Bob Johnston & Susie Foot at Wally Heiders
It was around 1977, and the legendary record producer BOB JOHNSTON was working at Wally Heider's with a female artistby the name of Mirabi in Studio C. I was hanging around the studio and kept noticing these big joints in the ashtray of the producer's lounge outside of C. I never saw him, but Bob would come out of the studio, light up a big joint of the good stuff, talk on the phone and go back in, leaving the joint, over and over. When 3 or 4 accumulated, I, being a poor, struggling musician, came by and emptied the ashtray!
A short while after the Mirabi sessions (btw Mirabi was really a great singer and her album was killer), my wife Susie, a staff engineer at Heider's got assigned to work with Bob on a JOHN MAYALL album in studio A.
I was home one day, and Susie called. She told me that they had been trying to do something Bob wanted to do and couldn't figure out how to do it. She told me "I told them if anyone could figure it out, my husband Jimmy could!", and she hands off the phone to Bob. "You know that sound when yer singin' into a piano with the sustain pedal
pushed down?" he drawled in a low, sage voice. I said "do you mean sympathetic vibrations?" He said "Yeah, but I want that sound on the WHOLE BAND!
I had just smoked a big fat joint when they called, and I immediately had a flash. "I'll be right down" I told him. I had a piece of gear called a "Talk Box", made famous by PETER FRAMPTON. It was basically a large 25 lb. speaker driver with no speaker, but just a hole where you would insert a flexible clear plastic hose. The Talk Box was hooked up to your amp like a speaker. The sound traveled through the tube. The tube end was attached to the microphone stand and you'd put the end of the tube in your mouth, making your mouth the "speaker cabinet" by forming your mouth, your guitar can sound like it's talking.
I brought it down to the studio. We ran a mixed signal into the
Talk Box, which we laid directly on the edge of the harp where it was
widest. I put a brick on the sustain pedal, and Susie set up
microphones over the strings at a null point from the Talk Box. The
mixed signal caused the strings to vibrate sympathetically, and that
ambience was picked up by the mics and mixed back in the control
room. "That's THE SOUND!" Bob proclaimed after listening to the
mix. "Now that I've heard it, I'm not going to use it, but what are you
guys doing this Friday night?"
Susie and I, and our son PJ became close friends with the
Johnston family over the next 40 years. Bob produced 2 albums of
mine, REGGAE JACKSON and The RHYTH-O-MATICS. In between
those bands, we spent a lot of time at Bob and Joy's house in Mill
Valley, Marin County, California. It was frequently very lively, with all
kinds of interesting people hanging out, smoking weed, maybe snort
a little coke, and playing and listening to music. Bob was a great songwriter and he would sing and play on his grand piano or his old 12 string guitar. He would always ask me to play a song for his friends when we were visiting, and it would almost always be my song "Think About Your Life".
Strangely, I would have met Bob years before in New York. I turned down an offer to join SCOTT FAGAN's band in 1968. It would have resulted with me working with Bob back then. He produced their album a couple of months afterwards.
In the early 80's, Bob was working on a project that would have been international in scope. His idea was "The World Children's Foundation", which he said would be like a Red Cross specifically for children. They would set up safe havens in war-torn areas around the world. The goal was to protect children, and to call attention to the futility of war. Bob was hustling every bigwig he could get his hands on. One day, he told us he was heading to Texas the following day to talk with The Melons.
At that time, Bob was working on a lot of stuff, and really didn't have time or the inclination to go out and buy new clothes, and he also didn't notice that all his pants (Levi's tan corduroy) were all worn, and he had worn a hole in the bottom of his cowboy boots. Mind you, this is a guy who spent a couple of hundred dollars every day to have breakfast delivered. "You can't go talk to the Melons with a hole in your shoe!" we told him.
This was at a time when "designer" pants were in vogue, and of course there was no internet, and I had to call all over San Francisco to find some old-school Levi "cords" for Bob, and we found a shoe repair place that replaced the soles of his boots while Bob and I waited, Bob in his socks. He flew to Texas the next day to talk with the Melons. The World Children's Foundation never came into being, but Bob had big ideas and always had some project to talk up.
In 1982 Bob was invited to play at an anti-war rally at The College of Marin with speaker DANIEL ELSBERG of Pentagon Papers fame. It was a packed room, and Bob sang two songs that took about 20 minutes with me backing him on guitar. "Exxon World" foretold of the grip big oil would have on our system. I remember the sound being awful, which is validated on the rare video of Bob performing.
