He’s always had big ideas, been involved with big projects and had hits with countless artists in his many decades in the music business. Although Bob will be the first to acknowledge how lucky he’s been in his life to work with so many great artists, there is also an unmistakable thread that weaves through all of his records. It is the combination of all of the things that happen during a Bob Johnston session that makes his records so great, and the results continue to speak for themselves.
– Jimmy Foot
Were you ever nervous to work with any of these artists?
In 2004 the only two records that lived on my turntable were Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate.They became obsessions, as did the man who produced them. I soon came to discover that this enigma also produced many of my other favorite records, but I couldn’t find much information on the man himself. In February of 2009 I was lucky enough to get tickets to Leonard Cohen’s performance in New York City. I showed up at will call and they were flipping through the envelopes for the tickets, and they flipped past an envelope that said “Bob Johnston.” I thought, “Holy fuck. I’m going to be in the same room as Bob Johnston!” We sat down at our seats and about three songs in I looked to the left of me and one seat over was Bob Johnston. At intermission I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me. I think you’re the greatest record producer of all time.” And with his deep Texas drawl he said, “Yep. My name is George Martin.” Now I’ve never met George Martin, but I am pretty sure he’s not from Texas.
– Howard Bilerman
Not nervous. I told them all when I started that I didn’t have a contract with them. I had a contract with CBS. I told [Bob] Dylan, [Johnny] Cash, [Leonard] Cohen and [Paul] Simon, “You want to get rid of me? All you have to do is say, ‘There’s the goddamn door.’ You don’t have to go through any shit because I don’t have a contract with you.” I think that took care of it.
Did the record company people come down to sit in on Dylan sessions?
They came down. The first time there was about five people, so I told Dylan, “All of them sons of bitches are in there. We’re gonna go to dinner.” We all went to dinner and left them for a couple hours, and they left. They came back a couple times, and I’d always turn the lights in the studio off and pretend like nobody was there. [laughter] I was with Dylan in the studio before I even recorded him yet. He and [Albert] Grossman and all the CBS people were there. I said, “Some time you’ve got to go to Nashville. I built a studio. There are no clocks. I’ve got everything working down there.” He never would answer. “Mmm.” He left and they came over to me and they said, “If you ever mention Nashville to Dylan again, you’re fired.” I said, “Why?” And they said, “We don’t want him down there with that bunch of goddamn stupid people. You’re doing a good job here.” I said, “Whatever you want.” I took him to Nashville and did Blonde on Blonde six months later. [laughter] The phones started ringing and I never bothered to answer them.
What was CBS’ stance on Dylan going electric? Did you get caught up in the middle of any of that?
Only when I started Highway 61 Revisited. Clive Davis [A&R, later president of CBS/Columbia] and all those people said, “Pretty good, but all those guitars need to come off.” We were in a meeting and John Hammond used to rattle a bunch of newspapers, and [Bob] Mercy would sit down there laughing. He ran the A&R department and signed [Barbra] Streisand, [Andy] Williams and [Tony] Bennett — he’s the one that hired me. They were just horrible people. If you need a brain operation you go to a brain specialist, you don’t go to a septic tank cleaner. All the music people go to people that can’t sing, dance, write, perform or play. They can do nothing but steal your money and make bad decisions. That’s the only thing those sons of bitches are good at.
Is it true that all the vocals on Blonde on Blonde are recorded live with the band? There are no overdubs on that record?
