Dylan producer, Bob Johnston, recalls lifetime of musical memories

Bob Johnston, March 2010. Photo courtesy of Rush Evans

By Rush Evans

Bob Johnston has spent a lifetime encouraging musicians to be themselves. He is one of the most respected record producers of the last half century, and artists know their own voices won’t be lost to someone else’s vision when the man at the soundboard is Johnston. Not that Johnston is a quiet, passive player in the records he has worked on. His input and guidance were highly significant on a few albums you might have heard of: Blonde on Blonde. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Songs of Love and Hate. The IRS Tapes. Nashville Skyline. And yes, he is the Bob that Dylan was addressing in that famous sound bite from Nashville Skyline, “Is it rolling, Bob?”

The tape was always rolling. As head of production at Columbia Records, Johnston worked with everybody, always creating an atmosphere that brought out the best in each musician. And he’s still doing it today. Now in his late seventies, Johnston recently worked with Harper Simon, some forty years after producing a record with Simon’s dad and Art Garfunkel.

Bob Johnston is not a quiet, passive player in life, either. His crusty commentaries on the musicians he has worked with are laced with obscenity and attitude, but always rooted in humor, goodwill, and fondness for his musical friends.

In the same laissez-faire spirit Johnston employs in the studio, I will let him tell his story in his own colorful way:

On his family
My great-great grandfather invented the coupling to the railroad and they f***ed him out of it, the coupling to the railroad car, you know, that hook up cars together. Rip Ford, started the Texas Rangers and there was five of ‘em. And my great-grandfather, Major Kirk, was number five. And one of my grandfathers had to go to Egypt to get his 33rd degrees mason. My grandmother used to write songs with the guy that wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” My mother won a Grammy at 92 [Johnston’s mother, Diane Johnston, wrote songs for Gene Autry and Asleep at the Wheel’s signature song, “Miles and Miles of Texas].

On an early encounter with Frank Sinatra
I saw Sinatra early and my ambition was to be Sinatra. I felt like I was ugly, and I couldn’t sing, but I was still tryin’ to. Then one day in Boston, I was in the navy on an icebreaker, and I went to this navy place there in the park where all the service men come. I got about half looped and they asked me to sing a song. I got up singin’ a song and Sinatra walked in. I sat down immediately. Sinatra got on the microphone. He said, “Here’s the deal: I’m gonna leave, I’m not gonna sing for you unless he finishes his song.” Everybody [said], “Finish the song!” I went, “F*** you, I’m not gonna sing while that son of a bitch is out here; I’ll leave!” [Then] I said, “All right.” So I got up there and got rid of it fast as I could, and everybody applauded.

On Elvis Presley
I went out to his house one time and he had only his records on the jukebox. That’s all he had, was his records. And [when] you played football, he could tackle you but you could only touch him.

On presenting his wife’s songs to Elvis Presley (Joy Byers wrote sixteen songs for Elvis films)
She’s good enough to write everything. With Presley, there was forty thousand people writin’ for him. That’s not really good odds. I don’t wanna take the chance on forty thousand people, so what I did was go out and get the Jordanaires. I asked them if they’d sing with me on demos. Then I got [Presley’s] band. He’d hear twenty songs, then he’d hear this, with his band and the Jordanaires and somebody that sounded like him. And he’d go “‘I want that one!” So we ended up with two or three on each movie. You’d listen to it and you’d think it was Presley. She did the songs, and I did the demos.

On Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins, I called him one day and I said, “Would you like to win a Grammy?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t wanna use anybody on my record. I don’t want ‘em to think Carl needs help.” I said, “Good enough.” So I went down to Jackson, knocked on the door, “Hey, come in!” I said, “Can I use your phone?” He said, “What for?” I said, “It’s none of your damn business. I’ll go across the street to the drug store and then I’ll be back in a minute.” He said, “No, you can call.” So I called Willie [Nelson]. I said, “Willie, I’m gonna do a record with Carl Perkins, and I want to win a Grammy, and he don’t wanna use you on his record.” He said, “Well, hand the phone to that son of a bitch.” I handed him the phone, Carl started crying. He knew Willie all his life, but he didn’t know he’d help him with anything. So I took them in the studio and they did a song called “Wild Texas Wind,” and it should be a Grammy. And there’s a song called “Give Me Back My Job.” Singing on it was Cash, Petty, Simon, Harrison, Bono. And then I got three [tracks] with Cash, three with Petty, three with Simon, three with Harrison. Jimi Hendrix’s daddy gave me Blue Suede Shoes live. Elvis Presley [estate] said we could use anything we wanted of his. And I did something very unusual: The Beatles will never be allowed to be on record together, they made that deal. They’re on this record. I got Harrison. Ringo sent me the All-Star Band. Harrison flew into his castle in England, he said, “When are you comin’ over?” I said “I’m not comin’ over.” He said, “Well, you’re gonna produce this.” I said, “F*** you! You’re not a producer? It’s your song! You wanna play with your old buddy. I don’t wanna be there hangin’ out, telling you what to do. F*** you, you do it!” He said, “Man, that’d be great.” So then McCartney called and he said, “When you coming over with Carl?” I said, “I’m not comin’ over.” He said, “But you’re supposed to record it.” I said, “F*** you! That’s what I told Harrison. You know how to make a record. I don’t wanna be there and tell you what the hell to do. Do it yourself!” And when we got that, we had three of them. And they said don’t bother going to Yoko, she won’t do anything for you. So Yoko gave us “Blue Suede Shoes” with John live from Toronto. She said John loved him [Perkins]. So I got the Beatles on it.