A few months after that College performance, Bob organized an event called "Song For Peace", funded by some unsuspecting donors I think, because they didn't realize that Bob was such a revolutionary.
After my set and JORDAN De La Sierra's set, which were way left and anti-war, a group of bell ringers played a flawless 10 minutes. Then Bob and I played "Exxon World", after which, Bob gave a little speech about the oil industry and the causes and the people behind war. The audience was into it, but some of the donors in attendance;
not so much! Maybe it was what Bob was saying, or it might have had a bit to do with his colorful language. Bob couldn't care less. He always spoke his mind, regardless.
Around this same time, Bob and I recorded "The Picnic Song" and a song Bob wrote "Missing You" at my home studio on Myra Way.
Mary Ann Zahorsky, Tom Fiye, Bob Johnston, Jimmy Foot
The first time I worked with Bob as my producer was on a demo for REGGAE JACKSON in Heider's studio "D". JOSH MILLS was singing my song, one that new and he hadn't had much time to study the tape I had given him. Bob was going through the song line by line and Bob was picking lines and erasing over others. I'm thinking to myself "These lines aren't the melody" and "That's not the way I phrased it!". But I knew that Bob had produced all of my favorite Dylan albums and a zillion others, so I kept quiet and learned something. Bob was picking "interesting". He knew my song and melody, but he was open to variation if it was "better". Everything of mine that Bob produced, I had already brought it as far as I could see, and then Bob revealed a whole new horizon and everything went up 10 levels. When you played for Bob, you knew the monster talent that he has worked with in the past, and your game has to come up.
My best leads in the studio were with Bob standing over me, shouting encouragement. I have talked more about working with Bob in The RHYTH-O-MATICS and REGGAE JACKSON sections.
Susie and I were lucky enough to be around Bob when he was producing some other artists. We flew to L.A. (for $19 each way each) for his sessions with the Canadian group CHINA, we went with him to Fantasy Studios where he worked with THE WATERBOYS,
and we were around for his album with CARL PERKINS. Bob got all 3 living BEATLES to play on the album (not at the same time), he got an unreleased recording from YOKO ONO of JOHN LENNON singing "Blue Suede Shoes", he had PAUL SIMON, ROSS VALORY and more. Bob was producing the album independently and went through a number of investors. Money didn't seem to mean anything to Bob.
Investors were essential, but Bob would spend whatever he thought he needed to make the record he wanted to make. A lot of money ended up being lost by the various people who had invested in that album. Bob and another investor bought the project back for pennies on the dollar years later, but to my knowledge, didn't sell very well.
The Johnstons moved back to Nashville in the late 80's. Bob came in to Alpha & Omega studios and worked with us on three of my songs from what was supposed to be the next Rhyth-O-Matics album, "Unite Ce Soir", "Seize The Time", and "Afroskalypso". We spoke often over the next years, seeing Bob whenever he came out to work on a project in the Bay Area.
Bob and I worked together on a project that I brought to Bob in 2009; a local artist with some high-end session players in L.A. The tracking went great. Bob called me afterward and said "This guy can't sing, Jimmy!" The artist thought he sang just fine and took his album elsewhere and spent beaucoup bucks and many moons to prove Bob was right.
A few years later, Bob, his wife Joy and their son Bobby Jr. moved to Mt. Shasta, not too far from where we live. Bob came out to see my band KINGFOOT at a local brewery in 2015. We talked about Bob producing an album, but that never happened.
We last saw Bob and Joy a couple of months before he died. Their son Bobby Jr. had died several months earlier, and Bob had gone downhill. Our son PJ was visiting us from France, and we all drove to Mt. Shasta to see them. I played Bob some cds of my latest, and sang him a few songs. Bob sang along in perfect harmony. We had a wonderful time, and I think we all knew it would be the last time we saw each other. We stayed in touch with Joy until she also passed away the following year.
Bob was a major influence on me, a truly great music producer, a dynamo, and we shared an appreciation for good weed. Having such a great producer take such an interest in my music that he would produce 2 albums of mine without any compensation gave me confidence and a real sense of worth as an artist. I wish we had recorded more of his great songs, and I fear many of them are lost to time. He is a true legend and the music he produced will live on forever.
