Michael Johnson Photo

Musical Juggler

By Naomi Dunavan, Herald Staff Writer
Grand Forks Herald
October 24, 1997

It's not easy for Michael Johnson to describe how he feels when on stage.

"When I'm at my best, I don't even know I'm up there," he said by telephone from Nashville, Tenn.

"You strive to be able to function and to have your technique carry your thought. To be immersed in the music is the ultimate compliment to me. When I see someone in the front row with their eyes closed, it's a great feeling."

Johnson, with his hits, "Bluer Than Blue" and "Almost Like Being In Love," appears in the East Grand Forks Performing Arts Center at the Senior High School on Nov. 1.

"He hopes to see a lot of closed eyes that night. One of the people he credits with teaching him about performing was his friend John Denver, who died Oct. 12 in California.

"We were the last evolution of a group called The Chad Mitchell Trio," Johnson says. "John and I traveled and did quite a few concerts together and wrote quite a few songs. John taught me so much. He taught me what a real performance was. He was a self-made man. No matter his accomplishments, he always seemed to have great potential for more."

Because of a death in his own family, Johnson wasn't able to attend Denver's funeral. "But I wrote a note that was read at the service."

Johnson's concert is sponsored by KQ96 Radio and Allied Concert Series as a benefit so the East Grand Forks Performing Arts Council can continue giving its drama and music camp scholarships to students. Because of the flood, the council will not have its annual membership and patron drive this year, according to Liz Egers, president.

I'm really looking forward to the trip," Johnson says. "It will be nice to be in Northern Minnesota." He appeared years ago in the former Shenanigans Night Club, and he's been at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Over the years, he's also performed in Bemidji.

Twin Cities to Music City

Johnson, who grew up in Denver, has been touring for 25 years. He lived in Minneapolis for 19 years and moved to Nashville because he was "always on a plane commuting to and from. One time, between October and December, I flew to Nashville 22 times making an album. I realized I'd better live there."

His newest album, "Then and Now," came out a month ago.

"It's just a baby," Johnson says, "and the video is out on VH1 and CMT. I'm proud of it. It's an acoustic version of the hits I've been lucky enough to have over the years, 'Bluer Than Blue,' 'This Night Won't Last Forever,' 'The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder,' 'That's That' and 'Give Me Wings,' among others."

"Now and Then" also includes a duet with Alison Krauss called "Whenever I Call You Friend." "It's a remake of a Kenny Loggins hit," Johnson says, "I like it."

Johnson does many styles of music. "I have trouble categorizing myself because I fall in several radio formats, I guess. So, not being down the center of any of those formats, I'm considered sort of a juggler."

A series of strange occurrences led Johnson into the music business. At 13, he contracted severe pneumonia and about the same time, his 20-year old brother suffered a badly broken leg in a auto accident.

With two invalids in the family, their parents set up hospital beds in the living room and their father bought them a guitar.

When Johnson wasn't in an oxygen tent, "I remember us teaching ourselves how to play and creating huge mistakes with fingering. I remember the things we thought were impossible that we taught one another. We were joined at the hip for a while.

Those first gigs

Johnson was still 13 when he got his first gig. "I was playing in VFW halls in Denver, he says. "They were great days. I loved coming home at 2 in the morning. My folks were very proud and very trusting."

In 1963, Johnson went to Colorado State College, where he entered and won an international music competition. First prize included a signing with Epic Records.

He studied in Barcelona, Spain with classical guitarist Graciano Tarrago. "I wrote to the Library of Congress for a list of guitar teachers in Barcelona. I got a few names and sent an audition tape to this fellow. He wrote to me and said he thought he could teach me something.

Graciano taught him "how to clean up my left hand," Johnson says. "I wasn't destined to become a solo classical guitarist. As much as I loved the music, I missed singing too much."

In 1971, he signed with Atlantic Records and released his first album, "There Is A Breeze," produced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Teaming up with Brent Maher and Steve Gibson in Nashville, Johnson created a two-song demo consisting of "Bluer Than Blue," and "Almost Like Being in Love" from the Broadway musical, "Brigadoon."

Grammy nomination

EMI America Records heard it and wasted no time in signing him and quickly getting the Michael Johnson Album out in 1978. The first single, "Bluer Than Blue," went to the top of the charts, which led to it being nominated for a Grammy.

"Almost Like Being in Love" went to No. 1 on the R&B charts. His EMI album, "Dialogue," provided his third big hit, "This Night Won't Last Forever," and a gold record for European sales of "I'll Always Love You."

Somewhere along the line, Johnson lived a garage in Bel Air, California, with Steve Martin and Gary Mule Deer.

"The three of us all worked for Randy Sparks, head of the New Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority," Johnson says. "Randy had a club we all worked at. I remember Steve had an arrow through his head and was doing balloon animal things on stage as his routine. He also plays an incredible banjo. Those were wonderful days."

Johnson has written a lot of music, "but I wind up writing for other people. I'm kind of a schizophrenic artist. As an artist, my own songs are just one of my sources. It's hard to be objective about your own material until someone else does it. I've only recorded a half dozen of my own songs."

He does, however, look for songs to record that are "somewhat autobiographical in nature," he says. "It has to be something I really believe in, so I just don't record songs that I thing will work."

And he listens to public radio constantly. "I love classical music more than anything else."

Who is Michael Johnson, really?

"He is a series of unrelated events," the musician says of himself. "But, more than that, I'm Leo and Stan Johnson's dad. Leo is 14 and Stan is 17."