No overdubs. I had heard about [Dylan], but never met him. I went into the studio with him once with John Hammond. When I walked in and I said, “Bob, I’m Bob Johnston,” he said, “Well, I’m Bob Dylan,” and he stood up and smiled the sweetest, and I said, “Is that the way it’s gonna be?” He said, “Why not?” And I said, “Great. What’s this piece of paper?” It was a notebook and it had 22 takes of a song in it. I said, “What’s this 22 here?” He said, “That’s what we did.” I said, “I just wondered why did you do 22 takes?” He said, “The musicians all say we’ve got to do this and that.” I said, “I thought your name was Dylan. I thought you cleared your mind to get other stuff in and once is enough. You don’t have to entertain that bunch of goddamn people.” I turned around and walked off and he said, “Let’s do it.” They did a song. We finished and Al Kooper said, “10 or 15 more of those and it’ll be great.” Dylan said, “That’s it.” He never did another song twice for me. He blew my mind. He went into the studio about 9 in the morning, and he never came out until about 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. He had malts, milkshakes and candy. I thought he was a junkie — I thought he was shooting up. He wasn’t. At about 3 o’clock he came around and he said, “Is anybody here?” I said, “They’re all here playing ping pong.” I woke everybody up, got them down there and said, “One thing you do — you never quit playing. I can overdub you. I can’t overdub Dylan.” I said, “Whoever stops, go ahead and gather your instrument up and walk out the door.” They said, “We’ve got to hear it.” Dylan said, “It’s G-C-D. G-C-D like that.” The band said, “My God, we don’t even know the song.” I said, “Pick your instruments up.” Dylan started playing and he did “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” When he got through with the first verse it was about two minutes. The band was used to doing three-minute records, and they thought that was the ending, so they played real big on the ending of the first thing and came down like that to end it, and Dylan went into the second verse. It was over 11 minutes long, and every time they did that and thought it was gonna end. That’s what made that record so good. When they finished he came back and said, “Let’s hear it.” They played it back and he said, “Let’s do the next one.” I knew I had him. He never said anything about the sound. Nobody ever said anything about the sound.
One of the things I love about Blonde on Blonde is the fact that there are mistakes on that record. Was that ever discussed during playback?
No, nothing was ever discussed by me. The first lesson I got — I was running a publishing company of a guy named Clyde Otis. He didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was 16 — black guy from Memphis. He drove a cab. Four white guys got in his cab one day and started singing. He said, “I’ve got a demo room. Do y’all want to put it down?” They went over and put down “The Stroll” by The Diamonds. Mercury [Records] took it. Then he did Clyde McPhatter, Dinah Washington and found a girl named Timi Yuro. Dinah was [in the studio] and she said, “I need $50,000 dollars or I’ll kill myself.” Clyde went and got her a check. They started this thing, “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.” At the end of it, they all came in the studio and the arranger said, “That’s the best it’ll ever be done.” Everybody agreed and Clyde said, “Would you do one more for me?” They said, “Why?” Dinah said, “I need another 50.” He called over and got her 50 grand. They kicked it off and about halfway through Clyde walked out the door and kicked a chair over, “Clunk!” You can hear it. He came back in and sat down and nobody knew what to do. When they finished Dinah said, “Why in God’s name did you do that?” Clyde said, “It ain’t perfect now, is it?” [laughter] That’s what they released. I thought, “Fuck, that’s crazy. I’m not going to tell them I don’t like that song, or I do, or you can’t do this or somebody flubbed up. No.” The musicians never said a word. I’d get rid of them.
You were a staff producer for CBS. You didn’t get points on any of the records you recorded? You just got a salary?
When I signed up I did Highway 61 Revisited, [Simon & Garfunkel’s] Sounds of Silence, [Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde and then [Simon & Garfunkel’s] Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and they [CBS] sent me $3000. I sent it back to them and they sent me $5000. I put that in the bank, quit and they said that would be the end of me. Then they went to see the four artists that I had — Dylan, Simon, Cash and Cohen. They told Johnny Cash, “We have to have somebody else come in because Johnston’s leaving. We need another producer.” Cash told them to keep their goddamn hands off of me. Leonard said, “I haven’t slept for a while. Can I use your couch?” He went over on the couch and when they left he left. Simon walked out of the room. He didn’t say anything. When they asked Dylan, he said, “I don’t care what you do. Use anybody you want to.” He walked over and opened the door and he turned around and Dylan said, “But I don’t think I want to record for four or five years.” He shut the door. They couldn’t do a goddamn thing to me.
How did you end up running the CBS branch in Nashville?
