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Arts & Life

Michael Johnson Still Going Strong

MJ1.jpg
Courtesy Michael Johnson
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As the world continues to jettison into the 21st century, we become more and more focused on “the next big thing”- whether it’s the newest technological development, the latest trends in fashion or the hippest pop-star.

Today we visit with an American troubadour whose “pop star” status came and went 30 years ago – but the musical entertainer is still going strong.

I say Michael Johnson and you think…Olympic gold medalist. And you’d be right. But the Michael Johnson I’m talking about is a singer, songwriter and guitarist who’s best known for songs like “This Night Won’t Last Forever”.

This night may not last forever, but Michael Johnson’s career seems to be on that path – having just released his 21st album – “Moonlit Deja Vu”.

I caught up with Michael during his recent visit to the Black Hills for the South Dakota Acoustic Christmas tour. Accepting his invitation to a “cup of Joe”, we talked about his roots.

“I was born in a little town in southern Colorado…Alamosa, Colorado,” Michael says. “Grew up in Denver…city kid. Went to North High and Holy Family High. Got kicked out of Holy Family High. I was a good Catholic, I was just not a good boy. It’s possible to be one and not the other.”

Michael recalls how his father was always singing Hank Williams songs. His mother played piano.

“She could play 12th Street Rag like nobody’s business,” Michael explains. “And we used to all stand around the piano and harmonize and sing.”

But it was an elementary school football injury that led Michael toward the guitar.

“Broke a rib…caught pneumonia,” says Michael. “And I was in an oxygen tent in the living room of our home. And my brother got hit by a car and he had a broken leg, and he was in a bed. And dad just went out and got us a guitar…model airplanes were a drag. So, we started teaching one another guitar…making mistakes that…we had to unlearn an awful lot of stuff. But by the time I was well, I guess I had my hand in enough to where I just didn’t quit. And I never did quit after that.”

With his interest in guitar cemented and inspired by rock-n-roller Bobby Vee, Michael Johnson enrolled in Colorado State University to study music. His educational road was cut short when he won an international song contest.

“First prize was a tape recorder that didn’t work and a two week engagement in a Chicago coffee house,” remembers Michael. “They didn’t tell me that they weren’t going to pay me…it was just my honor to play there. And a record contract. Sold twenty-three copies. I’ve got a check for fourteen cents on my wall. That was breaking into the record biz for me and I thought…well, I’m in now”.

And in he was. Over the next years, Michael studied guitar in Barcelona, toured with The Chad Mitchell Trio alongside John Denver in his pre-Rocky Mountain High days and briefly switched gears to act Off-Broadway.

Then he went out on his own.

Seven years and four albums later, Michael finally hit the top of the pop charts with “Bluer Than Blue” and stayed there for a couple of years, until...

“I was informed by a manager that the label was not picking up the option,” chuckles Michael. “And he goes, ‘Now, young man…’ And I knew right away, just from the ‘young man’. He said, ‘I want you to know that your horizons are limitless.’ And then he said, ‘But everything’s gonna’ be fine and let’s you and I stay in touch. There’s not really that much to manage right now. So, we’ll just call this a hiatus.”

Michael says he got over being in the limelight pretty quickly. He segued to the country genre, where he scored several hits before settling into the groove he’s been in ever since.

“I just love doing small ensemble records,” Michael says. “I think that’s where it’s at. In a way it’s like full-circle for me.”

And Michael Johnson is quite happy that he’s back where he began doing what he loves most – making music. As for advice to others…

“I think wanting to do it is more than the lion’s share of the whole package,” Michael observes. “I do workshops and I talk with kids. Somebody will say, ‘Do you think I have it, or should I go back to dental school?’…or whatever. And I always say, ‘Well, if you think you have a choice, maybe you should go the other direction.”

Michael Johnson says most people who pursue musical careers do so against other people’s judgment because they really, really want to. He admits that there is relentless competition in the field, but likes to remind those just starting out that there’s always room at the top.

For more info on Michael Johnson go to: http://www.mjblue.com/