Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Farewell to Michael Johnson — A Song's and a Songwriter's Best Friend

Michael Johnson's career was really rather remarkable; he is a relative unknown despite having several "hits" and 17 albums to his credit. Having a long career yet not being well-known is not unusual, but what is remarkable is the breadth of his talent. He was an excellent classical, nylon string guitarist who recorded an instrumental by Villa-Lobos on his first album. He performed with John Denver as a part of the Mitchell Trio, who became Denver, Boise, and Johnson when the last of the original trio departed.

Michael Johnson was an excellent folk singer and songwriter. Besides writing songs, he was a marvelous interpreter of songs. His first LP had songs by Greg Brown, Jackson Browne, Biff Rose, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. 
From the first album, here is "On the Road" written by Carl Franzen

The second folk album included work by George Harrison, Rick Cunha, John Martyn. His third featured several originals as well as work by Mark Henley and Rob Galbraith.

At this point, he effectively redefined himself with The Michael Johnson Album into a smooth, powerful pop singer featuring brilliant tunes by Randy Goodrum, Bill LaBounty and Roy Freeland, Eric Kaz, and Tom Snow. "Bluer Than Blue," written by Randy Goodrum, is probably Michael Johnson's best known song, well known enough that I won't include it here.

This same group of songwriters (with a few additions like Patti Dahlstrom, Mac McAnally, Steve Gibson, and Brent Maher) turned out a marvelous set of pop songs which Michael Johnson turned into superb recordings. This second pop album, Dialogue, is a terrific collection. One of my favorites is the Randy Goodrum/Brent Maher song, "Doors."


This Night Won’t Last Forever written by Bill LaBounty and Roy Freeland began to set the tone of his smooth, catchy, breezy, pop performances.
Johnson also heard the unusual composition and made it his own. Here is a brilliant piece by Patti Dahlstrom and Tom Snow entitled "Dialogue."

The albums You Can Call Me Blue and Home Free were absolutely on a par with his best pop work. Here is "Blame it On the Rain," by Eric Kaz and Tom Snow. 

I felt that his album Lifetime Guarantee was not quite as strong as an album, despite the fact that it had very fine songs by Craig Bickhardt, Eric Kaz and Wendy Waldman, Bill Withers and others.

Then, after recording eight albums in ten years and after a three-year recording hiatus, Michael Johnson reinvented himself in another genre without much change at all in his powerful performances. With his albums Wings, That's That, Life's a Bitch, and Michael Johnson, he became a terrific country interpreter and songwriter, performing songs from an incredible collection of great country songwriters. Here's the wonderful "Give Me Wings," by Rhonda Fleming and Don Schlitz. 
This Michael Johnson original co-authored with Kent Robbins opened the album Wings and demonstrates how he transitioned his pop into country and his country into pop. It's called "Gotta' Learn to Love Without You."

With Departure (aptly named), he ventured back into the more pop-tinged world although still doing pieces by Hugh Prestwood, Goodrum, Freeland and LaBounty, and a co-write with Jack Sundrud (of Poco and Idlewheel featuring Sundrud and Craig Bickhardt). Clearly, Johnson was devoted to the work of a number of writers, and he turned to them repeatedly for their songs. The writer who benefitted most from that exposure (and vice versa), was Hugh Prestwood. Michael Johnson recorded nineteen different songs by Hugh Prestwood including the title tune of his second country album, That's That.

Despite being a huge fan, I only saw Michael Johnson perform live one time. He opened for Vince Gill in a medium sized theater. Each performed their solo acoustic set. It was an incredible night and a brilliant bill. Both men were masterful guitarists, wonderfully unique singers, and powerful and witty performers. It was an incredible night. 

The loss of Michael Johnson is another significant blow to lovers of great music, great songs, and great performances. Fortunately, because of your wonderful recordings, Michael, we don't "have to learn to love without you." Thanks.

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