Nashville was supposed to be taken over by somebody else after 20 years, and I told them I wanted Nashville. I went down to Nashville, got Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and worked on the Bonnie and Clyde [soundtrack]. Johnny Cash came to me when they opened the CBS office. He said, “I’ve got an idea. I want to go to a prison and record an album. I was five years with Sun Records, and Sam Phillips told me it was a horrible idea.” In ’60 he signed with CBS, and they told him the same thing for seven years. I picked up the phone and called Folsom and San Quentin [Prisons]. I got through to Folsom first and I got the warden. I said, “[Warden Clinton T.] Duffy, Cash is coming up and doing a concert for you guys.” He said, “My God when?” I handed the phone to Johnny and I left. About a week later, Cash called me and he said, “Everything’s off.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “CBS called me and said they’d fire you, close the office, drop me and I’d never get to record again.” I thought for a second and I said, “I got a great idea. If I were you, I would go out and buy the biggest goddamn suitcase I could find. About a month later he called me and said, “When are we going?” I said, “About two weeks.” […at Folsom Prison] sold 7 million [records] and they did the same thing to him with San Quentin. Dick Asher said, “We’ll drop you and fire you and he won’t get to record anymore.” I said, “That last one was an accident. I didn’t have anything to do with that.” I took him to San Quentin, and that sold 9 million [Johnny Cash at San Quentin]. [The song] “A Boy Named Sue” knocked the [Rolling] Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” out of No. 1. That blew my mind with Cash. I never dreamed he would do that. When he did …at Folsom Prison, they had a guy that would get up and introduce him. “Ladies and gentlemen…” — there weren’t any ladies and gentlemen. There was a bunch of goddamn thugs and killers sitting there. I said, “Bullshit. All you gotta do is walk out there. They’re not even finished sitting down yet. Jerk your head around and say, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,'” He did and they went wild.
You pitched a third prison record to Johnny towards the end of his life, right?
Yeah. He got sick and I went to him. He was with Willie [Nelson] and some people. I said, “Johnny, you ready to do the third in the historical prison series albums? We’re going to Sing Sing.” He said, “Bob, there’s nothing in the world I would like to do better, but I can’t. I’m too ill.” I thought, “There goes a great album, success and money,” and then I thought, “That’s Johnny Cash.” [laughter] I just went over and gave him a hug and left. He died about six months later, and they had his funeral in Nashville. I didn’t go because he always told me, “If they put me in a box, I’ll break out of it.” I didn’t want to see him in a box. He told me when he did …at Folsom Prison, “That’s the most amphetamines I ever took in my life.” I said, “That’s the last you’ll take them with me, ’cause I don’t want to be around a junkie. It’s too degrading for me to see you like that.” He quit cold turkey. He never had another thing until I left him four or five years later. Nothing.
What was that story you were telling me the other day about when Johnny asked you to buy him some pills?
I walked in the studio the first time before we ever recorded and he said, “Bob, you want to do me a favor?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Here’s $300. Will you go get me some reds and some blues — little pills? Go down to that guy down there.” I said, “Sure Johnny.” I took his money. I went over to my briefcase and I got $500 out. I said, “Johnny, here’s $500. Will you get me some black beauties while I’m gone to get your pills?” He said, “I’m not a goddamn pill dealer. I don’t deal pills.” I said, “Neither do I, you son of a bitch. I make records. Get your own pills.” He never came to me after that.
What’s the story about the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sessions that you recorded in 1969? One song made it onto Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
Yeah, “Girl from the North Country” was the one song that Dylan wanted on there. CBS won’t release it. They’ve got 32 songs with Dylan and Cash laughing. The band had left for lunch, Dylan was in the studio and Cash came by. Dylan said, “What are you doing here?” Cash said, “I’m going to record here next.” Dylan said, “I just finished.” Cash said, “Let’s go to dinner. Come on, Bob.” I said, “No, I want to stay here.” While they were gone I built a bar and had their microphones and guitars out. They got back and looked around and saw their guitars and a bar. They didn’t say a word, got their guitars, started playing and singing together and we started requesting songs. About two hours later Dylan said, “We’re finished.” A couple of years ago I went to see the president and the vice president of CBS and I said, “I want to try one more time to get this Cash/Dylan thing out.” They said, “We know about that.” I said, “Let me play you one thing.” I played one song and the guy said, “See? That’s why it’s not out.” I said, “What do you mean? I don’t understand.” He said, “Cash sings, ‘Give me my .45,’ and Dylan sings, ‘Won’t you give me my .45?'” and I said, “The thing that I’m most grateful about is I can leave you sons of bitches now.” I left. One day some guy will come in and go, “Wow, look at this — Cash and Dylan.” It will be double platinum like it should have been in ’69.
