Bob Johnston, Producer for Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash & More, Dies at 83

Bob Johnston, Ron Cornelius and Leonard Cohen
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Bob Johnston, Ron Cornelius and Leonard Cohen, 1984.  

Bob Johnston, the producer behind iconic albums like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde and Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, died on Friday, Aug. 14, according to The Austin Chronicle. He was 83 years old.

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The Chronicle reports that friends say Johnston was in a memory facility in Nashville and in hospice in the past week.  “For several days before, [he was] swinging, swaying and waving around his hands, telling stories out loud, entertaining and consuming all those that saw and heard him,” the outlet quotes one of his friends. “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,” the friend continued.

Johnston was born on May 14, 1932, in Hillsboro, Texas. His mother and grandmother were both songwriters, with his mother having written for Gene Autry and Asleep at the Wheel. Johnston, who would later marry songwriter Joy Byers, got into production work, first for Kapp Records and Dot Records, and then for Columbia Records. He spent a couple years working for Columbia in New York before heading to Nashville, where he continued to work for the label. He eventually worked as an independent producer.

Among Johnston’s long list of credits are his production work for Bob Dylan in the mid ’60s and early ‘70s on albums including Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning. Johnston is the “Bob” that Dylan is talking to when he asks, “Is it rolling, Bob?” at the start of the song “To Be Alone With You,” on Nashville Skyline.

Johnston played an integral role in the creation of many of Johnny Cash’s albums, including the live records At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. He also worked on Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and more. More recently, as an independent producer, Johnston worked with Willie Nelson on The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? in the '90s.

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As Johnston recalled to Goldmine magazine in 2011, Cash wanted to cut a live album at a prison. His idea was shut down by two different record labels, but when Johnston was on staff for Columbia Records in 1967 -- where Cash was signed at the time -- he pushed the project forward: “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.’”

The plan didn’t exactly go without a hitch. Just a couple weeks later, Cash came back to Johnston and -- as Johnston remembered -- told him that the record label “found out about it and they said they’d fire me, fire you, and close the [Nashville] 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.”

Johnston took him to Folsom anyway. At Folsom Prison, the album that was recorded live and released in 1968, went to No. 1 on the country charts. Johnston then suggested that they go to either Sing Sing or San Quentin to record another live album. The label pushed back again, but Johnston still went out to San Quentin with Cash. The result: At San Quentin, the album released in 1969 that features the hit song “A Boy Named Sue” and has since gone triple platinum.

"Bob Johnston is a producer that is an artist’s dream,” Cash was quoted as saying in the film The Other Side of Nashville, according to a profile and interview featured on “Bob Johnston likes to sit back and watch an artist produce himself, and then he puts it together. Bob Johnston is smart enough to know when he gets an artist who believes in himself -- to let him run with it.

"My job wasn’t to be a hero and to tell Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson what the f--- to do!” Johnston said in the interview excerpt. “I thought if you want to be a hero or if you want to take credit, get some other people to work with. Don’t work with these people. I wasn’t like some other people who were looking to be the next Phil Spector. I had three sons; all I cared about was seeing that it was gonna be a better world. And I think these people made a better world for us.”