Michael Johnson Photo

Michael Johnson is singing state's praises to the world

By Jon Bream
Staff Writer
January 31, 1984

Singer Michael Johnson is now an Official Export of Minnesota.

Like Gov. Rudy Perpich, "A Prairie Home Companion" and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Johnson is telling the world about the good life in Minnesota. Well actually just the immediate world, because he's being officially exported only to Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and the Quad Cities of Illinois-lowa.

That's where beginning March 2 people will be hearing our Official Export urging them to explore Minnesota. In the meantime, we Minnesotans can listen to Johnson sing about the virtues of our state on our favorite radio stations.

It's not really a song Johnson is singing. It's just a jingle, which is what people in the advertising business call musical commercials.

"The gold of the sun on the edge of the shore
A beautiful season is breaking.
Wherever you go there's a crowd-pleasing show
Memories in the making.
Minnesota, come and see what a real good time can be.
"Come explore Minnesota, feel the spirit coming through.
Come explore Minnesota, take the freedom home with you.
Minnesota, come and see what a real good time can be.
Come explore Minnesota, feel the spirit coming through, coming through. Explore!

Last summer the state tourism office put out the cattle call for songwriters and commercial producers to compose 60-second jingles with "Explore Minnesota' as the theme. The state wanted original music preferably by a Minnesota composer. You know a little chauvinism with the boosterism.

Obviously with the jingle the state wants to boost tourism. After all, aggressive TV/radio campaigns have drawn thousands of tourists to Michigan and Ontario, Canada, in recent years. Our jingle had to promote a "'positive and varied image of Minnesota vacations," according to Ginger Sisco, deputy director of tourism. And with an advertising budget increase from $130,000 to $330,000, the tourism office felt it should go with an experienced composer and a first-class campaign.

The jingle writers understood that this wasn't a contest offering the winner a choice of a free week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a weekend of ice fishing on Lake Mille *Lacs or a season ticket to the Twins. It was simply a business deal.

With the promise of a handsome check and an audience with Lt. Gov. Marlene Johnson and Mark Dayton, state energy director the cattle call attracted 14 entries, which were narrowed to six finalists. Then the jingles were judged by Johnson, Sisco, Tourism Director Hank Dodd, an advertising agency and Dayton, whose Department of Energy Planning and Development oversees tourism.

Terry Esau had submitted two entries, one sung by Johnson (who had collaborated with him previously on jingles) and one with another singer. And then there were two versions of Esau's winning entry - one a ballad, the other more up tempo. Naturally, the exported version is something in between.

"We liked the upbeat quality of it, and everybody was taken with the melody line," pronounced Sisco of Esau's entry "And there was space within it for us to make some word changes that fit with the research data that we'd been picking up in doing some telephone interviews. So we changed a few words to better tit the kinds of images that people had of Minnesota or the kinds of of images they felt were positive about a vacation."

Ah yes, the old lyrics-by-research theory.

"It took probably a half hour to an hour to do the music, " recalled Esau, 29. who has written jingles for everything from Berman Buckskin and Big Wheel auto parts to Channel 11 and Target "The lyrics took a little longer. They kind of changed four or five times between the time I ad the demo and the final thing.

Actually, Esau wrote 15 verses for the song. Each had kind of a different seasonal twist. His approach to the lyrics was different from writing a jingle for, say, cat litter or a hospital, even though the format was the same.

"Here we were sellins a feeling, kind of," he said. "I don't think they wanted to sell the state as much as a feeling.

When the state was judging the entries, it was uncertain whether Johnson, who records for EMI- America Records, would be singing the final version. Sisco was concerned that he was a big star known for such big hits as "Bluer Than Blue" and "Almost Like Being in Love," and that the state couldn't afford him.

But he worked for a song (actually minimum union scale), and Sisco is grateful because his recognizable voice has given the jingle "more notice."

Anyway, the always affable Johnson was glad to participate. "I felt kind of proud," said the 39-year-old Colorado-born singer who settled here in the early '70s. "While it's true that I don't snowmobile or backpack or use the lakes, I have been asked about that. And in all honesty that's not where I'm at and what I prefer about Minnesota, as much as it's just the people."

As he travels around the state singing Muskrat Love" and "Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon, 2' Johnson hears requests for the "Explore Minnesota" jingle. Of course he obliges, throwing in an extra verse or two that you haven't heard on the radio. The jingle has even brought invitations for him to give concerts.

Furthermore, composer Esau and singer Johnson are talking about extending the 60-second jingle into a three- or four-minute song and releasing it as a single.

"We'd love that," Sisco declared.

oty Other jingles have been converted into hits, including Dottie West's "Country Sunshine" and the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing, both of which originated as soft-drink commercials.

Of course, if our Official Export issues "Explore Minnesota" as a single, people in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and the Quad Cities may have a hard time finding the record. They might have to look in the imported bins at their favorite record store.