Johnny Cash said, “Bob Johnston is a producer that is an artist’s dream. Bob likes to sit back and watch an artist produce himself, and then he puts it together. Bob is smart enough to know when he gets an artist who believes in himself, to let him run with it.”*
Anything Dylan, Cohen, Cash or any of those people ever wanted to do — I never said a word. Whatever they wanted to do was fine. All I did was improvise and try to change ideas. I’d come over to ’em, “Do you want A, B or C?” They’d go, “We want B.” They were the same thing. I would make a mix and go up to Dylan’s place and play it. When I came in, Dylan hugged me, sat down, and for two hours he played the record and told me, “On that song, go to the third verse and the word ‘about’ and bring the bass up a dB.” I thought, “I’m not gonna mess with it. I’ll do what he wants.” We didn’t have automation, so I took pictures of the board with cameras so I knew where to go to every time. I did that with him, with everybody. Whatever they wanted to do. I thought that they knew more than I did. I told everybody, “Don’t look to me. Don’t look to those people. Don’t ever ask anybody. Whatever you need I’ll help you with, but I’ll bring you ideas that I’ve got.” That’s what happened with everything. I never had a cross word with Dylan.
Dylan was infamous for being a quick songwriter. Was this also reflected in the way he worked in the studio?
Dylan was like an eternal spring. He would have 20 songs and be writing and performing. It got to be real quick with him because of the way we did it. He came to Nashville and did Nashville Skyline, which was a huge album. I got all the papers and put them out on the floor in the control room. He said, “What do you think about doing bass, drums and guitar?” I said, “That’s great, but there ought to be a steel too.” I got Pete Drake, who’s about the best steel player, and we started in. About midnight Dylan said, “Let’s do another one.” I said, “You’re finished.” He said, “You’re kidding!” And I said, “No.” We did it in one day,Nashville Skyline. [Records show that there was more than one day involved, but not much more! -ed.]
What was it like to record the drummer, Kenny Buttrey? He played on [Neil Young’s] Harvest and on Blonde on Blonde.
He was a wonderful guy, young and he got down. When we did, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Dylan said, “Listen, I got one here,” and he played it on the piano and I said, “That sounds like a Salvation Army band.” He said, “Can you get one?” I said, “Not at 3:00 in the morning, but I can get a halfway one.” So [Charlie] McCoy, the bandleader, called up a guy that played trombone [Wayne Butler]. Charlie played trumpet. I got the big bass drum hanging around Kenny’s neck and we marched around the studio. I never heard Dylan belly laugh except in that song. He was belly laughing and they were all marching around the studio. We took it up to New York at a singles meeting and they said, “That’s not coming out. Nothing about drugs will ever come out on CBS.” I never said anything, I went and mastered it, had it released and got about 50 grand and flew around ten cities and busted the record and came back. I think it came on No. 60 the first week it was on Billboard. They had some kind of a conference, came back and said, “Let’s look at Billboard here. What’ve we got?” One guy said, “You’ve got ‘Rainy Day Women…'” and he said, “What do you mean? That’s not coming out on this record label.” And he said, “It’s number 60 with a bullet.” He said, “Who did that?” John Hammond was doing his newspapers and Mercy was laughing. I just never said anything. When I had Paul Simon in the studio and I went and played “Homeward Bound,” they said, “That’s great, except the drums have to come off — it doesn’t need any drums.” I said, “You’re right.” Hammond was used to me arguing with him and he couldn’t figure it out. I went back to the studio, made a copy without any drums and played it, and all of his clones applauded and he applauded. I went back, put the drums on the song, it came out like that and they didn’t know the difference.
Audience Member: I read that it was your idea to do the cowbell on Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.”
It was. I told Kenny Buttrey to get the cowbell. He said, “Cowbell is ass. What do you want a cowbell for?” I said, “You’re gonna hit it against your head. It’s a perfect sound.” He said, “I’m not hitting that against my head.” I said, “Use your stick.” He got a stick and put the cowbell on and Bob goes, “I thought that was crazy when you said that, but it all worked out.” I’m not a damn genius — I didn’t know whether that would work or not. I might have said, “Get that cowbell out of there.” That’s my whole life, just listening at the spur of the moment. I wanted everything to be better than everything else was with everybody on all they did.
How long did the earlier Dylan records take?
Highway 61 Revisited took about two weeks or a week and a half. Blonde on Blonde took about two weeks. I got Al Kooper, [Rick] Danko and Robbie Robertson down there. They said, “We can’t play with those Nashville people.” I said, “Well, go back to Canada.” They said, “We’ll play with them,” and they did and they all fell in love with each other.
Did you guys do pre-production in those days?
No. They wouldn’t even learn the [songs].
What records were you listening to back then?
I had a secretary. She went out and got 130 records for me every Monday and I went into the studio and listened to them. I took the best of the best and tried to use that in my head for what I did. But every Monday I would listen to the top 130 records — not all the way through, just what were gonna be and what wasbig.
