Al Behrends awoke early Thursday in a cabin near Lake Superior. Listening to the calls of loons, he wondered about his old musician friend, Michael Johnson. He told himself he needed to get in touch with Johnson. Check in.
And then, literally just a few minutes later, a text message from a friend buzzed in, wondering if he'd heard the news ...
"I've worked with hundreds of artists over the years. There aren't many I can legitimately call my friend," Behrends said. "Michael was one of that small handful."
Today, Michael Johnson's biggest hit has become an apt description for his fans. The writer and singer of the hit song "Bluer Than Blue," died Monday at age 72 after battling illness for several years. Johnson had a nearly 50-year relationship with Gustavus Adolphus College, one that saw him return to campus nearly every year around the holidays to perform a solo show for a usually packed Bjorling Recital Hall.
No one got closer with Johnson on campus than Behrends, whose job it became to book Johnson's visits.
"He was just really easy to work with, a really comfortable person," Behrends said. "We got to be good friends."
Johnson's history with the college goes back nearly 50 years, back when both he and John Denver were regulars in town.
Johnson was hired to perform in a group called the Chad Mitchell Trio. Eventually Chad Mitchell left, and Johnson and Denver came on board. The name was changed to Denver Boise Johnson.
Johnson eventually went solo, and that's when he recorded a string of popular hits. "Bluer Than Blue" went on to hit No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts.
Writing hit songs, though, didn't keep him from revisiting Gustavus annually.
"We were able to get an audience for him all the time," Behrends said. "And that's always something. I also think he somehow connected with the campus."
In a press release issued prior to a 2012 Gustavus performance, Johnson said of the campus, "I love to talk to people and I love to make them laugh. And of course, I love to move them with my music. Without that, there is no reason to be on stage."
His final Gustavus performance last December was different for one major reason: He took the stage with an oxygen tank.
Still, Behrends thought he'd be back.
"I didn't expect when I shook his hand and gave him a hug in December that it'd be the last time I'd see him," Behrends said.
Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb