Michael Johnson: Hotter Than Hot
By Randy Anderson
Mpls.St. Paul Magazine
Contrary to popular belief, Michael Johnson is not a native Minneapolitan. The singer of the hit "Bluer Than Blue" grew up in Denver in a Catholic family of six. At one point he tried the seminary and actually considered a life in the church.
But back in high school, Johnson saw a different kind of light, one which ultimately put him on the long and winding road to Minneapolis and incipient stardom. He "got the hots" for performing and formed a rock 'n' roll band called the Blue Jays.
In the early '60s, his interest switched to folk music. By 1964, while a student at Colorado State Teachers College, he was in a folk trio. The group's success encouraged him to enter the college talent contest, which he won, allowing him to compete in a national college talent contest, which he also won.
Soon he drifted away from college to play the coffeehouse circuit, then to study classical guitar in Spain. He returned to America and, in Los Angeles, picked up with Randy Sparks, creator of the Back Porch Majority and the New Christy Minstrels. That association took him to the orient in 1967, where he soon became disillusioned with the troupe's musical quality.
So once again, Johnson returned to the United States, wiggled out of his contractual obligations to Sparks and accepted John Denver's offer to join the Mitchell Trio. At the end of the decade, he left the Trio to solo for a year before catching on with Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. That revue took him to New York, the West Coast and, finally, Chicago.
"The show ended, my girlfriend and I broke up and I was just a little bummed out with Chicago - I had no reason to be there," he recalled. "I was all set to go out and do the next thing."
The "next thing" turned out to be Minneapolis. Through a friend Johnson was introduced to Keith Christianson, who convinced Michael to move to the Twin Cities. Immediately, Christianson booked him into regional clubs. Slowly, Johnson began to build a sizeable following in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois and Nebraska, along with pockets of local interest in the South.
In December 1977, Johnson spoke with me about his future. His latest album was out, Ain't Dis Da Life (on the local Sanskrit label). Like his previous efforts, There Is A Breeze ('73) and For All You Mad Musicians ('75), it was doing well locally and making little impact nationally.
At the time, he seemed to be heading into the most important year of his career. He was negotiating tentative contracts with major record labels and, if successful at that, appeared capable of breaking out of the "regional star" category.
Yet he remained cautious and calm, ready to handle whatever happened - be it national recognition or continued regional success. He said then that if the right tune came along, he would not be afraid to promote it as a single, but in no way did he envision being a flash-in-the-pan. Throughout the conversation he impressed me as a seasoned pro, able to conduct an intelligent career. In other words, if the Big Success ever came, he could cope.
I asked him how his life would change if indeed that did happen.
"I don't know," he admitted. "If there was any true wealth involved . . . I don't know. You can talk about that all you like, but you don't know if you're going to be a draft-dodger until you get drafted; you don't know if you're doing to have an abortion until you get pregnant."
Well, the change has come. Not an overly ambitious man, the reluctant star has been drafted into success on the wings of "Bluer Than Blue."
Recently I spoke with Michael Johnson about how it all happened.
In February, he went to Nashville for ten days to record some demo tapes - "Bluer Than Blue" and the Lerner and Loewe standard "Almost Like Being In Love," which was redone in a relative minor key that nicely counterpoints the sunny lyric. It's the next single.
Johnson's manager, Keith Christianson, took the tapes to Los Angeles to shop once again for a major company contract. The tapes were not in final form and both Johnson and Christianson only expected to generate interest for a possible contract. The product would be refined later.
"EMI America (new stateside branch of EMI Europe, one of (if not) the largest record company in the world) was the third company Christianson walked into, and they showed more interest than anybody," said Johnson. "Not only that, but they said, 'Yeah we want it just the way it is.' So basically, they bought the demo. It all started pinwheeling from there pretty quickly."
"Bluer Than Blue" was an instant AM radio staple across the country this summer. That fact alone packs enough wallop to explode the Michael Johnson cult into a considerable following.
"To be honest, I was a little worried," he said. "I thought 'Bluer Than Blue' was slightly too mature for the type of audience the record company believed it was going to affect."
"An affair or a marriage breaking up was just a little too much for somebody to identify with who had never done that," Johnson remembered thinking. "I'm glad that I was wrong."
Johnson returned to the studio in April to finish the album, simply entitled The Michael Johnson Album. The results are quite different from his more modest, previous albums, which had a homemade quality about them. Now there are horns, backup singers, catchy little dance rhythms and even a fashionable soul cover, Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman."
Some might call it slick. Others would describe it professional. Either way, Johnson is growing as a person and as an artist, or, as he puts it: "Trying to make a fusion between the past and future as far as the stuff I used to do and the kind of stuff that I'm going to be doing.
"The new record is different," he continued. "It's more commercial in a sense. But it also includes some other sides of me that in the past I refrained from revealing. There's a sensual side to the album, not an overt sexual side, but there's a sensuality that I had pretty much denied myself. There's a broadened taste in the material, but," he insisted, "I'm opposed to feeling like I'm compromising or selling out."
As his record's popularity increases, Johnson is gearing up for a fall tour. In the process he's also forming a band. Last year he felt that he couldn't pull off a city-wide concert in any other town but Minneapolis. But now there's an interest in places like Seattle and Atlanta, and he can look forward to larger concert dates.
For seven years now, Johnson and Minneapolis have been carrying on a low-key love affair, and nowhere is he appreciated as he is here. Someday we might have to say goodbye to him - recording artists have a tendency to disappear to the coasts when they become successful. But for now, he's still happy living in the Minneapolis area, where many people consider him a lifetime resident.
"I don't know why people assume that - maybe it's the name Johnson. I'm flattered by that, though. I admire people who have roots."