The Simon & Garfunkel records seem to be a lot more produced.
Endless. Paul Simon was a genius. He had all the money in the world. He had nothing to do but play in the studio, so we hit Coke bottles together for two or three days. He was going through trying to find that Coke sound. That’s the way that he did it, and I didn’t care because I had the biggest audience in the world. I loved everything that he did. Art [Garfunkel] never did anything except twist his hair. He was a mathematical genius, so he would do his parts by math. I used to tell Paul, “Why don’t you do that? You sound better than him.” Paul would go, “Oh man, I’ve been with him since high school.”
Did they do their vocals together?
No. Paul did his vocal and then Art did his vocal. Art would take all night. [moaning]
Was it hard for you to work on records that took that long, as opposed to the really fast ones?
No. I kept my mind to it. I had Dylan in the daytime and then I had them all night. Then I would catch the limo home about six, fix breakfast for my kids and then turn around, sleep in the limo and come back in. I had 27 artists. I got sleepy, but I never got hooked on drugs or anything. I love weed. I love hash. I have three kids, three grandkids and I’ve never wanted to get plowed down in that — so I didn’t. Timothy Leary made some acid for Leonard called “Desert Dust” and it was in a little bottle. When we went on tour in ’70 and ’71, we took that bottle with us. One speck was good for about 15, 16 hours. Before we’d go onstage everybody will hold their tongue out and we’d hit their tongue with a dust of that.
You were asked to go on tour with Leonard to play organ, but you’d never played organ before, correct?
I played, banged around on the piano, but I said, “That’s crazy. I’ve got the best organ player and piano player in the world for you.” He said, “I won’t go then.” I thought, “I’m not going to miss that,” so I said, “Okay.” I banged around, played a few notes, played guitar and sang with him.
Leonard has said about you, “The best thing that Bob did was he went up to the glass when people were performing and he put his arms up and he bobbed his head and he smiled like he was hearing the music of the spheres. As a performer, when you see that you feel like you’re doing something right.”
I was in Nashville and it was Leonard’s first time in the studio. He said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “You can sing a song with your guitar, but we’re going over to get a hamburger.” He said, “I’m ready to sing.” I said, “Go ahead and sing. We’re gonna go get a burger and a beer.” We went over, got a couple of drinks and came back and he said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “I want you to go sing and play a song.” He didn’t know I’d been working on the sound for two days. He got up and sang this song, came in and heard it and said, “Is that what I’m supposed to sound like?” The studio had three engineers that were coming in and keeping track of you [to see] if you did anything wrong. The first night they came in, all three of them were sitting there and I told everybody to light up and get some hash and some candles. They did and the engineers got sick. I said, “Go outside. That way you won’t be bothered.” They sat out where the people work, and I sent everybody in through there to smoke. They got sick again. I said, “Go home, stay with your family and if anybody calls I’ll tell them you went on an errand for me.” So they left and I never had to mess with them again.
You worked with Willie Nelson later on.
Willie is such a good man. I went down to Austin one day and I don’t know why. I took my youngest son with me and I was in a hotel and he saw Willie. Willie said, “Tell Bob to come over.” I went over and he said, “We need a company. Do you want to sign a paper or shake hands?” I said, “Shake hands.” So we shook hands. He said, “What do you need?” and I said, “I need the key to your vault.” He said, “What for?” I said, “It’s none of your damn business.” He gave me the key to his vault. He had 2400 tapes with every artist in the world on them. We made mixes of all that and put it on a little DAT tape — it took us about two months. We finished on a Saturday morning. I was smoking a joint and having a cup of coffee, and the Feds knocked on the door. They said, “We’re here to take everything he has. He owes us $16 million. You leave your box there. Come back here in two weeks and we’ll talk to you.” I went up to the guy and said, “My name is Bob Johnston. I ran CBS. That’s my box and don’t you goddamn touch a thing in there. I don’t even know Willie Nelson. Let me go and call my attorneys in New York and get a federal marshal down here and we’ll start this shit.” He said, “Take your box and get out.” I took my box and went out to Willie’s at about five in the morning and knocked on the door. He said, “I guess they got us!” I said, “Not quite,” and I gave him the box. The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? – we put it together and it paid off his debt. I didn’t have any idea the Feds were after him. I don’t know why I went and did that — probably because Willie is such a good guy.
I know you’re working on a Carl Perkins compilation. You also produced some tracks on Carl’s final album, Go Cat Go!
