In Memoriam: Bob Johnston
August 25, 2015
The Briscoe Center is saddened by the death of legendary producer Bob Johnston. Johnston, who was born in Hillsboro, Texas, began life as a musician but later produced a string of hit records, bringing stars such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Nashville to record with the city’s veteran session musicians. Johnston, whose archives are held at the Briscoe Center, was renowned for bucking the wishes of record executives and for his hands-off style with musicians.
“Bob Johnston was different from the other ‘super-producers’ of his era in that he cultivated talent by getting out of its way,” said Don Carleton, executive director at the Briscoe Center. “His death marks a loss for popular music, but I’m glad that his archives will allow his remarkable story to continue to be told.”
Born in 1932, Johnston entered the music business in the 1950s as a songwriter and musician. He moved into the producer role by the mid-1960s, first with CBS and later independently, which led to a string of gold and platinum albums. A founder of the World Children’s Corporation in 1975, Johnston engaged in charitable work devoted to the welfare of homeless and underprivileged children.
“Johnston’s major hits include Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate,” said John Wheat, sound archivist at the Briscoe Center. “He also worked with Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin and Jimmy Cliff, among others. All these projects are well documented in the archive.”
Johnston’s archive spans his career as a staff producer in New York and Nashville for CBS, as well as his time as an independent record producer. The archive includes working files, audio and video recordings, publications and artifacts. Working files for Johnston’s projects consist of newspaper clippings, biographies, correspondence, travel schedules, proposed recording expenses, financial records, scrapbooks, and photographs. Audio and visual material includes over 2,300 recordings from test pressings and live takes to studio masters, commercial vinyl and 16mm films. Also included are sheet music, songbooks, framed gold and platinum records, music industry awards and numerous books.
Several items from the Johnston archive are currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, including letters written by Leonard Cohen to Johnston and chord charts used on Cohen’s 1970 European tour.