Record producer

Born: May 14, 1932.

Died: August 14, 2015.

BOB Johnston, who has died aged 83, helped Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash and many others to deliver some of their best work.

Outside the music business, "record producer" is an oft-misunderstood and under-rated job description. Although he liked to say "I just turned on the tape recorders," Johnston did far more than that; subtly, sometimes without them knowing it, he suggested which tracks they should record, what type of backing and how they could create a particular sound for any given album. To a large extent, he created that sound.

To the yet-to-be initiated, the four words "Is it rolling, Bob?" will mean nothing. To Bob Dylan fans, surely the majority of the world's literate population, they were revolutionary. When Dylan spoke them, he was ostensibly asking his producer behind the studio screen whether the tape was running. But Dylan knew what he was doing, already knew his place in history -- before any of us -- and wanted with a few words to give his producer his own recognition in the future of music and literature. He was already strumming the intro when he said the words.

Johnston would normally have cut them out before Dylan's track To Be Alone With You, on the album Nashville Skyline; but the singer insisted the words be left in. The result was not only recognition for Johnston; the growing tribe of Dylan aficionados had also heard the master's speaking voice for the first time -- a low, baritone, Minnesota drawl, almost the total opposite of the high-pitched "whine" (our parents' word) of the singer's early songs.

The phrase Is it rolling, Bob? has been used in countless rock articles and was the title of a delightful, must-have-for-Dylan-fans reggae tribute album of Dylan songs produced by Dr. Dread and featuring artists including Toots Hibbert and Gregory Isaacs. Dylan himself was seen to produce a rare, admiring smile when he heard the album, for which he had, unusually, freed the copyrights.

Bob Johnston was the man behind the screen on many great albums of the 20th Century, including Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, the breakthrough recordings by Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel, and Johnny Cash's live albums from the Folsom and San Quentin prisons. As a result, Johnston, of Scots-Irish origin, became one of the most influential record producers of the heady 1960s and '70s. He also wrote or co-wrote many songs himself, including several for Elvis Presley, mostly for the largely forgettable "Elvis vehicle" movies, but these songs were credited to Johnston's wife Joy Byers "for contractual reasons." They included It Hurts Me, a 1964 minor hit for the King and co-written by Charlie Daniels.

Dylan and Cohen credited Johnston with forwarding their careers by putting their art before costs, schedules, sales or likely hits, in sharp contrast to most producers of the era. It was Johnston who persuaded a reluctant Dylan to switch from his New York studios to Nashville, Tennessee -- "Music City" -- a move which transformed his music.

Cash said Johnston saved and revitalised his fading career --largely caused by drug abuse -- by hooking him up with Dylan and organising the famous visits to the two Californian state prisons which yielded two classic Cash albums.

In the 1968 album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Cash had the inmates, many of them lifers, yelling and cheering when he sang .... "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Live at San Quentin the following year, he got a similarly rowdy but rapturous reception when he premiered the song A Boy named Sue and for another classic line .... "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you." The guards later admitted that Cash had sole control of the prison at that moment.

In order best to capture their essence in the studio, Johnston tried to get his artists' sound as close to "live" as possible, preferring few takes and little post-production, overdubbing or enhancing. He was perhaps most proud of his Dylan albums, those mentioned above plus John Wesley Harding, New Morning and Self Portrait. Highway 61 Revisited (1965) has often been listed as one of the great rock albums of all time and the track Desolation Row helped establish the singer as one of the finest poets of the 20th Century.

The Canadian singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen had already released his first album in 1967, which was a slow-burner in North America and more popular in Europe, when he met Johnston. The Texan produced his next two albums, first Songs from a Room (1969), including the track Bird on the Wire, with Johnston himself on keyboards. American singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson has said he would want the first lines of Bird on his gravestone: Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. Johnston went on to produce and play piano on Cohen's 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate, which helped make the Canadian a global star.

Johnston also helped boost the careers of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, producing their second album Sounds of Silence (1966) which features the now classic tracks The Sound of Silence and I am a Rock. The album was re-released in 2001 with the previously-excluded "bonus" tracks Barbriallen (the 17th Century Scots folk song Barbara Allen), The Rose of Aberdeen and Roving Gambler.

Donald William Johnston, who later became known as Bob, was born in the small town of Hillsboro, Texas. As it turned out, a boy called Willie Nelson was born only 10 miles away and a year later in the one-street town of Abbott in 1933 and the two Texans would go on to work together as a producer/artist team.

Bob Johnston died in a hospice in Nashville after suffering from a form of dementia. Two of his sons, Andy and Bobby, predeceased him and he is survived by his wife Joy (Byers) and their son Kevin.