(After Ten Years)
By Marsha Necheles
Up until June of this year, you were probably in the majority of people who had never heard of Michael Johnson. In June, Johnson released a single called "Bluer Than Blue" on a new label called EMI America (a division of Capitol) and the name Michael Johnson became known to popular music audiences all over the country, with a hit single and follow up album entitled The Michael Johnson Album (EMI SW17002).
Another instance of overnight success in the record industry? Hardly. For those die-hard Johnson addicts who have followed his long career during the past 10 years and the three solo records (he also recorded an album with John Denver and David Boise as Denver, Boise and Johnson) released during that time -- There Is A Breeze (Atlantic Atco SD7028), For All You Mad Musicians (Sanskrit SR0751), and Ain't Dis Da Life (Sanskrit SR0774) -- the new record is only another record to add to the collection by this most amazing musician. Although Johnson's guitar playing staggers even the most particular guitar aficionado (he studied classical guitar in Barcelona early in his career), his incredible talent as a song stylist makes him most special. Johnson knows what material to choose, creates the perfect arrangement, and sings the material as though it were written especially for him. And the songs are always choice selections -- all slightly off the wall or by an obscure songwriter -- and joined with Johnson's superb reading, they belong to him completely.
"I don't know what I'd do without the great unknown songwriters or people like Rick Cunha, Biff Rose, and Tom Rapp," commented Johnson. "I deliberately try to find obscure material -- not material that's always going to remain obscure. Maybe it's something that has kind of been glossed over that you can look at and see a song in. I choose a song by seeing how much of it I believe, how much of it I personally believe. And the things that sort of violate me, the things that I don't believe, I take a look at whether or not I can change those things without hurting the song."
Talking to Johnson recently at the new plush offices of EMI America, an obvious topic of conversation was the company's impressive support of this relatively new artist. Johnson explained, "It's the best position I've ever been in because in a way I'm new on the national scene and EMI is brand new. Of course, they have to promote me but they have to promote themselves as an entity at the same time. There will never be an album that I do in my life that will be promoted as successfully or as well. Everything about this feels so special."
The Michael Johnson Album is introducing Johnson to a new audience unfamiliar, in the most part, with his previous three albums. (Hopefully, EMI will choose to release the other albums at a later date, as Johnson believes they have reserved such an option.) The new album is very commercial, heavily arranged and meticulously produced. It was recorded in Nashville because, Johnson said, "They've cut so many country records they're now reaching out to different styles of music. Working with pop music really brings out the jazz in their playing and they sound fresh and alive because they're really enjoying themselves." Johnson is still recording songs by old friends like Mark Henley (he also co-produced Henley's album for Sanskrit) and his "Two In Love" is one of the nicest moments on the new record. For old fans, though, the problem with The Michael Johnson Album is that it isn't Mad Musicians; those of us who expected another acoustic-oriented album have to face facts: Mad Musicians was, after all, released on Sanskrit Records, a label owned by his manager Keith Christianson. It was not a mainstream album and probably never could be. So, the new album is going to disappoint some of Michael's fans because of its uptempo, disco-tinged tunes and heavy pop arrangements. (Why a ballad needs the subtle irritance of a disco drum beat in the background escapes me.) The spontaneity of Johnson's vocals and phrasing is not put to best advantage backed by an orchestra, string section or horn section. The accessibility of a song like "Walk Me Round Your Garden" or the clear acoustic precision of "In Your Eyes" (The latter from There Is A Breeze, the former from Mad Musicians) just exist in another world from a song like "Dancin' Tonight" ("a real boogie number" admitted Johnson, who also co-wrote the tune) or even the torch song "When You Come Home," which happens to be a fine song and sung with conviction. Johnson's talent is unlimited, but this, his first album in the pop field, attempts to mask his unique talents with arrangements unsuitable to his subtle sensitivity.
However, the Johnson magic still shines through. He is still a song stylist who can bring a song to life. On the new album, Michael has the opportunity to revise "Almost Like Being In Love," the Lerner and Loewe ballad, with a slight disco beat in the background; he brings to the song a more personal, yet contemporary feeling. Johnson elaborated: "Of the songs I have written -- and I've also found from talking to other writers -- there is a kind of astigmatism you can have about your own material, trying to come up with the definitive version of your own song. I think that sometimes there is a block there with writers who can't really see the song that they have written; sometimes they have to hear somebody else do it, and it will be like a light goes on or something when they hear it."