Jimmy Foot & Bob Johnston
Drawings by Bob Johnston
(Click to open in full screen)
Saturday morning before Easter; I’m driving with the legendary record producer Bob Johnston and his son Bobby to the House of Blues Studio in L.A. Bob, at 78, is making arrangements to meet with an agent for lunch once the session gets underway. Bob is tireless and still working producing albums, doing satellite radio shows and writing a book of his memoirs. Bob at times seems distracted. It has nothing to do with his age or working on all of the projects he is involved with; he also has to deal with the loss of his youngest son, Andrew, just a few weeks ago to a brain aneurism.
I’ve known Bob since the 70’s; my wife Susie Foot who was a staff engineer at Wally Heider’s at the time, called me from a John Mayall session Bob was producing. Susie explained they were looking for a way to get a particular sound Bob was looking for, weren’t having any luck and so she called me. She put Bob on the line. “You know the sound you get when you hold down the sustain pedal on a piano and sing into it?” he asked, “Well, I want to get that sound on the whole band, so if you’ve got any ideas….” His voice trailed off as he handed the phone back off to Susie. Knowing I was talking to the producer of all my favorite Dylan albums, I thought quickly. I came down to the studio with my talk box. It weighed about 15-20 lbs. We used it as a driver to pump the mix directly onto the piano’s soundboard, placed a cinder block on the sustain pedal, and mic’ed the overtones from strings on the opposite end of the harp. Bob listened intently to the result. “Boy,” he said, “You’re a goddamn genius! You got the sound I was looking for. Now that I’ve heard it, though, I’m not going to use it, but I appreciate you coming down.” I don’t know about the genius part, but he invited Susie and I over to his house for dinner with his wife Joy and we’ve been close like family ever since. Bob produced albums for two of my bands, and I know him as an incredible songwriter and musician as well.
He’s always had big ideas and been involved with big projects. You can’t separate the man from his accomplishments. His big hit records with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan were no fluke. Although Bob will be the first to acknowledge how lucky he’s been in his life to work with so many great artists, there is also an unmistakable thread that weaves through all of his records. It is the combination of all of the things that happen on a Bob Johnston record and the results speak for themselves.
Today we’re working with a young Outlaw Blues artist by the name of Chris Nance from Humboldt County, California. Bob has been working with Chris for months, listening to Chris’s demos and giving sage advice. He’s reworked the lyrics on a few of Chris’s songs, suggested a few ideas for cover songs, and has outrightly rejected one of Chris’s favorite songs for this album. The musicians arrive for the session. They’re all veteran players who have come to work with the legendary producer for the first time; John Molo on drums (Ratdog), Hutch Hutchison on bass (Bonnie Raitt), Mark Karan on guitar (Ratdog), J.T. Thomas (Bruce Hornsby) and Jason Yates (Ben Harper) on keys, and yours truly on guitar as well.
Bob gathers the musicians around, tells them the story of calling the warden at Folsom Prison and telling him he was bringing Johnny Cash there to do a concert. The warden simply asks “When are you coming?” Bob fills in the details about how he stood up to the record execs, risking his job to help Johnny Cash fulfill his dream to record a live album at a prison and about how he and Johnny freaked when they saw the signs “subject to search” as they drove into Folsom. Bob’s stories are always fascinating and insightful.
As I said, you can’t separate the man from his accomplishments; when Bob talks, people listen, or they probably should. When you’ve sold a half a billion records, you must be doing something right. Bob does a bit of the “laying of the hands” on the musicians, tells everyone to “play like a band”, then takes off for his meeting with the agent. We get started. I’ve co-produced three albums with Bob and have been around a number of his sessions over the years, so I have some idea what to expect. My role at this session, besides playing, is more like a musical director. I hand out the charts, and we get started laying tracks.
Bob comes back from his meeting. We’ve laid down one song and are about to lay down another one. Bob goes into the control room and switches gears, listening to our first song with intensity while we wait in the studio. He has a very serious look on his weathered face as he gives instructions to Doug Tyo, the engineer about the snare sound and some panning requests. He listens to the song and his expression changes. “That’s fucking great!” he exclaims.
We are relieved.
A few minutes later, he is out in the studio with the band, getting set up with headphones. It’s like in school when the teacher comes and sits in the classroom during an important test. Sometimes the things that come out of Bob’s mouth are shocking.
