Bob Johnston, producer of many classic albums from the 1960s and beyond, has died. The Austin Chronicle reports that Johnston had been in hospice care in Nashville for much of the last week. “Once he was confined to [a] bed and connected to machines, hospice only gave him a few days to live,” a friend of Johnston’s tells the Chronicle. “He was on morphine to help any pain he was experiencing. Bob’s wife told me he pass[ed] away peacefully.” Johnston was 83 years old.
The son of songwriter Diane Johnston, Bob got his music career started in the rockabilly world in the ’50s, before moving into rock in the ’60s, marrying fellow songwriter Joy Byers, and writing a number of songs for Elvis Presley with his wife. In the mid-’60s, he started getting work as a producer, most notably working with Bob Dylan on a number of his legendary albums of the period, including 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, and 1969’s Nashville Skyline. (It’s Johnston being referred to with Dylan’s spoken “Is it rolling, Bob?” at the beginning of Skyline‘s “To Be Alone With You.”)
In addition to his work with Dylan, Johnston also produced classic albums for legendary singer/songwriters Simon & Garfunkel (1966’s The Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme), Johnny Cash (1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin), and Leonard Cohen (1969’s Songs From a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate), among countless others. He would continue to produce in the ’70s for acts like Lindisfarne, Loudon Wainwright III, and Pete Seeger, and in the ’90s worked on albums by Willie Nelson (1992’s The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?) and Carl Perkins (1996’s Go Cat Go!). He was still manning the decks up until the last few years of his life, most recently producing 73, the 2013 debut album by Brazilian singer/songwriter Eron Falbo.
Earlier this year, Chronicle editor Louis Black published an online oral history of Johnston’s life, appropriately titled Is It Rolling, Bob? “[He’s] one of the quieter legends in the music business,” Black wrote of Johnston in the collection’s intro. “[He] brought the technical brilliances needed for the sound the artist wanted, recruited the ideal musicians to capture it and during the recording offered unending enthusiasm, support, expertise, and encouragement. He championed unique projects even when most other company executives were skeptical and continued to look after the albums even when they were finished and released.”
Listen to some of the more celebrated LPs Johnston worked on here.