Singer-Guitarist Bounces to Brink of Bigger Things
By Mike Steele, Staff Writer
March 28, 1971
For the folk singer, home is where the suitcase is, whether it's in a plastic motel room, a high-rise hotel or, in the case of Michael Johnson, a big house in St. Peter, Minn.
Johnson, at age 26, has bounced around more than the bouncing ball in the sing-along commercials, always on the brink of big things but never quite ready to go over the brink.
But word within the industry has it that Johnson is on his way. He's packed a lot of experience into 26 years, patiently learned his craft, studied hard at mastering the guitar and leaped into any number of related forms to learn the business. He's already got a large following of musicians and has only to pick up a large public.
Johnson will be playing today at 8 p.m. in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, just him and his guitars in a full evening of music ranging from original material to sturdy folk to classical guitar.
He's also busy recording right now, with several record companies very interested in the finished product.
A slight fellow with a sly grin and the requisite long hair, Johnson's humor tends toward the ironic and the understated, and he has that charming ability to direct a lot of the humor towards himself.
He grew up around Denver, Colo., and, following the lead of his big brother, decided on a career in music education, entering Colorado State College. He had already picked up the guitar from his brother, though the two untrained Johnsons both used highly irregular fingering techniques they taught themselves.
"My first gig was at 13, in a VFW hall," he said. "We played stuff like 'Cherokee' and 'Sheik of Araby' from 9 to 2 for five bucks a night and all the screwdrivers we could drink. I was into Chuck Berry stuff then and it was all painful."
In college, he entered a nationwide talent contest sponsored by Columbia Records and WGN radio in Chicago. One of the judges was Judy Collins, who has since become a great influence and good friend.
He moved through local, regional and national competition and won the whole thing. The prizes were a week's booking in the It's Here coffeehouse in Chicago and a record on Columbia subsidiary Epic Records.
"I was in my sophomore year and walked out of college during finals, never to return," he said. "Then I learned that it was a privilege to play at the It's Here so they didn't pay me. And the record, called 'Hills' after my one and only original composition till then, sold 23 copies. I got a royalty check for 11 cents, which I still have. Columbia wrote me weekly for three years asking me to cash it so they could bring their records up to date, but I'll cash it when I need it."
The painful-to-remember lyrics of that first song went along the lines of "Rolling hills with purple hue/silver clouds caressed with blue." He's at pains to point out that his writing style, like his fingering technique, has matured.
He proved popular at the It's Here, and the manager asked him to stay, which he did for 20 weeks at $275 a week, which really sold him on the business. After 20 weeks of introducing songs in a naive way ("My next song is one I learned from the latest Limeliters album . . ."), he decided to move on and learn something about the business.
He played the Vanguard in Kansas City, the Exodus in Denver, the Second Fret in Philadelphia. But then Bob Dylan went to folk rock, followed by the Byrds and pretty soon coffeehouses started folding.
Always serious about guitar, Johnson heard a concert by guitarist Luis Bonfas (composer of "Black Orpheus"), boldly walked backstage, played for him and asked if he could become a pupil. Bonfas told him that he taught at Segovia's Conservatory of Liceo in Barcelona, Spain, and if Johnson could get over there, he'd teach him. Johnson admits he was becoming a purist and was hooked on classical guitar, so he went, for one year.
"I saw Segovia twice when he gave clinics, but truthfully, they were lectures and I didn't understand Spanish that well, and I was a little like a teenager seeing the Beatles. I didn't learn anything from him at all."
He came back to the States to do a concert at Denver University with Judy Collins, then started looking for work. His first job was in a Denver club, "the Tangerine Room right behind the ABC Bowling Alley."
By this time he was playing everything from classical to folk to jazz guitar. Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority, stopped in Denver, heard Johnson and told him that if he could get to Los Angeles on his own, he could join the Majority. Johnson went.
"I was in L.A. for two days when the group changed its name to The New Society and set off on a tour of the Orient," said Johnson. "We were billed as 'The Voice of the Drug Generation' and we sang riverboat songs. After two days' rehearsal we were pretty bad, so I got an agreement to go under a different name. I used Julian Piper."
Next he ran into John Denver, who was then the leader of the Mitchell Trio. Denver heard Johnson, told him he needed a new third member, and Johnson accepted.
"I flew to New York and again had two days' rehearsal. Then we flew to Athens, Alabama, and did 26 new songs in concert. It was a very high tension thing, and when it was over and fans were flocking into the locker room, I was bent over a basket throwing up. After I threw up, we all flew to Nachatoches, Louisiana, for another concert. We did 191 that year."
In the middle of that year, the group changed its name to Denver, Boise and Johnson and even recorded once under that name before breaking up. They had all worked in the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign and, said Johnson, "After Chicago we got tired of political satire."
While in New York, he had seen the off-Broadway hit "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," and, as he put it, "It changed my life. The song 'No Love, You're Not Alone' just turned me around. I wanted into acting."
He auditioned for producer Eric Blau and in May 1969 went into the New York company for five weeks. Then he went with Elly Stone and Mort Schuman to the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles for five weeks and then into the Chicago company at the Happy Medium for 40 weeks until the show closed in March last year.
"Brel's songs were divided, of course, into masculine and feminine," said Johnson. "I ended up with the tough songs, like 'Bulls' and without an oratorio voice I just spat and had to act a lot on the hostile songs. The director had to tone me down a lot, but in Chicago I really got into the acting side."
Out of work again, Johnson decided to go it alone, booking himself into concerts in places he's played before. It all went rather slowly for five or six weeks until he ran into Keith Christianson, a manager and booker and partner in Projects IV in Wayzata. Christianson started booking Johnson, and Johnson moved to Minnesota.
Johnson is producing his own record now, with Christianson's help. His material is still far-ranging, from ballads - "songs about people, not really political or social" - to original material by him and his brother Paul, who has been writing in Britain lately and shares the same manager the Rolling Stones have, to funk which Johnson described as a cross between "James Taylor and a white Feliciano" to classical songs by Villa-Lobos and Albeniz.
He has two guitars, one he calls a "sympathetic guitar," using 12-string octaves that sounds much like a harpsichord, and of course his classical guitar. His major intention is a near-perfect blending of voice and guitar.
"It's important and it's jarring, at least to me, when the two don't blend," he said. "This means different intonation when using the classical guitar and the steel-stringed guitar. The classical sound is thicker as opposed to the attack of the steel string. It's like the sound TH as opposed to CH."
There are influences of Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Feliciano in his work, but they're subtle, stylistic influences. The blend is very much his own and impossible to categorize.