This session is no exception; Bob first tells everybody “Fuck the bridge, you don’t need it!”, then “How long is this song? It feels like it’s going on forever!” Many eyes roll around the room. The song is about 3 ½ minutes. But then we take out one of the two bridges, add some instrumental verses, and the arrangement becomes amazing. The wild-eyed old man is always right in some way or another. After all the years I’ve known Bob, I still am not sure if he just machine guns ideas out there and most of them just knock down targets by sheer luck, or if he plans every step meticulously. This I can say for certain; every project I’ve worked with Bob on has an amazing energy, and Bob knows every thing there is on every track. Sometimes he’s so hands on, it’s intimidating. Other times, he’s nowhere to be found, or just sits quietly. He knows when to change up the energy, and when to let the musicians play. He knows when to work the engineer and when to leave him be. I’ve seen an old film clip where there’s an engineer on the verge of tears in front of an old console with round VU meters slamming to the top. Bob was yelling “@$%$*I told you to turn it up!” I forget exactly which Dylan song that was, but it was one of his big hits. He listens now with the same intense focus. We are making another hit record right now. The musicians know it. They are veteran players working with the old General. If we had to slip Chris’s favorite song past Bob and back on the production list, we had to make him like it first. It’s just a part of the process that has launched so many great albums, a recipe, if you will, that constantly changes and evolves over time. For years I’ve tried to speculate about what Bob would like about this or that, and the pattern is there is no pattern. Bob is like an old trapper in the wilderness that offers his sage advice to pioneers about the best trails to take and which pitfalls to avoid.
You can take his opinion or leave it, he’ll tell you that from the start. “Don’t listen to me.” he’ll tell you. That’s so paradoxical; should you listen to someone telling you not to listen? It reminds me of a sign in my old dentists’ office that read “You don’t have to brush all your teeth”, then in small letters underneath “Just the ones you want to keep.”
The session is pure magic from start to finish. We accomplished our goals for Chris in these two days with these great musicians and more. We came for basic tracks for 8
songs maybe 9 – 10. We left with 12 totally killer tracks.
We can credit a lot of things for that; the quietly amazing work by engineer Doug Tyo and the dream that is the House of Blues Studio. I run a small working studio up in Humboldt. In my dreams I would have the vintage Neve console and the racks of Eqs, limiters, distressor, etc.; (the real ones that weigh about 20 pounds with actual knobs (for you youngsters in the virtual studio). But don’t worry, we’re running Protools with summing back through the Neve. There’s a wonderful selection of mics, as well, a large great-sounding room, an iso-booth and the custom isolated keyboard room with brick floors with one of the finest sounding 9 foot grands I’ve ever played…..that would be my dream.
That would also be the reality that is the HOB studio. We wanted a studio that would be on the level of the musicians and Bob, who are used to and deserving of the best. I hadn’t worked in L.A. in years, so I called an engineer friend of mine, Pride Hutchinson, explained the scenario, and he recommended Gary Belz’s place. From the minute we were greeted by second engineer Andrew Boston when we first pulled up until the very last file was backed up for our trip back, I can’t remember any request that was not handled immediately and professionally by the studio team. Bob’s son, Bobby Johnston was also a valuable asset throughout the whole process, offering a calm assessment at every stage and some good advice. He’s got the genes, and could also help mediate between Bob and the artists with a professional ease.
It was so great to work with Bob again on a big project. When the session is over, I drive him and Bobby back to the Sportman’s Lodge a few blocks away. He’s once again stepped up to the plate, and slammed it out of the park for us like a true legend.
Unfortunately, after that magic day and a pedal steel session at Studio D in Sausalito, Chris didn’t pay me and gave the project to JT who had been telling him something to the effect that he, not me, was the big time guy. I was furious and it took a while to get over it. Getting over it was easy after hearing Chris’s lousy end product. What a fool that guy was (is)! He questioned Bob’s great advice like some egotistical monster.
He never sent a copy, most likely because he didn’t give me the credit I deserved, But since it sounds so glad, that’s probably not a bad thing. He finally paid me the $1200 after 5 years and he thinks he’s a prince. Sadly, after taking him in and knowing what could be done with his album, he decided I was “small time” or something like
that, got hustled by JT and who knows who else, and missed what could have been a great opportunity to have a great album.