Michael Johnson Photo

Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of
Country Music and Its Performers

By Barry McCloud

(Singer, Songwriter, Guitar, Actor)
Date of Birth: August 8, 1944
Where Born: Alamosa, Colorado

Michael is one of the finest guitar players currently working in Country music. He is not a three chord strummer, but is a classically trained musician, who brings to his playing and singing a dimension of Folk and Country that has brought him success in the U.S. as well as throughout Europe.

He was raised in Denver, Colorado, and when he was age 13, he and his older brother, Paul, taught themselves to play guitar. At 19, he was studying at Colorado State College, majoring in music education. He won a national talent contest sponsored by Columbia Records and Chicago radio station WHN (home of the Barn Dance), the price being a recording contract with Epic Records. He began playing the coffeehouse and campus circuit. In 1966, he traveled to Spain to expand his guitar technique. He studied under maestros Graciano and Renata Tarrago at a conservatory in Barcelona.

On returning to the U.S., Michael played for a short while with the Back Porch Majority, who sprung out of the New Christy Minstrels. In 1967 and 1968, he toured with the Chad Mitchell Trio, alongside another newcomer, John Denver. Michael and John wrote the song Circus together, which was recorded by both Denver and Mary Travis, from Peter, Paul and Mary. Michael and John also formed two-thirds of the short-lived successor group to the Chad Mitchell Trio, Denver, Boise and Johnson. Michael then appeared for a year in the stage production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. He then moved to Minnesota and, in 1971, Michael signed to Atlantic Records. He released the album There Is A Breeze (1973), which was produced by Peter Yarrow (ex-Peter, Paul & Mary) and Phil Ramone (who would later produce Billy Joel), to a largely unresponsive audience.

Michael's next two albums, For All You Mad Musicians (1975) and Ain't Dis Da Life (1977), were both self-produced and helped to create greater interest in his live work. In 1978, Michael came to Nashville and teamed up with producers Brent Maher (notable for his work with the Judds) and Steve Gibson, to record Bluer Than Blue and Almost Like Being in Love, which they intended to use to get a record deal for Michael. As a result, he signed with EMI America, and both songs were released as singles, Bluer Than Blue reaching the Top 15 on the Pop chart and Almost Like Being in Love peaking in the Top 40 on the Pop chart. He followed these with the 1979 Top 20 Pop hit This Night Won't Last Forever. This song was found on his next album, Dialogue. The following year, Michael had his last Pop chart hit with the low-level single You Can Call Me Blue.

In 1985, Michael recorded a duet with Sylvia entitled I Love You By Heart and it reached the Country chart Top 10. As a result, Joe Galante signed Michael to a deal with RCA. Michael's debut album, Wings (1986), was marked by the twin acoustic guitars of Michael and Don Potter. His first solo single, Gotta Learn to Love Without You, was written by Michael and Kent Robbins, and reached the Top 15 on the Country list. Michael wrapped up the year with his first No. 1, Give Me Wings, which stayed on the Country chart for over five months.

As 1987 dawned, Michael followed up with another No. 1 single, The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder. The track was found on both the Wings album and also the new album That's That, released in 1988. This was followed by Ponies, which only reached the Top 30. He finished off 1987 with the Top 5 single Crying Shame. He started off 1988 with I Will Whisper Your Name and the title track, That's That, both of which went Top 10. However, Michael recognized that he was still a performer who was not always acceptable to Country audiences, especially when he got away from his trademark ballads. This became apparent when, after this success, Roller Coaster Run (Up Too Slow, Down Too Fast), only reached the Top 60.

Michael came to Britain as part of the CMA's Route '88 with K.T. Oslin. This led to the release of the 1989 16-track CD Life's a Bitch, which was geared towards the European market and was a combination of his two albums on RCA plus three additional tracks, including Jacques Cousteau, which was released in Britain as a single. Since the days of heady heights, Michael continues to play solo gigs. Michael's former session band went on the chart action as Great Plains.