Michael Johnson Photo

Still singing the blues

By Bob Ashenmacher
Accent North Sunday News-Tribune
May 30, 1982

His life has changed some since the success of "Bluer Than Blue, " but Michael Johnson's still doing what he loves best — singing.

The sailor talks about the worst storm. The horseplayer recalls the most stupid bet.

The musician, in turn, harbors a perverse affection for the most torturous engagement ever played.

Michael Johnson, the Twin Cities-based singer/ guitarist whose "Bluer Than Blue" was a national hit five summers ago, is no exception.

"A diving board," Johnson said by phone from his home. His usual reserve evaporated as he warmed to the memory. "It was about 15 years ago. I stood on a diving board, singing across a motel swimming pool to a bunch of high school students who were having a reception before their homecoming." He was stopped by a chuckle. "This is right next to an exit ramp of I-80 in Ashtabula, Ohio." An outright laugh. "The semis just played hell with the music."

"Bluer Than Blue" took Johnson far away from such travails. It cracked the Top 10 and in the ensuing years has settled in as an "adult contemporary" FM standard. The follow-up, "Almost Like Being In Love," made No. 11. Then "This Night Won't Last Forever," made it to No. 17 and subsequent singles "nosedived." Johnson said.

When the hits came, Johnson headlined at the Duluth Auditorium with a touring band behind him. He'd been playing Twin Ports colleges for years as a solo.

The last few years of chart inactivity have pared his act down again. When he kicks off the season at Grandma's tent Friday and Saturday nights, he'll be alone.

The radio success was the result of a deliberate commercializing of his sound, he said.

"I was shifting. I'd been getting a little bored with solo playing. I had a chance to produce and arrange, which I'd never done before, and it was exciting to get into orchestrations. I'm aware now that there's a big difference between my performances and my records. Live, I try to do intimate, one-to-one songs and less commercial songs. The albums are bigger productions and many of the songs are &mdahsh; I don't know, well, yeah &mdahsh; are commercial."

Johnson's discomfort with the term is understandable.

He made his name as one of the sensitive singer-guitarists of the early '70s, a kind of Upper Midwest James Taylor. He wrote, but recorded few of his own songs because "it always seemed the performer and recording artist was more advance than the songwriter." Much of his skill seemed to be choosing quality material by then-anonymous writers, and in using little known backup men like Leo Kottke.

Johnson was one of the earliest to popularize songs by Jackson Browne, and Iowa's Greg Brown. He did numbers by Jacques Brel and Rodgers and Hammerstein. He rescued from obscurity Tom Rapp's "Love Will Get You Through Times of No Sex Better Than Sex Will Get You Through Times of No Love."

The sensitive image proved demanding. Johnson was never somber, but the "Bluer Than Blue" era was the first time many photographs showed him cracking a smile. Some of his more purist fans were dismayed at the change of appearance and musical tack.

They'd be even more dismayed to know that today Johnson's is the voice singing on a popular beer ad on national TV. He doesn't even drink beer.

"I don't know what to say," Johnson said. "I made commercials way back when, too. His "biggest hit was Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Eight and a half seconds long."

Doing jingle work used to bother him, he said, "because it's just using your tools, minus your art."

His attitude has changed: "I really learned how to sing through those things," he said. "It's like being an actor. Actors do what directors tell them to do, contrary to anything you might believe. It's really nice to put your talent in the hands of your producers and see what happens."

At 37 years old, he finds other changes in his viewpoint.

"I know my tastes have grown, " he said. "In the early '70s I hated country and rock and roll. Now I listen to all kinds of music new wave, power wave, punk. If it's good and in tune and says something, I like it.

He finds his guitar playing getting simpler.

"A little less busy, hopefully. I think I sometimes I used to play very busy things because I didn't know what the essence of the music could be...Bluegrass can be busy that way. And a lot of lead guitar in rock. People-say 'what a great musician but if there's no statement in the essence all you see is fingers flying."

And he says he's adopted a philosophical outlook about record sales.

"It'd be foolish of me to measure my success in terms of national recognition. A hit record is a very unlikely thing. The business is very fickle. To hang my self-esteem on that would be suicide."

He works 60 nights a year these days, down from a high of 190.

"I'd never do that again. It was awful. And I have too much else going on right now.

Meaning, primarily, his wife and 2-year-old child, "the biggest joy in my life."

He's also assembling material for an album to be recorded next month.

It will contain "some jazz and some R&B, although it doesn't sound like a combination of the two. It sounds like new music, in my head at least."

Along with Kottke and a handful of others, Johnson has reigned as one of the bright stars of the Twin Cities music scene for nearly a decade now. Does he see any Minnesotan acts coming up that particularly excite him?

"To be honest with you, when I'm home I don't make the scene. In a sense it's kind of a sheltered life...I like the Suburbs. The Flamin' Oh's are kind of fun.”