tapes.
In 2011, Johnston talked about his successful hands-off approach to working with the artists and how he never told them what songs to include or not include on their albums.
“How could I? ‘I don’t like that song, Paul. Let’s get rid of ‘Parsley Sage’ and do another one. It’s too fuckin’ slow.’ Fuck that! I told Dylan and Cohen and Cash and Simon and everybody else, ‘You don’t have a contract with me. I got a contract with CBS. You can tell me to hit the fuckin’ door. You don’t have to call CBS. Just tell me to get the fuck out of here, and I’ll be gone,” Johnston said. “None of ’em ever messed with the sound, except Paul Simon, a little bit. But everybody else, it was what I did. I was better than everybody else. And everybody else, you compare my work. Blonde on Blonde was voted the best album in rock history. And you compare all the work with what I did and compare the other people’s records. I sold a billion fuckin’ albums, worldwide.”