July 25, 2017 – Michael Johnson was born on August 8, 1944 in the small town of Alamosa, Colorado and grew up in Denver. He started playing the guitar at 13. In 1963, he began attending Colorado State University to study music but his college career was truncated when he won an international talent contest two years later. First prize included a deal with Epic Records. Epic released the song “Hills”, written and sung by Johnson, as a single. Johnson began extensive touring of clubs and colleges, finding a receptive audience everywhere he went.
Wishing to hone his instrumental skills, he set off for Barcelona, Spain in 1966, to the Liceu Conservatory, studying with the eminent classical guitarists, Graciano Tarragó and Renata Tarragó. Upon his return to the States in late 1967, he joined Randy Sparks in a group called the New Society and did a tour of the Orient.
When the band dissolved after the tour, he signed on with the Chad Mitchell Trio for a year, spending some of that time co-writing with another member, John Denver. The group was renamed Denver, Boise & Johnson. When the trio came to an end, Johnson made a radical departure from everything he had done previously by taking on a major supporting role in the off-Broadway production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” The show visited New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago over the next year; and by then, Johnson was ready to return to creating and performing his own music.
In 1971, Johnson signed with Atco Records to release his first album, There Is A Breeze, which was released in 1973 and produced by Johnson, Chris Dedrick, Peter Yarrow and Phil Ramone in New York and Toronto, Canada. Feeling this first effort wasn’t a true reflection of his music (despite being a huge best seller in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area), Johnson self-produced his next LP in 1975, For All You Mad Musicians, relying more on his voice and guitar for a folk feel. He followed this up with Ain’t Dis Da Life, where he added a rhythm section. With each new recording and his continued touring, his popularity was increasing. It was time to make a move on the national market.
Teaming up with Brent Maher and Steve Gibson in Nashville, Tennessee, Johnson created a two-song demo consisting of “Bluer Than Blue” and “Almost Like Being in Love” (the latter song from the Broadway musical Brigadoon). EMI America took one listen and wasted no time in signing him, quickly getting The Michael Johnson Album out in 1978. The first single, “Bluer Than Blue”, became Johnson’s first Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the summer of 1978; the song became a chart-topping single on the Adult Contemporary chart. “Almost Like Being in Love” went to No. 91 on the R&B chart while hitting the Top 5 on the AC chart and the Top 40 on the pop chart. His next EMI album, Dialogue, provided his third big hit, “This Night Won’t Last Forever” and a Gold Record for European sales of “I’ll Always Love You”.
Johnson recorded five albums in all for EMI and in 1985 moved over to RCA Records, where he adopted a contemporary country style that stayed compatible with his soft, mellow leanings. He scored five Top Ten country hits from 1986 to 1989, including the chart-toppers “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder.” After two country albums on RCA (plus two greatest hits collections), Johnson moved over to Atlantic Records in 1991. He recorded sporadically in the 1990s for smaller labels.
In 1995, the country music group 4 Runner scored a minor hit with the single “Cain’s Blood”, for which Johnson co-wrote an updated version with Jack Sundrud of Poco. Johnson also proved to be a successful writer of prose when he penned “The Solo Performer” columns for the magazine Performing Songwriter from 1993-98.
Johnson had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2007. In 2009, Johnson connected with a daughter that his ex-girlfriend had given up for adoption 40 years earlier in Texas. Since the daughter was living in the Twin Cities, Johnson returned to Minnesota after more than two decades in Nashville. Moreover, by then, he said most of his gigs were in the five-state area. In 2012, he recorded with his daughter, classically-trained singer Truly Carmichael, on the album “Moonlit Déjà Vu,” for St. Paul’s Red House Records.
In concert, the singer/guitarist sometimes talked about suffering from emphysema. Because of COPD, he had been using oxygen for the past couple years, said Twin Cities bassist Gordy Johnson, a close friend who was on his way to deliver dinner to Michael Johnson when he died on July 25, 2017. He was 72.
“Six months ago, he went on oxygen 24/7 yet he’d still perform,” Gordy Johnson said. “I asked: ‘How do you do it?’ He said, ‘I leave it in the dressing room and I go out and fight like hell.’ ”