The first day, I said [to Carl], “Where’s your guitar?” He says, “I don’t have it.” I said, “Why not?” He says, “They won’t let me play my guitar. My last five albums, they put it down and then overdubbed me.” I said, “Don’t come back unless you have your guitar.” So I sent him home, and then he came back. I said, “I don’t wanna f***in’ record you without your guitar. That’s crazy. Just because those people were bad, it doesn’t mean I’m bad!”

On Willie Nelson’s IRS Tapes
I caught a plane and came down here and went in a hotel. My son saw Willie, and he said, “My dad’s at the hotel.” [Willie] said, “Tell him to come down.” I went down there, and he said, “Wanna start a company and have a paper or just shake hands? We need a company.” I said, “Just shake hands.” He said, “Okay,” so we shook hands. He said, “What do you need?” I said, “I need the key to your vault.” He said, “What for?” I said, “That’s none of your goddamn business.” He gave me the key to the vault, and me and my son went out there for three months. Twenty four track tapes, a huge box, got ‘em down to the size of a DAT. Finished smoking a joint, having a cup of coffee, all through, there’s the box and the feds came. “We’re the federal government. He owes us thirty two million dollars. You leave your stuff here, come back in two weeks and you can get your box.” I said, “My name is Bob Johnston, and I ran CBS in New York, and I’m gonna call my attorneys now. And if you’ll be kind enough to call the federal marshal, I’ll be glad to have my attorneys meet with them. I’ll be on the couch until they get here. And in the meantime, don’t touch that goddamn box. That’s mine. I don’t know f***in’ Willie Nelson. That’s my box, leave it alone. Get your hands off of it, and when they get here, we’ll finish this. Thank you so much for your attention and your courtesy.” I turned around and started to walk off, and he said, “Get your damn box and get out.” So I took the box of DATs up to Willie about six o’clock in the morning. I knocked on the door and he said, “I guess they got us.” I said, “Not quite,” and I handed him the box.

They took everything away and put it in a big storage warehouse. So I went to see the [IRS] guy, and I said, “You’re making one mistake.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “I got a record coming out with him, and it would pay off his debt if you’d let me get in there and get a few things outta there.” So I was the only one that could go into Willie’s and get stuff outta there.

On Johnny Cash’s prison albums
I’ll tell you about Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash went to Sam Phillips, Sun Records in 1955, and he said the thing to do would be to cut a live album at a prison. Sam Phillips said, “If you ever say that again, I’ll fire you and I’ll make sure you never record for anybody else. That’ll be the worst thing for your career ever.” So Johnny couldn’t do it. And in 1960, five years later, he went with CBS. He went and told them. They said, “If you do that, we’ll fire you, and you won’t get to record anymore. It’ll ruin your career anyway.” So they told him no. seven years. I took over CBS in ’67. He went down there, he said, “I got an idea, I don’t guess you’ll like it.” I said, “F*** you. What is it?” He said, “I had an idea to record an album live in prison.” 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 f***in’ concert.” He said, “My God, when?” I said, “Talk to him.” I put Johnny on the phone, he talked to him, and I left. I got a call a couple of weeks later, and Johnny said it’s all off. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “CBS found out about it and they said they’d fire me, fire you, and close the office. It’s too horrible an idea to even think about. I just wanted to call and let you know, and see if by chance you had any kind of an idea what we could do.” I said, “Yeah, I got one great idea real quick. He said what is it? I said if I was you I’d go out and buy the biggest goddamn suitcase I can find,” and I hung the phone up on him. I got a call about a month later. He said, “Are we any closer?” I said, “Yeah, we leave in about two weeks.” So I took him to Folsom. It [sold] seven million. Number one. Then nine months later he called me, said, “You got any ideas?” I said, “Yeah. You wanna go to Sing Sing or San Quentin?” He said, “San Quentin.” I said, “Good enough!” He said, “Oh boy!” He called me two weeks later. He said they called him, they wouldn’t even talk to him now. They’d just get rid of him and get rid of me and put somebody else in the office if we did that. Johnny said, “What are we gonna do?” I said I got one more idea. He said, “What is it?” I said, “If I were you I’d go out and buy a bigger goddamn suitcase than the one you bought last time. And he hung up on me. In about two weeks he called, he said, “Are we any closer?” I said, “Yeah, we got about three weeks.” So we went out to San Francisco. San Quentin. “A Boy Named Sue” knocked the Stones out of Number 1 with “Honky Tonk Women.” Sold nine million.

