Sometimes a hit song, especially when it's your biggest, stereotypes you for the rest of your career; and though it might be tempting to give Michael "Bluer Than Blue" Johnson a "one-hit-wonder" status, you just can't do it. There are many phases to Michael's career, and his diverse recorded output makes it difficult to label the multi-influenced music as purely pop, adult contemporary, folk or country. For that matter, is he a vocalist, singer-songwriter or classical guitarist? It doesn't really matter since his hybrid of musical styles has risen above all that, presenting an archive of unapologetic elegance and bias towards the romantic. Finally, Michael Johnson's multi-label, globally-heralded recording career is chronicled in this The Very Best Of Michael Johnson: Bluer Than Blue, a hits collection that savors some of the artist's sweetest and most popular studio renderings.|
Though inherent talents are beyond chance, sometimes their discovery can be downright whimsical. It was Denver in the '50s, and a 13-year-old Michael was bed-ridden with pneumonia. Around that time, his 20-year-old brother Paul suffered from a badly-broken leg and was temporarily invalid. Two hospital beds were moved into the Johnson living room, and the boys' father bought a guitar from GI Joe's hock shop for his sons' fun and diversion during their recuperation. Through their five months of confinement, the siblings surprised everyone by becoming competent with their new instrument; they copped what they heard on the radio, learning and exchanging unique chord changes, tunings, progressions, strums and fingerpicking patterns. Later that year, Michael bravely performed at the local VFW for five dollars and all the screwdrivers he could drink. A few years later in '66, his simple distraction matured into a passion, and he studied classical guitar with master Graciano Tarrago in Barcelona, Spain.
But Michael's early love was for rock 'n' roll, and he infused his best Chuck Berry and Charlie Byrd-style guitar playing into bands with monikers like the Bluejays, the Saints and the King's Men. Prior to his lessons overseas, the future recording artist's tastes evolved and by '64, he performed in a folk trio while majoring in music education at Colorado State Teachers College. Winning his school's talent contest, he secured another win at a '65 national talent search partly sponsored by Columbia Records. The prizes were a two-week, non-paying gig at Chicago's It's Here coffeehouse, and an Epic Records deal. Michael's original composition, "Hills," hit the streets and sold a whopping 23 copies, earning a royalty check of 11 cents. It was the coffeehouse circuit, however, that became Michael's higher education when he left college to pursue a performing career, and predictably, it was a struggle. After some time, Michael felt that his future in show business was uncertain, but he was clear on his desire to improve his guitar skills. So in '66, he left the US to study guitar in Spain on a budget of about $600. Meals were an additional 75 cents a day. "I wrote to the National Endowment For The Arts and honed in on several different teachers. I decided on Graciano Tarrago (father of Renata Terrago) sight unseen."
A few months passed and Michael returned to the States, joining the folk group the New Society which took him abroad again, this time to the Orient. The act eventually dissolved, and the performer returned to Denver's coffeehouse circuit which eventually led to performing at various Los Angeles clubs. Still on a folk path, he worked with the New Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority before hooking up with John Denver's reconfigured Chad Mitchell Trio. "I flew to New York and became a member. We rehearsed for two days and did a concert. We did 26 songs, 24 of which I learned and two that I slaughtered." But it wasn't fulfilling so Michael left the trio. Johnson and Denver remained friends and one night in New York City, the pair viewed the theatrical production of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. The experience was a musical awakening for Johnson. "It really changed my life. I discovered a new kind of song. It was complicated, a multi-leveled music which suddenly opened me up to music on a par with other arts. It blew me away."
He learned some of the tunes and auditioned for the show's producer. "You obviously love the songs," he told Michael. "I don't know if you can act," he said, "but you've got the job!" Winning the supporting role in the musical, Michael toured New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for about a year. He then moved to Minnesota where he and manager Keith Christianson concentrated on building the artist's career through a series of "Explore Minnesota" commercials for the state tourism office, performing as opening act and headliner at many major concerts and ultimately a deal with Atlantic Records in '71. By '73, Phil Ramone and Peter Yarrow produced the Michael Johnson LP There Is A Breeze for Atlantic's Atco subsidiary. Unfortunately, the project didn't reflect the artist's vision, so Michael left the label. He self-produced his next two albums, the sparse and jazzy For All You Mad Musicians ('75) and the rhythm section-driven Ain't Dis Da Life ('77) for the local Sanskrit Records imprint owned by Christianson. Though they were no chartbusters, each project increased the artist's visibility and positive buzz, especially in the Twin Cities; but his indie label existence ended thanks in part to Gene Cotton. "Gene found my first album in a bargain bin, recorded the title track, 'There Is A Breeze,' and wanted me to play on his cover of "Lucky Stars" from the same album. So I went to Creative Workshop in Nashville, played on the session and met everybody. I met producers Brent Maher and Steve Gibson and many players I've worked with since." Johnson and the producers hit it off, paving the way for Michael's solo breakthrough.
"I asked Brent if he and Steve would be interested in producing me on spec. I don't know why, but they said yes. I didn't have a record deal - it was based on those early albums." Michael used his life's savings of about $18,000 and the team cut three songs: "Bluer Than Blue," "Almost Like Being In Love" and "Two In Love." Even though the tracks were being shopped as merely master demos, EMI America heard the magic, signed Michael Johnson to a label deal and released the productions intact. Come April of '78, "Bluer Than Blue" proved everyone's instincts correct, and the song quickly shot to #12 on the pop charts. It also received very strong airplay at the adult contemporary format, holding on to the #1 AC position for three weeks. The August follow-up, "Almost Like Being In Love," was a light disco cover of Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon standard, and it was easily embraced by AC and pop radio.