"Bluer Than Blue," written by Randy Goodrum, was chosen for the album by Johnson and his producers Steve Gibson and Brent Maher. Johnson noted, "I have the freedom and the responsibility for song choice that I had before. It's something to fight for when you don't have it, but when you do have that right it turns into a responsibility. And then sometimes you wonder . . . I chose "Bluer Than Blue." We were actually a little concerned about it. Here we are trying to be a little more mainstream oriented and singing a song about people who lived together or were married and then split up, and we're asking a lot of people who haven't done that to dream along with that and to identify with that. And I was wrong -- they went for it. I think it is a valid statement but I was amazed."
He continued, "The difference I see in the three albums before this new one came in the arrangements: There Is A Breeze, then the solo Mad Musicians and then sort of the ensemble Ain't Dis Da Life. The new album is sufficiently different from all three. There is a little more sensualism -- it's not sexualism, and it never approaches grossing you out at all, but it's a romantic kind of thing. So there's a lot more of that and I really never did allow too much of that. I think that a lot of acoustic people for some reason have their sensual side but would rather not sing about it, because they associate that with more accessible radio music. There was a line to walk for me in Nashville because I thought 'I can be anybody I want to be now -- who am I going to be?'"
It is somewhat ironic that Johnson's Ain't Dis Da Life was released in December 1977, only a few months before the new one on EMI. Ain't Dis Da Life doesn't have the overall brilliance of There Is A Breeze or the wonderful songs of Mad Musicians, but it is still Johnson and therefore memorable. The album has the sound of a very cooperative effort between Johnson and a group of fine musicians; it is carefully produced and arranged and certainly could have been released by a major label. Johnson's penchant for the uptempo and slightly jazz flavored song is in evidence ("Circle of Fifths"), though there are fewer of the love songs that he does so well. "Mr. Arthur's Place (Slide With Me Julia)" by Thom Burke Bishop is an exception, a truly lovely tone poem about memories of a long ago romance with a dream-like melody and lyrics of a remembered dance. Another favorite is R. Galbraith's "Movin' in the Same Circles"; it has clever lyrics and a lilting tune (a possible future single, EMI?): "We're moving the same circles/talking to the same folks/going to the same places/hearing the same old jokes/moving in the same circles/going nowhere at all/and I still love you baby/damn it all." "Chicken Road" is a song about Missouri ("a land where the sky overflows") and features some very tasty accompaniment by Jeff Gilkinson (of Dillards fame) among others. The title song by Mike Smith (of "The Dutchman") has a breezy, impudent charm in its nonsense. All in all, Ain't Dis Da Life provides a good transition between the two which came before and the brand new release.
EMI continued their strong support of Johnson with a sell-out evening at West Hollywood's Roxy Theater in September. In a word, Johnson was brilliant. His set consisted of both new material ("Bluer Than Blue," "Foolish," "Dancin' Tonight") and old material that was familiar to the long time follower ("Love and Sex," "Walk Me Round Your Garden," "In Your Eyes," "Movin' in the Same Circles"). It was encouraging to see the older material accepted by the audience, although naturally the most popular number of the night was the hit single. (Johnson's on-stage introductory comments: "I've often thought that anything that pleases one million people should be looked upon with some suspect. But in this case I think it's kind of all right!")
Johnson made it clear to all who saw him that he is a professional and not just an artist with one hit record destined for obscurity. His maturity and self-confidence aided in making his performance successful; it is so heartening to see a musician who can give an audience a well-represented glimpse of his career and his talent. Right now, Johnson has everything going for him: a hit record, a responsive record company, and a revitalized career. "I'm feeling optimistic and I'm trying to control my excitement. Although I don't want to run on that," he said. "I always want to make sure I have my head on right. It sounds really egotistical to say it, but maybe I have the chance to make a real nice little small niche in the history of improving the calibre of Top 40 music once - or twice - or three times. It would be lovely."