I called Carl one day and I said, “Do you want to win a Grammy?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to use anyone on my record. I don’t want them to think old Carl needs help.” I said, “Good enough.” I went down to Jackson, Tennessee, knocked on Carl’s door and said, “Can I use your phone?” He said, “What for?” I said, “That’s none of your business. I’ll go across the street and come back.” He said, “No, you can use it.” I called Willie [Nelson] and I said, “Willie, I am here with Carl and we want to win a Grammy. He doesn’t want to use you on his record.” He said, “Hand the phone to that son of a bitch.” He didn’t know Willie would help him. I got Willie, and I went home that night and the light bulb came on in my head — Johnny Cash did three with Carl, Tom Petty did three, Paul Simon did three and Willie Nelson did four. I told Carl — I said, “You ought to ask The Beatles. They did eight of your songs.” He said, “I can’t ask them.” I said, “Give me Ringo’s number.” Ringo sent him the All-Starr Band and they overdubbed on it. George Harrison flew him to his castle and cut one song. McCartney and George Martin cut one song. They said, “Don’t go to Yoko. She won’t help you.” I went to Yoko and she said, “John loved him. Take ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ from Live Peace in Toronto 1969.” George [Harrison] called and said, “When are you coming over?” I said, “I’m not coming over there.” He said, “You’re producing.” I said, “You don’t need me to produce. Aren’t you a goddamn producer?” I hung up on him. He produced that and McCartney produced his. I did one with Ringo and then Yoko sent me that one.
AM: I want to know what was your favorite recording studio you worked at and why?
There wasn’t any. I made an inner sanctum out of everything. I like flowers. I like every place being clean — not burgers and hot coffee spilled all over everything. Every studio I ever went into became my home. I was gonna have to be there, so I had flowers and music and everything was like that all the time. It was like being in an asylum for the artist. They would be milling around, hearing music and flowers everywhere and shit like that — not like the regular thing they’re used to — dirt and filth, people getting loaded and drinking and all that shit. I thought they deserved better than that.
AM: What’s your personal feeling about the sound quality of a record in the ’60s compared to today’s modern studio and manufacturing?
Sound quality is bullshit, except for a few people. They have a machine now in country to tune your voice. You’re flat and you’re sharp. Nobody’s perfect. What they have is a perfection machine. They get those little girls down there, “Aaaaaaaah,” like that and they tune it up. All those country and pop records sound the same because, “He was out of tune on that note.” I never used one of those things because it changes your voice.
AM: Where do you think the music industry is going?
The future of the industry is that the major labels will collapse, and the attorneys and all those people will be gone. There will be a few because there will always be rap and they’ll be a few [big] things. But when somebody finds out that the company doesn’t control them, they don’t pay them, they run their debt up, turn down what’s good, put out what’s bad and charge them for everything in the world — promotion, marketing, merchandising, girls, hookers. You have the septic tank cleaners judging music. “We don’t like this. We don’t want this.” They get you caught up for a half a million so they won’t have to pay you, and that’s what they do. You’re at the mercy of sitting at a big table, listening to a bunch of clones watching their president to see what he’s going to say. It’s a horrible situation.
AM: What’s your advice to aspiring artists who want to bring out the best of what they do?
Critics are an eternal mediocrity living at the expense of genius, either to belittle it or to destroy it — a race of insects happily eating away at the foliage of art. That’s what I would tell all of the artists. If you don’t believe it, think about Tiny Tim filling a New York stadium. How did he do that? He can’t sing. He’s a freak. I love him. Anybody that judges you, whether it’s a little company or a big company — either they want you or they don’t, either they think you’re great or you’re not. The only people that you have to believe in is you. Anybody else that believes in it you gather as fans. Don’t ever go to a major record company unless you want to be like the Rolling Stones and have them take all your money. The Beatles didn’t get Apple. They got it stolen. Billy Joel didn’t get $35 million taken from him by his people. They stole from Beethoven, Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, the Stones — they stole from everybody. That’s what they do. They steal from you and give you wrong advice for your salvation and make you whatthey are, and pretty soon you’re like them. It’s not any different than going out on the street with the guy picking up your garbage and saying, “Come in, listen to this and tell me what you think.” Tapping their foot out of time, whistling out of tune, judging what their boss took last week to keep their job six months longer. Crazy.