Fueled by two hit singles, The Michael Johnson Album climbed the LP charts. It not only showcased Michael's talents, but also established his ability to pick and interpret great songs. "I deliberately try to find obscure material," he revealed. "I choose a song by seeing how much of it I personally believe in." A year later, "This Night Won't Last Forever" returned the artist to pop's top twenty and AC's top five; the second EMI America LP, Dialogue, followed, containing "This Night..." and the radio hit, "The Very First Time." "You Can Call Me Blue" served as an AC vehicle, the title track to the next album and a seemingly conscious attempt to revisit the successful "blue" motif. In '81, Johnson and Maher temporarily parted ways, and the two albums that followed experimented with jazzier arrangements and techno pop, compliments of Ray Bardini and Michael Collina; at the same time, Michael's personal life experienced a period of experimentation. He admits, "The only thing I could change about my situation was my attitude and of course, that's what was in my way." Unable to break him as a major artist, EMI dropped Michael in '83 after his five album, multi-hit tenure.
"That's when I called Brent. I asked, 'If we were going to do something together, what would it be?' He told me had recorded The Judds. I'd heard some of their singles on the radio and I couldn't believe that kind of stuff was coming out of Nashville. Those guitar parts and tight grooves were saying something really fresh. A week later he called me saying his wife thought Sylvia's "I Love You By Heart" would be a great duet. That's how my country career and my relationship with RCA began." In '85, the lively single was recorded and broke both country top ten and a whole new radio format for Michael Johnson. A year later, RCA released his LP Wings that featured material by some of Nashville's best songwriters; it also began a long association between Michael and the prolific Hugh Prestwood, whose "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder" followed "Give Me Wings" to the #1 country spot. On Prestwood's compositions, Johnson commented, "I think he's the greatest living songwriter, he's right up there with Randy Newman." The album presented two more charters in "Ponies" and Michael's original "Gotta Learn To Love Without You," and is considered to be his finest collection. Having successfully made the transition from pop to country, in '87, he moved to Nashville and attended his first Fan Fair (the town's annual fandom pilgrimage). "It was my first awareness of the dedication of country fans." The converted remained loyal for Michael's next album, That's That, which was another bounty of hits. His original "Crying Shame" started the rally; Randy VanWarmer's "I Will Whisper Your Name" followed and Hugh Prestwood's title track plus "Roller Coaster Run (Up Too Slow, Down Too Fast)" filled out the '88 LP's hit roster.
Beyond the Nashville scene, he expanded his musical horizons by recording movie and television themes and touring the world. But as policies changed at RCA, Michael again found himself without a label. A greatest hits collection was issued in '90 compiled with the above hits plus the somewhat depressing "Life's A Bitch (And Then You Die)" which, in retrospect, was a bit too dark for the format's demographic. After a 20 year separation, Michael and Atlantic Records were reunited: the label released Michael Johnson in '92, offering the album's "One Honest Tear" as the single to lure airplay. But there was no momentum or "story" to take to radio, so the record stiffed leaving the recording artist labelless again until Vanguard intervened in '95. The album Departure marked Michael's boldly moving his music beyond categories and boundaries, the concept alluded to by this retrospective's closer, "Almost Free." In addition to being Departure's emphasis track and one of its strongest compositions, it also might be Hugh Prestwood's finest moments as a songwriter, having "almost" been recorded many times over the years.
And here at the century's close, Michael Johnson is still successfully writing and performing. He's survived every fad from disco to techno, hip-hop to swing, his secret to musical longevity obviously being his ability to follow his heart. "When I first started playing, I didn't really care about forever or broken bones or lost loves or things I still have trouble forgiving myself for. Then in my '20s, I'd make deals with myself like 'I'll perform in these bars until I'm 28, then I'll decide.' I'd wake up at 30 and decide to make a mature decision by 34. Then one day, I just said, 'This must be what I do.' I didn't decide to be a musician, I just have to keep deciding to stay one." Like James Taylor, Kenny Rankin and his other contemporaries, Michael makes music that, as he puts it, has "the feeling of being at home with a friend."
"Singer Shuns Show-Biz Glitter"
Irv Letofsky, Minneapolis Tribune, January 1976
"Michael Johnson: Hotter Than Hot"
Randy Anderson, Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, September 1978
"Overnight Success (After Ten Years)"
Marsha Necheles, Folk Scene, November 1978
"Living For The Country"
Michael Dickens, Minnesota Daily, June 1986
Robyn Flans interview, November 1986
"Nashville Move Affirms Turn To Country Music"
Jon Bream, Minneapolis Star And Tribune, June 1987
Vanguard Press Release, November 1995
Compilation Produced by Mike Ragogna & Michael Johnson
Project Director: David Richman
Art Direction: Dan Levine
Project Coordinators: Leslie Bechtel Grotenhuis and Jeremy Holiday
Mastered by Elliott Federman-DSW, NYC
Photos courtesy of Michael Johnson and the BMG Photo Archives
BMG Coordinators: Catherine Seligman, Dana Renehart, Christina DeSimone, Karen Friedland, Robin Manning, Tom Tierney and Claudia Depkin
Thank you Tommy West, Robyn Flans and Cindy McArthur for your contributions
Special Thanks to Gary Newman, Felicia Gearhart & Nina Collins