On Loudon Wainwright’s Attempted Moustache album
[Loudon Wainwright and then-wife Kate McGarrigle] brought Rufus home from the hospital when he was four days old and put him in a guitar case out in the studio. I said, “Everybody turn everything down. You got a baby in the guitar case, and you’re playing like it’s Led Zeppelin!” So I made everybody turn everything down and put their phones on, and we made the record like that.

On Jimi Hendrix
I was in the studio when the guy that owned the record plant, Gary Kellgren, ran the tape backwards. He said, “F***, that’s stupid. Don’t do that again.” And Hendrix said, “Do it again!” That was at Electric Ladyland. [Jimi was friendly] with people he liked. He was shy, and people thought he was angry.

On Louis Armstrong
I went into see Clive Davis one day, and I said, “I want to record Louis Armstrong.” He said, “What do you wanna do [him] for?” I said, “Well, you’re so goddamn stupid. I’m gonna do it.” He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “I’m gonna do a single. I may not do an album, I’ll do a single. He said you can do a single, that’s all you’re gonna do.” So I thought I’d f*** Louis over. Nobody’d f***ed him over. He said, “You get the musicians.” I said okay. So I booked the time for ten o’clock and I went down there at eleven. He said, “It’s eleven o’clock, you’re an hour late, where have you been?” I said, “I had breakfast.” He said, “Well, that’s a goddamn mess. I’m sittin’ here waiting. Where’d you get these f***in’ musicians?” I said I rounded them up. He said, “Well, they’re not worth a s***. Every time I walk over there to talk to one of them, they leave, and walk away from me. I can’t even talk to ‘em. Let’s get this son of a bitch done so I can get outta here.” I said good enough. He said, “What do you wanna do?” I said, “Why don’t you start with the clarinet?” He said, “What’s his name?” I said, “Petey.” He said, “Petey?” I said yeah. He said, “Petey? Petey turned around, and it was five guys [Louis] hadn’t seen for twenty five years that played in his band. They was his best friends. His wife got ‘em for me. He came walkin’ over, I said, “Get away from me! You’re not gonna kiss me!” “Yes I am!” And he kissed me on both cheeks! And we cut “Cabaret.”

On Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
There’s a record that hasn’t come out yet. I had Dylan at night, and Cash was coming down at midnight. Cash walked in and said, “What are you doing here?” Dylan said, “I’m recording.” Johnny said, “I am, too. Let’s go get some dinner. Come on, Bob.” I said, “No, I’ll wait here.” So they went out and got some dinner, and while they were gone, I built a night club out in the studio, with lights and glass and their guitars and all that s***. They came back in, looked out there, saw that, looked at each other, looked at me, went out there, and started playin’. They played thirty two songs. Dylan said, “We’re done.” They never released it. It’s been recorded since 1969, and they never released it.

On Bob Dylan
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.

On himself, and why he doesn’t tell artists what they should or shouldn’t do
How could I? “I don’t like that song, Paul. Let’s get rid of ‘Parsley Sage’ and do another one. It’s too f***in’ slow.” F*** 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 f***in’ door. You don’t have to call CBS. Just tell me to get the f*** out of here, and I’ll be gone. I won’t bother you again, but I’m gonna tell you exactly what I think, how I feel, you can keep it, stick it in your head, let it go, whatever, but I’m not gonna set there and go, “Oh, what do you think, Mr. Dylan?” I don’t give a f*** what you think! 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 f***in’ albums, worldwide. Paul Simon’s greatest hits are fourteen times platinum. That’s all those records, man, it ain’t part of the records. It’s all the records.


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