He had a mellifluous voice and classically trained guitar skills that were seldom heard. But Michael Johnson’s voice was heard around the world on such hits as “Bluer Than Blue” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder.”
The singer, who launched his hit career in the Twin Cities in the 1970s and relocated here several years ago, died Tuesday in his Minneapolis condo after a long illness. He was 72.
Johnson canceled his June 16 concert at the 318 Cafe in Excelsior due to illness, his website said. His itinerary included a handful of gigs stretching into November.
“How cool is that, that you’re still doing it [performing] within weeks of your passing,” said Minnesota singer Michael Monroe, who idolized and befriended Johnson.
Johnson had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2007. 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 Johnson when he died.
“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.’ ”
Originally from Colorado, Johnson settled in the Twin Cities in 1969 after a stint in the Chad Mitchell Trio with John Denver. Johnson landed a contract with a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, which listed as his name as “Michael Jackson” on the recording contract. Nonetheless, he eventually struck gold with “Bluer Than Blue,” a sad ballad that went to No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts and No. 12 on the pop charts in 1978. He enjoyed several other middle-of-the-road hits, including “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Night Won’t Last Forever.”
His pop success didn’t last forever. So Johnson headed to Nashville in 1985. He twice landed at No. 1 on the country singles charts (“Give Me Wings,” “The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder”), but he eventually stopped recording and simply made his living on the same road circuit he’d traveled in his folk-pop days.
Johnson had a long-standing tradition of singing in the Twin Cities on the day after Christmas — for many years at Orchestra Hall and more recently at the Dakota Jazz Club.
In the mid-1960s, Johnson studied classical guitar in Spain. But he seldom showcased those skills during his pop and country career. However, music aficionados appreciated his instrumental gifts.
“With that nylon-string guitar in a world of steel-string guitars, he created an entire band behind him,” said guitarist Monroe, who hosted Johnson for several recent New Year’s Eve shows in Grand Marais, Minn. “His guitar playing was intricate, precise and harmonic.”
Monroe also admired Johnson as a song interpreter and humorist. He mentioned a parody of the hit “Blue Bayou” that Johnson often performed that talked about a wind-swept toupee that “blew by you.” Johnson once sang it for Linda Ronstadt, who’d had a hit version of the song. Said Monroe: “Michael said she didn’t appreciate it.”
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.
Survivors include his daughter and two sons, Leo and Stan, and grandchildren. A celebration of life is pending.