We had dinner last night with Leonard Cohen and Bob said, “Why don’t you come to the talk tomorrow?” Leonard said, “No, it’s okay.” I said, “Bob, he doesn’t want to upstage you.” Leonard said, “I don’t think that’s possible.” I believe that now to be true. [laughter and applause]
Thanks a million everybody! That was wonderful to hear that. I feel like Leonard. I didn’t know anybody was going to applaud. Thanks for comin’!
* From an interview with Richard Younger from On the Tracks, issue #20.
Thanks to McGill University and Jonathan Sterne for use of the Tanna Schulich Recital Hall and Howard Bilerman for organizing the event and offering the transcript to Tape Op.
Working With Bob Johnston, Case One
A few days after the public question and answer session that Bob and I did, he suggested that we gather some folks in the studio to “show them how fucking easy it is to make a record.” I assembled a band by gathering together some musician friends, and suggested they record a Sam Cooke cover song (“Bring It On Home To Me”) live to 2-inch tape in front of a group of about 25 recording students. When I asked Bob if the band should rehearse a bit before the session, his answer was, “No, man. I don’t want to rig it. I want to do it like they used to. The band has to learn the song in studio.” Being such a fan of many of the records he’s done, it was quite a surreal honor to work side by side with him.
After I set up the mics and got levels, Bob listened to each channel, one at a time. Then he asked me to adjust all their levels, so that each channel was playing back at the same level on the board’s VU meters (i.e., kick at 0 dB, left overhead at 0 dB, bass at 0 dB, etc). “I like to just put up all the faders and let them all fight it out,” he said. Then he requested some echo on some tracks. “Reverb?” I asked. “No, not reverb [Bob says ‘ruh-vurb’], echo.” After a bit of confusion I figured out that what he wanted was basically a short reverb with no repetitions. He also wanted me to pan the two guitars far left and right, add echo to them and pan the echo for each guitar across from the guitar itself. For vocals he wanted a mic in front of the vocalist, and one to each side of her. The side mics were panned hard left and right. (We dropped these in the final mix). We worked on sounds for a bit longer, and then we started doing takes with the vocals cut live with the band — drums, bass, two guitars and piano.
Once tracking began Bob sprang to life, threw off his leather jacket and spent the entire time bobbing his head in the tracking room while the band was playing. He was a taskmaster, completely paying attention to the feel of the take and how the musicians were locking in with one another. I thought we had the song by take two, but Bob made the band play five more and he was completely right. Take seven was miles better than the one I would have settled on. I really got the sense that he expected the musicians to consistently deliver. There was no room for them to mess up, and that their job was to support the singer and do as many takes as it took for the vocals to be right. There was definitely a hierarchy — the singer was the most important part of the equation, and the rest of the musicians were “the hired help” — a throwback from producing solo artists surrounded by session players, I imagine. I found his most compelling notes were to the singer. After a few takes he asked her to really connect with what she was singing, to wipe all the previous takes from her mind, to sing it as if it were the first time she was saying those words and to make them the most important thing in the world. “Don’t think about what’s happened before and don’t think about what’s coming after, because you don’t know what will happen — you don’t know what might happen!” Her next take was unbelievable.
Therein lies the genius of Bob Johnston — his greatest works are combinations of the superb talents he worked with, married with his ear and attention to detail. Plus, you really wanted to play well for Bob. I saw what Leonard was talking about — that Bob demonstrates his love for music, and in turn becomes your cheerleader. As I had heard from a few sources, he doesn’t approach recording from the technical side at all. “I leave that for the engineers.” Case in point — when I asked him which mic he wanted to use on the vocals, his reply was, “Do you have any big ones?” He really is fully focused on the performance. Working with him reinforced and validated all the things I have always felt a session should be about, and gave me a window into some of those great records with the words “produced by Bob Johnston” printed on their jackets. And yeah, he did make it look fucking easy.
Howard and Hotel2Tango: www.hotel2tango.com photographer Julien Ménard: www.flydesign.ca
Working With Bob Johnston, Case Two by Jimmy Foot
It’s a Saturday morning and I’m driving the legendary record producer Bob Johnston and his son Bobby to the House of Blues Studios in Encino, California. Bob, at 78, is making arrangements to meet with an agent for lunch once the session gets underway. Bob is tireless and still working — producing albums, starting a new record company, doing satellite radio shows and writing a book of his memoirs.
