Nashville Songwriter Series: Robert White Johnson
Many professional songwriters live and die by their songs, with few other options when it comes to their abilities to survive in the music business. One writer who broke that mold a long time ago, though, is Robert White Johnson.
Johnson, who came up playing drums and singing for a living around his native Moline, IL, moved to Nashville in the late 1970s at the behest of the late country singer Dottie West, who wanted to play a role in Johnson’s development as a pop artist. When Johnson got to town, though, he ended up on West’s back burner as other things in her life took priority, and he found himself painting houses until he secured a staff writing contract with Tree Publishing. While still working as a staff writer, he became the frontman for Los Angeles-based rock group RPM, which was signed to both EMI and Warner Brothers. After the band folded, he concentrated on staff writing before striking out on his own in the mid-‘90s. Johnson has had more than 200 cuts with such artists as the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, the J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf, B.J. Thomas, and various projects of the Van Zant brothers (Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special and Van Zant). Probably his biggest hit to date though, which seems to surface every couple years on a release somewhere in the world, is Celine Dion’s “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” his 1990 co-write with Taylor Rhodes. In addition, Johnson is a respected writer in the Christian community, with dozens of Christian cuts to his credit.
Here’s where the career variety comes in. In addition to his writing success, Johnson has produced numerous successful Christian acts, including Larnelle Harris, with whom he won a Dove award for his producer’s role on Harris’ Unbelievable Love, named Inspirational Album of the Year in 1996. He has also been in demand as a backup vocalist, recording with the likes of Faith Hill, Michael Bolton, Mutt Lange, and mega-producer Dann Huff during the days of Huff’s band Giant. And remember the “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” Almond Joy jingle? That’s Johnson singing that jingle, as well as dozens of others. The thought of a former rock star singing jingles may not compute for some, but Johnson has always had the mindset of a professional musician who takes work where he finds it.
Today, Johnson operates his own publishing company, RadioQuest Publishing, handling much of his own catalog and the catalogs of other artists as well, while still singing, writing, and working on development and production with Christian and secular acts alike. American Songwriter caught up with him during a break between sessions at his suburban Nashville home studio.
You’ve been around a while in different markets, and have managed to use your great sense of melody and vocal skills to cross over from one genre to another, from hard rock to Gospel. Where do you find the common ground to not only compose music that can move across the spectrum like that, but to work with the diverse personalities involved?
For me, a great song is a great song! Once you have a timeless melody and a unique lyrical concept, the rest is fairly simple. A song should always stand on its own with a simple guitar/keyboard and vocal no matter the genre. I also prefer to take the time to get to know the artist, to find out how they’re wired, what they want to say and how they want to say it. Having been an artist gives me a leg up not only from a writing aspect, but also from a production perspective. Wasting time is wasting energy, so before I even start working seriously on a song or a project, I make sure I have my ducks in a row. You can spend a lot of time, money and energy working on things that aren’t relevant. In the end, it’s all about preparation.
You came up during a time when some of the great legendary record executives, like Ahmet Ertegun, may have played more of a role in song selection than they do today. How did that affect what you wrote for albums like, for instance, Johnny Van Zant’s Brickyard Road CD, or did it?
It played a much bigger role. People like Ahmet Ertegun weren’t interested in whether they had the publishing or not before they decided on a song. It was the last thing on their mind. Johnny’s case was a perfect example. Ahmet heard an 8-track demo we did of “Brickyard Road” and went crazy over it. Matter of fact, I had to negotiate with him to let us re-cut it for the record. He was completely sold on the 8-track demo because the spirit and feel were there. The situation increased my respect for the man because he went by gut instinct, and had probably seen too many great songs get ruined by producers trying to justify themselves. In the end, we did re-cut it here in town with Ahmet’s final approval, and Dann Huff and Tim Pierce played guitar solos that raised the hair on everyone’s neck, first take solos by the way. Johnny’s vocal practically brought everyone to tears so we knew we had accomplished our goal. I later realized that Ahmet may have also been drawn to the song because “Brickyard Road” is a tribute to Johnny’s late brother Ronnie, and Ahmet was extremely close to his own brother [Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun, who died in 1989]. Back then, music executives like Ahmet and Clive Davis spent their creative lives matching great songs with great artists. They followed their heart and gut instincts first. The money and success followed because of their vision and passion.
Speaking of the Van Zants, I know you’ve worked pretty closely with them for many years, as well as with some other acts that the more pious among us might consider pretty secular. Have you ever had to defend your work in both the secular and Christian markets to someone who wanted to play devil’s advocate?
