Michael Johnson Singer Shuns Show-Biz Glitter
By Irv Letofsky
January 29, 1976
Michael Johnson. Michael Johnson. The name doesn't conjure up anything. It sits there, unassuming. No sense of occasion.
Except to anybody "into" Michael Johnson. The name stirs up pleasant sentiments. He is a singer-guitarist, soft-edged and reflective, a slight 31-year-old man with quiet blue eyes, ratty blond hair and common clothes. Hardy the glitzy stuff that makes for the super spectacular adjectives of the rock revolution.
"I don't have any groupies," he said during one of the interviews, without any hint of desire to have any groupies. "Not really. Well, one young girl has written me. I've saved all her letters. I've got a drawerful. For a while she was writing me a letter a day.
"She would come to concerts and I got to know her and she would write me about what was going on at school and her romantic life, passing relationships with boys, her longings. She would tell me things that she would never say to anybody. I was really glad to be able to get the letters."
He is mostly a Midwest phenomenon, which is to say that he's not national.
"It seems to be pretty fruitless to me," he said. "If I had a show that I thought everybody should see, something that would appeal to everybody, then I might be willing to do it (to hustle) ... It would be causing things to happen. Most stars are either self made or their promoters have made them. I don't see that I need it. My ego is satisfied."
Like most folk singers out of the grand American epoch of folk singers, he struggled to recognition. He played snack bars in college basements where the coin inserted into the pop machine could cut out the sound system until the Coke hit bottom, at which time his voice would crackle back to life.
"There is a sense of accomplishment when you get the attention of somebody playing poker with his back turned toward you. That's an amazing thing to do."
Now he is a concert-level attraction, having recently come off a resounding 47-show tour of regional campuses in something like 60 days. He has two albums -- "There Is A Breeze" on the Atco label (a subsidiary of Atlantic) and "For All You Mad Musicians" on Sanskrit, which is owned by him and his personal manager, Keith Christianson, who runs the Projects IV booking agency.
The teen-age singer
"I sort of missed out on being a teenager. I wasn't interested in cars or football. Performing was the strongest thing I had going for me, a way to meet girls, a way to get out of the house ... It's like when you're 19 and you do your laundry for the first time and you think, 'Gee, I can survive.'"
He lives deep in the wilds of Minnetonka in a friendly two-story frame house with an upstairs semi-studio and adjoining control booth. His five guitars are stacked neatly in the corner next to an antique organ, on which is propped the St. Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir book, Melody Edition.
He lives with Sally Shattuck, a native of Laguna Beach, Calif., whom he met about two years ago in Switzerland. Fluent in French, she was cooking at a French restaurant. Johnson had gone to Switzerland to learn to ski and the relationship ensued.
Johnson was born in Alamosa, southern Colorado, the second youngest of five children of an engineer.
"The last 15 years, he's been a Keebler elf and he just retired outside Denver. He took on all the characteristics of an elf. He just turned 65 and his hair's white, he's got a flattop and he wore a purple and green jumpsuit to work. I don't think it's a standard cookie uniform."
The son had always been in love with music, beginning in the early years of Catholic schools. At about 13 he came down with pneumonia and spent five months in a rented hospital bed at home.
"My father went down to GI Joe's hock shop in Denver and got me a guitar. I wasn't very good at model airplanes and normal recuperation things, and so I started playing guitar. I just started copying things off the radio and records."
He was infatuated with rock 'n' roll and began playing around Denver, he and friends, as the Saints, the Bluejays, the King's Men. He and an older brother, who played piano, would jam.
"We'd go out and be a duo and play some tunes we had arranged. But he just really didn't feel like playing for people. Pretty prophetic, I think. He saw what it would be like playing Holiday Inn bars and Ramada Inns. That seemed to be the direction we were going.
"...So he got out of music. Now he makes these," he said, displaying a midget ocarina hanging on a string around his neck. "It's called the Little Flute, but it's modeled after a pre-Cambian thing, I think. Made of clay. He makes these out of polyester resin. He lives in a '46 Dodge truck and spends a lot of time working on them. He doesn't really live anywhere. He's married and they have a dog and that's it. I think he likes being really free."
MICHAEL JOHNSON: Always in love with music
Sally and I do the concerts. We can't always get records to Lincoln, Neb., all the time, so it's a two-man carnival now and then. And it's enjoyable. We come in and do the sound system and sell the albums after the concert and when we leave town that night it's like we pulled a little commando raid."
At what is now known as the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, the youngest brother undertook a music education major and a gymnastics minor.
"A lot of (gymnastics) teachers were really circus performers. This was before it was organized. We wore baker's pants from dad's factory instead of this slim fitting elastic coming around the heels and ballet slippers, jersey and all the flashy stuff. Dad built us a trampoline for the family ...
"I've got two brothers who coach. They've got fused backs and pins in their knees and elbow and shin splints ... Right now my only sport is Frisbee. Sally and I run in the morning and play Frisbee ..."
College wasn't working out. He fell into a talent contest sponsored in part by Columbia Records and ended up with first prize--a week's booking at the It's Here coffeehouse in Chicago.
"I thought I could just hop onto the folk circuit that people used to talk about--the Second Fret in Philadelphia, the Exodus in Denver. It was a pretty stringy circuit and it did exist. But I didn't meet the right people. I wound up playing the smaller coffeehouses.
"It was pretty difficult. I found myself being really contrived and not having any introduction to songs and having to lie. I may have alluded to the fact that I may have written a tune that I didn't. I just wouldn't say who wrote it ... You don't have much to say when you first start out. I mean, "This is a song I learned off a Limelighters album in 1958 ...'
