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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"You Taught Us Well"—An Homage to Grace Nakamura

Delivered this afternoon at Grace Shinoda Nakamura's Memorial:

Grace and I had an immediate bond. Part of that may have been due to the first thing that she said to me when we met at El Rancho High School in 1975 or '76 when I had returned to teaching after a brief retirement to play music. She said, “I knew your mother and father before you were born,” and she was right. My parents and Grace and Yosh had attended the same church social group for young couples here in Whittier. For most people, that would have warranted a “HMMM” or a “How about that?” But for Grace, and therefore for me, that connection was something special, yet she must have had a million such connections.

Grace Shinoda Nakamura was probably the most enthusiastic person that any of us has ever met. She was a cheerleader for so many things and so many people, but she was more than a mere cheerleader. She was a champion. She championed students. She championed teachers. She championed schools. She championed the Gifted and Talented program. She championed the El Rancho Unified School District. She championed the arts. She championed the environment. She championed integrity. She championed her children and her family. She championed friendship, and so much more.

I must point out, although any one who knew her undoubtedly knows this, she was not merely an enthusiast for the big ideas or concepts, she was a champion of individuals as well. She was filled with encouragement for both the struggling student and the gifted student. She was filled with encouragement for the struggling beginning teacher and the accomplished master teacher. She encouraged and applauded the artistic pursuits of so many, and she shared that enthusiasm with others. Whenever our paths would cross—at a school event, an art event at Hillcrest or the Pomona Fair, or an art showing of one or more of the amazingly talented Nakamura clan, Grace would invariably say, “There's someone here that you have to meet.” I can honestly say that I am a better person for having met her.

I would like to share a poem that I originally wrote for a friend of Grace's and mine, Ralph Jim Kane, who left us much too soon while in the middle of his teaching career. I think it a very fitting homage to Grace as well:

You Taught Us Well

Some seeds burst from blossoms
Like a child's lost kite,
Soaring upon balmy breaths,
Stringless and free.
     Others lie sequestered
     Like a fossilized egg,
     Awaiting Resurrection
          In the garden of thought,
          Where freedom follows fancy,
          You nurtured both:
          You taught us well.

Some words seek compliance
Like a soldier's orders,
Shouting over every voice,
"Come...follow me!"
     Others whisper shyly
     Like a lover's heartbeat
     Sensing a kindred spirit
          In the field of soul,
          Where duty battles beauty,
          You captured both:
          You taught us well.

Some truths stand there, solid
Like statues in town squares,
Withstanding the elements
     Others must be sheltered
     Like blossoms pressed in books
     Fading, but not vanishing
          In the valley of time,
          Where memory is precious,
          You shared your love:
            You taught us well.

By Tim McMullen 
©1987, amended ©2014

There is a large hole in our hearts that will never be filled, but there is a much greater well in our hearts filled with the fondest memories and gratitude that we were touched by the miracle that was Grace Nakamura. Thank you, Grace, you taught us well.