Thankfully, I’ve never had to. I’ve been blessed to have worked with a great group of artists over the years. In addition, I found the Christian artists I worked with were interested and curious to hear about the secular projects I worked on and vice versa. Matter of fact, one time when I was working on a project of Johnny and Donnie’s, Christian artist Al Denson called to check in. He was appearing in town at Brentwood High School doing an assembly. Al had heard me speak about the Van Zants over the years while producing his projects, and immediately said, “Hey, do you think the guys would be willing to stop by and talk to the kids for a while today?” I asked Johnny and Donnie, and before I knew it, we were on our way to Brentwood! When we all arrived, Al met with the guys for few minutes. His band then went into the opening guitar riff of “Sweet Home Alabama” and the place went nuts! Johnny and Donnie are both believers and shared some amazing stories of their own that had a profound effect on those high school kids. The afternoon proved to be one of the most memorable in my life, and was hopefully that way for many others as well.
You started RadioQuest in the mid-‘90s, ostensibly to control the fate of your own royalty money. Was it more difficult to start and efficiently operate a publishing company than you thought it would be?
It was actually easier than I imagined. From the outside, it may seem very foreign and overwhelming, but the Internet has made things much easier in the way of research and downloading the necessary forms etc. Plus, BMI has always been very helpful in many ways. Thomas Cain, the director of writer relations in Nashville, has been a great friend and adviser for a very long time. I was also fortunate to have written for some great publishing companies in town, including Warner/Chappell, Sony/Tree/ATV and Dick James. But in starting RadioQuest, it gave me a new sense of purpose and energy. It also, of course, allowed me to control more of my own destiny, and the ability to personally follow up on everything. Major publishers can be good in many ways, but most are simply overwhelmed by the pure number of writers and catalogs they have to work and administrate. Consequently, things can fall through the cracks. Not so when you’re doing it yourself and seeing everything firsthand.
I know that, as both a writer and a publisher, you’ve had to deal with a name artist recording your material and you didn’t even know about it. How do you go about fighting for your mechanicals when you find out that has happened?
A few times a year now I take the time to do an extensive search via Google by typing in my name, RadioQuest, or even some of my song titles that I know that have generated a lot of activity. It’s amazing what I’ve found over the years. There are a lot more independent CD projects being produced and released these days. Most do the right thing by contacting us through our website or through BMI’s search engine. However, there always seems to be a few who try to see what they can get away with. To be fair, a few times it’s been an oversight by some companies. So many catalogs and companies have been bought and sold so many times over the years, the paperwork can get very fuzzy. I’m working on a situation right now where a major artist recorded one of my songs for a Christmas CD without getting a license and who also changed a few lyrics without obtaining permission. Should be interesting.
I do everything I can first to resolve things by contacting the parties involved directly, and my co-writers of course, to give them a heads up. Attorneys are a last resort for me. If you end up hitting a brick wall after phone calls and a couple of letters, there may not be any choice, but calling an attorney on the front end can eat up most of the money you’re owed in no time. To this day, as far as I know, I’ve not had one instance where someone’s refused to sign a license or pay what mechanicals are owed after being made aware.
Nashville was a different place when you pulled into town over 30 years ago. If you were to offer any advice to somebody coming to Nashville today, what would you tell them to focus on in their first 90 days in Music City?
Prepare yourself for the long haul, both emotionally and financially speaking. There have been too many times where I’ve seen talented people come to town with unrealistic expectations, and get discouraged way too soon. When I got my first writing deal in 1980 this town was buzzing with amazing songwriters, music publishers and money. Not only was it realistic at the time to get a monthly advance from a publisher if you had any activity or cuts going on, you could have also received an advance from BMI or ASCAP. Those days for the most part are gone, and publishing contracts now have many more pitfalls and/or requirements of songwriters to fulfill.
I believe the single best piece of advice I could give anyone, whether they desire to be a writer or an artist, is to make sure they spend the time and energy necessary to make a great first impression. The motto that “there’s only one first impression” has served me extremely well over the years. Study great songs, then study them some more. Be brutally honest with yourself, and try and focus on ideas and songs that are unique and that emotionally move people. It takes longer to polish an average song than it does a potential hit. With an average song, you’re constantly trying to make something out of nothing.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, who would you want to have cut one of your songs first?
That’s easy. As far as current artists, it would be Alison Krauss. If we’re talking any artist from any era, it would be either Sinatra or Elvis in their prime.