"There were a lot of people passing through the club. I met Josh White and a lot of good people and learned some new material. As soon as I knew I had enough tunes to make it through one night and not repeat myself, I pretty much stopped the real grind and started to find tunes that I really wanted to do. It was pretty impulsive and I wound up staying out as late as I could and sleeping as late as I could and waking up at 4 o'clock or 6."
He wasn't sure that "show business was going to come through for me." A friend mentioned a club in Kent, Ohio, and he hung around there.
"It was a little more mature. There were some good writers there, kind of a cult place. People were really paying attention to original lyrics and people were trying to be poets. People were trying to figure things out ...
"There were a lot of drugs, too. I smoked a lot of dope and had a brief stint with hallucinogens. But it frightened me at the apex of the trip and at the end I would just become bored again. Staring at the wall and ceiling and watching the lights flickering and "I have to put up with this four more hours ...'"
For a year he studied guitar in Spain, for a grand expenditure of $600. He ate on 75 cents a day.
"I could have learned as much in California or New Mexico from a good classical guitarist. But I wanted to learn from a Spanish person ... I never really intended to become a pure classical guitarist but I was involved in bossa nova and the kind of pop music that was played on classical guitar at the time ...
"The real story was a person who became an incredible friend of mine, a woman named Nuria, in her late 50s now. She just wanted to be a guitar student and a piano student. She decided that she was going to take care of me, so she interpreted and translated at my first three lessons and after that we, me and the teacher, had enough common ground that we didn't need the language ...
"Nuria had bursitis and she still has it, in her elbows. It sounds soap-operatic, but she was pretty much informed that she had to quit playing and become fairly paralyzed or she would have to play more to maintain this flexibility. She's playing eight hours a day now. She's not a performer; she just likes music."
After he returned to the United States he got a booking through a friend to front a Denver concert by Judy Collins. He went out and bought a suit and tie, which he wore only that once.
"I was really speedy. I was really rushing the songs out of sheer, well, moments of lethargy punctuated by moments of terror. I was really inept. I got a good review because I was fast and flashy and Judy Collins happened to have a bad night."
Out of that he won a long running job in a Denver bar, eight months. Then he drove to Los Angeles and worked with Randy Sparks and his various groups--the New Christy Minstrels, the Back Porch Majority and others. About a year later he met John Denver, who was putting together a new Chad Mitchell trio.
"I flew to New York and became a member. And we rehearsed for two days and did a concert. We did 26 songs, 24 of which I learned and two of which I slaughtered."
Sound of the '60s
"I decided I didn't want to be in the group anymore (the new Mitchell Trio). I was getting tired of the tunes and our motif, which was political satire -- the John Birch Society and Lizzie Borden and the friendly liberal neighborhood Ku Klux Klan. It was pretty important stuff but it was kind of post-'60s and those days were kind of gone and we were left, well, we supported (Eugene) McCarthy and we were trying to find a place in the '70s. I got tired of it because I realized I was politically naive and I wasn't about to endorse things that I didn't understand and I wasn't about to sway people, which was exactly what we were doing, and the Democratic convention (in Chicago) made me sick."
The trio survived a year. Johnson wanted out, and Denver went on to his "solo things." But one night he and Denver went to see the New York production of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."
"It really changed my life. I discovered a new kind of song. It wasn't necessarily an art song, a German lieder. It wasn't legato or a flowing, necessarily beautiful tune as a departure from popism. Some of Brel's things are cumbersome musically and there are not necessarily delicate things going on. It was complicated, a muti-leveled music, and it suddenly opened me up to music on par with other arts. It blew me away."
He understudied for five weeks in New York, a short run in Los Angeles and a longer run in Chicago.
"It was really difficult to learn to act in the show. I'd never done any acting before. Well, I played in 'Guys and Dolls' in college. Not what you'd call a great beginning. One line ...
"It's one of the most demanding things you can ask somebody to do, acting. I was living in New York and I hated that. I hated the rehearsals. I hated learning to dance. I hated being humiliated. ...
"I met Brel briefly. He struck me as being warm. He liked 'Bulls.' That's one of the biggest tunes that the younger man (in the cast) had to sing, because the older man is forced into 'Next.' It's almost ocatorio singing. I didn't have the power. I had to spit and cackle and use diction as emotion."
After the "Brel" run he met agent Christianson, who suggested that he could find work for him if he were living in Minnesota. He moved here.
"I worked in some terrible little bars in, like Broken Pelvis, Mont., and did that for a year and a half and mini-concerts at colleges. It was difficult and I had to borrow money quite a few times ... But I had the definite feeling that I had grown."
His "act" evolved into concert level, with concert level pay. He and Christianson looked around for the "right" record offer. Atco gave them great artistic license for "Breeze."
Sanskrit has bought the first album from Atco and will be re-releasing it March 1, and in the meantime Johnson is working on new material for a third album. During the breather before returning to the concert trail in March, he was working with entertainer Mark Henley, his next door neighbor, and singer Mary MacGregor, who also are charges of Projects IV, on a three-person act.
Michael Johnson, far right, rehearsed with Mary MacGregor, center, and Mark Henley. Henley's dog, Obadeiah, seemed unimpressed.
They wanted to explore their group potential. But earlier this month after playing an opening date at Charlotte's Web in Rockford, Ill., they decided the trio wasn't clicking and will continue their individual careers.
"I'm not a songwriter by trade. I wind up writing down ideas but I don't really sit down and try to make them into stanzas or verses. Every now and then I'll get half a song and then I'll sit down and try to finish it. But I'm prolific ...
"I'd like to live in Colorado, in the mountains, own some property and buy a Land Rover and work on some music and build my own home and it would be a nice thing to spend the rest of my life just improving it ..."