Michael Johnson Photo

Passage to Success Difficult for Johnson

By Bob Epstein, Times Staff Writer
St. Cloud Times
November 8, 1979

It may be hard to believe, but it has been nine years since Michael Johnson burst on to the musical scene with his album "There is a Breeze."

But unlike some one-short wonders, Johnson, who will be in concert at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Benedicts Art Center, has come to stay.

The route he traveled, however, was far from easy.

When "There is a Breeze" came out on an Atlantic label nine years ago it went nowhere and soon as deleted from the catalog. Johnson, however, persisted and brought out the album on the midwestern Sanskrit label. The balladeer equivalent of "The Rocky Horrow Picture Show," Johnson's album took off on its reincarnation and nearly became, at least in Minnesota, a cult album.

Still, he was snubbed by major record labels for years. He produced two more albums for Sanskrit, "For All You Mad Musicians" and "Ain't Dis Da Life," the first with with guitar and voice, the second with full band and voice.

Suddently, a major label, EMI America picked up Johnson and the singer songwriter released "The Michael Johnson Album." Two of its hits included "Bluer than Blue" and "Almost Like Being in Love," which received airplay nationwide.

Last November, Johnson recorded his latest album, "Dialogue" for EMI America. In "Dialogue," Johnson stresses the importance of one-to-one communication. "The album shows the things that can be accomplished by two people instead of one," he said.

In the album, Johnson explores people who, set in patterns, give up their old lives to start afresh. In the title cut, aptly titled "Dialogue," two strangers meet at an airport. Bored with their mundane flights (of life?), they decide to skip their separate journeys and end up together walking down a corridor. Johnson admits it's an unlikely story.

But to Johnson, it points to something deeper that what's on the surface. "I think it's a sign of our times that people take their own lives and the lives of their lovers for granted," he said. "I don't know why it's happened and I don't think it's unique to our times. IT may be a product of too much free time."

Musically, the album is a change for Johnson. In "Dialogue," he expands his traditional ballad style to include touches of jazz, funk and rhythm and blues.

"One of my producers discovered that I had a little R and B going for me. It's influenced me in the vocal approach, the lyrics and of course, the musicality — the chord changes and the rhythms."

For those who admire Johnson's velvety style, there is no need to fear that he will eschew the ballad stye that has made him well-known. "I've always been a romantic and I've alway gravitated towards ballads," he admits.

Although he is playing less and less guitar on his albums these days, preferring band arrangements, Johnson will bring only his guitar and voice to the Benedicts Arts Center. In a sense, it will be a reversion back to the days of "There is a Breeze" when Johnson was regarded primarily as a guitarist.

"I've always been a guitarist," he said. "I used to be known as a guitarist who sang until 'Bluer Than Blue.' At that point, I was considered a singer who played the guitar. It made me feel great. I always wanted to be considered a singer.

"The guitarist who sings is basically more an accompanist for his own vocal. Generally, singers who happen to play guitar are more interested in the lyrics and night let some arrangement slip now and then."

Johnson started playing guitar at age 13 when he got pneumonia and was bored, he said. His brother Paul, already a guitarist, had been hit by a car and was going through a similar boredom. Both were bedridden for five months.

"After five months, we were just proficient enough (in guitar) to where we both kept it up." Johnson said. "Then I did the typical thing. I got into bands and played on weekends.It was fun. I loved it."

A Colorado native who now lives in the Twin Cities, Johnson's major break was "There is a Breeze." He says he still doesn't undersand why the 1970 album was unpopular when first released but became widely admired after it was re-released.

"I really wish I knew,I think it's probably partially because I kept performing and I kept the album available. I think eventually more people were hot to hear it. But it took six years."

"There are a few albums that accomplish what "There is a Breeze" did. They can lay around for years and years. All of Billy Joel's early albums. All of Phoebe Snow's early albums. Bob Seeger. Basically anybody who's been in the business for a long time and who now has a national reputation."

Johnson studied at Colorado State University and went to Barcelona to study classical guitar with the highly regarded Graciano Tarrego. "I kind of cleaned up my act a little." Johnson said of his year in Spain. "The sound became cleaner. That's the nature of baroque music."

Soon he was back in the United States playing in the Mitchell Trio with John Denver and David Boise. During that time, Johnson and Denver co-wrote "Circus," recorded by Denver and later by Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary renown. Johnson left the trio and in 1969 bit the acting bug. He appeared in New York in "Jacques Brel is ALive and Well...and Living in Paris." "It operates on seeral levels simultaneously," Johnson said. "That appealed to me."

In "Jacques Brel," Johnson couldn't resort to the refuge of the guitar. He had to stand up and act. It was difficult for him at first.

"There were spoken lines and I found myself not very well equipped to do it, " he explained. "I basically had to learn how to put myself into another character. Although it's similar to music, it's very different, when you use your entire body."

"Gradually, as I got into the character, I began to see me. I would like to get back into acting someday. I trhink I would like to start off musically, doing some film scores."

Johnson said the guitarist who has most influenced him is Leo Kottke. A few years ago, Johnson and Kottke wrote some songs together and Johnson played with Kottke on "My Feet Are Smiling." (Note: Actually "Dreams and All That Stuff")

"It's not so much in what he plays as in how how he plays," Johnson said of Kottke. "It's incredibly clean and very authoritative. He's a fine fellow.

"We did some things called head arrangements. It's sort of a controlled ad libbing until we come up with something good. Then we work from that outward to other things. It's the way we come up with material."

Geniuses like Kottke Johnson believes are out there, although they are not very numerous. He cites Ricky Lee Jones, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers and the new Blood, Sweat and Tears band as brilliant musicians, in addition to Kottke.

"They try to be unique," Johnson said. "Their lyrics have substance. Their chord changes, arrangements and musicality are more sophisticated, less predictable and generally more refeshing than everything else you hear on the radio.

"I can't listen to the radio for very long. I kind of burn out on the repetitive approach to pop music. I usally don't liten to the radio when I'm recording or when I'm on the road. I'll listen to my own tunes occasionally just to see how they stand up in comparison to what comes before it and after it on the radio, Just to see how I fit in.

Sometimes I think I really have gotten a unique song, a unique approach. Other times, I am less pleased. It's very difficult to meet a level of consistency."