Michael Johnson Photo
Singer Michael Johnson donated his gold record for the song “I’ll Always Love You” to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. Dodie Wendinger (right) accepted the record Saturday afternoon in New Ulm.

Michael Johnson rings in New Year in New Ulm

By KURT NESBITT — Journal Staff Writer
The Journal, New Ulm MN
December 31, 2006

The joke got plenty of laughs when singer Michael Johnson told it at New Ulm Middle School. “I tell people I’m losing my short-term memory and my long-term memory and my short-term memory,” the singer told a crowd of about 295 people, who came to see him sing and play guitar Saturday night.

The visit to New Ulm ended Johnson’s annual visit to Minnesota. He’s flying home to Nashville today. Johnson sang alone on the stage, sitting on a wooden stool placed on an Oriental rug, and strummed a classical guitar to accompany himself, stopping occasionally to chat with the audience and tell jokes. The concert was organized as a fundraiser for the New Ulm Business and Retail Association.

While visiting New Ulm, the singer, a 1994 inductee into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, stopped by the Hall of Fame’s museum to donate an artifact of his own. Johnson’s gold record for his 1979 song “I’ll Always Love You” now sits in the same display case as artifacts from old-time great Syl Liebl and rockabilly king Eddie Cochran. Johnson earned the gold record in the Philippines after “I’ll Always Love You” sold over 50,000 copies.

“It’s the ultimate compliment to me and people like Bobby Vee, Dylan, Judy Garland and, like, about 40 polka people,” Johnson said Saturday evening.

Johnson grew up in Colorado and met the late John Denver in Los Angeles in the late 1960s after Johnson’s group, the New Society, broke up. Johnson auditioned for a folk trio that Denver belonged to that became known as Denver, Boise and Johnson.

“I learned 26 songs in two days and I destroyed 24 of them,” Johnson said.

Johnson was one of the last to leave the group. Denver went solo after Johnson’s departure. Johnson’s solo career began in the early 1970s and hit records came later in the decade after he signed to EMI America Records, following a brief career in theatre. He had Billboard hits in 1978 and 1979 with songs like “Bluer Than Blue”, “Almost Like Being In Love”, “This Night Won’t Last Forever” and “I’ll Always Love You.” During those years, Johnson was living in Minnesota in both Minnetonka and Mankato.

His crossover into country music nearly ten years later brought him even more success. The title track of his 1986 album “Give Me Wings” was Billboard’s Country Song of the Year.

Johnson’s career also put him onstage with singer Judy Collins, comedians George Carlin and Andy Kaufman, country singers Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood and bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. Johnson has also been on television with appearances on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”,”Entertainment Tonight” and “Austin City Limits” to his credit.

During his visit to the museum, Johnson got a tour from Hall of Fame Director Dodie Wendinger, stopping occasionally to snap photos of other inductees that Johnson either knew personally or was a fan of. Johnson recognized inductees Marvin Rainwater, City Mouse, Lamont Cranston, Bobby Vee, The Trashmen and Dennis Morgan, another Nashville songwriter and friend of Johnson’s.

“From now on, when I come to town I’m coming here,” Johnson told Wendinger.

Photos by C. McArthur