By Michael Anthony
December 30, 1973
How does a folk singer, a balladeer who specializes in soft, sweet songs, manage with a big raucous rock audience?
In the case of Michael Johnson, the folk singer manages as best he can, such as in a series of recent dates with those mangy chroniclers of drug culture, Cheech and Chong.
"It was a frisbee with-razor-blades-type audience," said Johnson. "I was supposed to do 45 minutes. I think the most I did any night was 25. I've gotten excited about playing big audiences,but then there was the date in Philadelphia where 75 or 80 girls came backstage after the show wearing Cheech and Chong T-shirts. They wanted us to sign the shirts. Actually, for some of those girls we could used a paint brush."
Though Johnson's smooth skillful singing and easy rapport with an audience are best displayed in an intimate setting, his fame is growing, mainly because of an excellent debut album released last year entitled "There Is a Breeze." Thus, though he still plays clubs, the bigger halls are now a possibility as evidenced by Johnson's sold out concert tonight (sponsored by the Walker Art Center) at the Guthrie Theater.
A likable chap with a quick sense of humor, Johnson chatted recently over lunch, talking about recent concerts and his growing interest in recording techniques. Because concerts lately, he's been writing haiku poetry and, bit by bit, putting together a recording studio at his home in suburban Minneapolis.
"It's in a little barn," he said. "Eventually, I'd like to produce some people there — acoustic groups and chamber things. The big studios are costing so much money these days."
Johnson spent the past summer studying recording engineering at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. "There were a lot of people there. In fact, the dorm was full of hippies, plus, believe it or not, two guys from the White House, definitely not hippies, who were there studying recording techniques."
Actually having his own studio soe day is a far cry from Johnson's first personal appearance at the age of 13 in a Denver VFW hall. "We played stuff like 'Cherokee' and 'Sheik of Araby' from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. for five bucks a night and all the screwdrivers we could drink. I was into Chuck Berry stuff then, and it was all painful."
Later Johnson studied music education at Colorado State, played in cubs all over the country, studied classical guitar with Luiz Bonfas in Spain, played with Randy Sparks (under the name of Julian Piper with a group billed as "The Voice of the Drug Generation"), joined the Mitchell Trio with John Denver and performed in the Jacques Brel revue in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Johnson is not a beginner, other words.
One of Johnson's fondest memories, he said, was of the late Jim Croce, with whom he performed at Sandstone Prison two years ago.
"I was scared, but Jim was great. During the show a bat got loose and started flying around. Finally, when the bat flew toward Jim he put his arm across his guitar, making the sign of a cross. Those guys just fell apart."