I’ve known Bob since the ’70s, when my wife Susie Foot — a staff engineer at Wally Heider Recording at the time — was working on a John Mayall session Bob was producing. After I dropped in to help find an elusive sound during a session, he invited Susie and I over to his house for dinner with his wife, Joy Byers, and we’ve been like family ever since. Bob has also produced albums for two of my bands.
Today we’re working with a young, outlaw blues artist by the name of Chris Nance from Humboldt County, California. Bob has been working with Chris for months, listening to his demos and giving sage advice. He’s reworked the lyrics on a few of Chris’ songs, suggested a few ideas for cover songs and has outright rejected one of Chris’ favorite songs for this album because of the lyrics. Chris and I have recorded good demos for all of the songs at my studio, Bongo Boy, but we want something more. The musicians arrive for the session. They’re all veteran players who have come to work with this legendary producer for the first time John Molo on drums (RatDog), Hutch Hutchinson on bass (Bonnie Raitt), Mark Karan on guitar (RatDog), J.T. Thomas (Bruce Hornsby) and Jason Yates (Ben Harper) on keys, plus myself on guitar.
You can take his opinion or leave it — he’ll tell you that from the start. “Don’t listen to me.” That’s so paradoxical. Should you listen to someone telling you not to listen? Bob gathers the musicians around and tells them a story about working with Johnny Cash. When Bob talks, people listen. Bob does a bit of the “laying of the hands” on the musicians, tells everyone to “play like a band,” and then takes off for his meeting with his agent. We get started.
I’ve co-produced three albums with Bob and have been around a number of his sessions over the years, so I have some idea what to expect. My role at this session, besides playing, is more like a musical director and stand-in producer. I hand out the charts and we get started laying tracks.
Bob comes back from his meeting. We’ve laid down one song and are about to lay down another one. Bob goes into the control room and switches gears, listening to our first song with intensity while we wait in the studio. He has a very serious look on his weathered face as he gives instructions to engineer Doug Tyo about the snare sound he wants and some panning requests for keys and guitars. He listens to the song again and his expression changes. “That’s fucking great!” he exclaims. We are relieved. A few minutes later he is out in the studio with the band getting set up with headphones. It’s like in school when the teacher comes and sits in the classroom during an important test. Sometimes the things that come out of Bob’s mouth are shocking, and this session is no exception. Bob first tells everybody, “Cut the bridge. You don’t need it!” and then, “How long is this song? It feels like it’s going on forever!” Eyes roll around the room. “What’s he talking about? The song is about 3 1/2 minutes.” Then we take out one of the two bridges, add some instrumental verses like he advises, and the arrangement becomes open and amazing. The wild-eyed old man is always right in some way or another.
After all the years I’ve known Bob, I still am not sure if he just machine guns ideas out there and most of them just knock down targets by sheer luck and sheer force, or if he plans every step meticulously. This I can say for certain — every project I’ve worked on with Bob has an amazing energy, and Bob knows everything there is on every track. Sometimes he’s so hands-on it’s intimidating. Other times he’s nowhere to be found, or just sits quietly. He knows when to shake up the energy and when to let the musicians play. He knows when to work the engineer and when to leave him be. It’s a part of the process that has launched so many great albums — a recipe, if you will, that constantly changes and evolves over time and sometimes minute to minute. For years I’ve tried to speculate about what Bob would like about this or that track, and the pattern is there is no pattern.
It was so great to work with Bob again on a big project. It had been a while. Bob has once again stepped up to the plate and slammed it out of the park for us like the true legend that he is. I can hardly wait to read this book he’s been working on. I’ve heard a thousand stories from this great man, some of them more than twice. I don’t know which ones he’ll tell, but I know that like everything else in his life, it will be interesting and exciting.
Songwriting and Elvis
My grandmother [Mamie Jo Adams] used to write songs with one of the guys who wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and my mother [Diane Johnston] won a Grammy at 92 for Asleep at the Wheel’s version of her song, “Miles and Miles of Texas.” I grew up in that atmosphere, in those little old studios — from one track to 80 tracks. I worked and I wrote a bunch of songs. My wife [Joy Byers] wrote 22 Elvis Presley songs [used in his films]. They’d send you the movie script and where the song was supposed to be. I thought, “I can’t fight 40,000 people sending records in,” so I went out and hired his band and the Jordanaires, his background singers, to do demos. They were friends of mine. Presley would listen to 30 records, “No, no, no,” and then he’d hear his band and the Jordanaires and he’d say, “Yeah. That’s the one I want.” He didn’t know why, but I never told him it was his band.