A Conversation With... Bob Johnston

I consider it a privilege to receive and document these terrific music industry stories and share them with FYI readers. Every person that appears comes with a varied background, and yet ends up sharing common ground.

Growing up in southern Indiana, it didn’t matter if you were a bespectacled science freak, a garden loving, aspiring botanist, destined for machine shop or cooking class – we all played basketball. It was the playgrounds that flourished. Hell, we were surrounded: University of Louisville Cardinals, Kentucky Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers. Big basketball history – the “Big O” – Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson played for an all-black segregated high school, Crispus Attucks, that whipped ass all over the state and then in an open tournament in 1955 won the state title..

Currently, up the hill from me is a lovely basketball court that still puts a smile in my heart.

This brings me to my long-time friend and avid golfer, Bob Johnston. Bob and I met during my days signed to Capitol Records. He was that guy who said, “we’re playing your record in Montreal.” I was bowled over. Montreal seemed like it was as far away as Paris to me, and as exotic.

Years pass and Bob and I are hanging together at Change Records with Scott Richards, then again during the great “jingle scare”. In one room, players hunkered down, eyes on charts. Down the hallway, I’m squeezing the last seconds of a short break, hyper-talking sports with Johnston.

There are people we’ve had conflicted relationships with in the industry. Then there are those who are smoother than polished glass. Johnston is about as smooth, sharp, congenial and forward-thinking as they come.

Here’s that chat.

Do you ever stop and reflect, and think to yourself, damn – I’ve been in or around radio since the Beatles changed the face of contemporary music?

Often, and man, am I lucky to still be here, and to have survived all the changes through the years. I still love music and still listen to a lot to radio.

How did you become music director at CHOM-FM in Montreal and hang in from 1964 -1969?

First of all, it was CKGM–FM before it became CHOM. I got the job through a guy who owned a few record stores named Steve Place. I started by working as an all-night op playing big bands, jazz, MOR music. It taught me a lot about music. I then moved into the library at CKGM and that's when the fun began.

What were you programming and what was the atmosphere like then?

Top 40 music back then was the Beatles. We broke “Go Now” by the Moody Blues. There were record hops with our top jocks Bob Gillies, George Morris. We brought the Stones to town, put them up at the Seaway Motel on Guy Street and did a concert at Maurice Richard Arena. The opening acts were Jenny Rock and the Esquires from Ottawa.

Hung with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of the Stones when they were in town. Jagger and Brian Jones stayed in the motel. Lots of parties with record guys, both from Toronto and Montreal, some of them not to be discussed, “mmmm”. It truly was the high-point of my young career.

Next up, CFCF as music director and program director. Was the playlist much different from CHOM?

I was hired by CFCF-AM to open a new FM station called CFQR-FM. Dave Boxer was the top 40 jock at the time, so I programmed MOR top 40 on AM from 6-9pm, and FM. CFQR was MOR music and we promoted it through our TV station CFCF with scenes of Montreal and the surrounding areas. The days of James Last, Paul Mauriat, Bert Kaempfert; no announcers, so we appealed to a bi-lingual audience and rose to # 1 the first year.

You went from sales to national promotion director at MCA (now Universal Music) from 1978 to 1983. What bands came to prominence through your field work?

I left CFCF when offered a job from the president of MCA, Richard Bibby at the time, and the record execs from Toronto gave me a boost and said I was the top music director in Montreal.

Scott Richards was the man who brought me to Toronto to take over from him as National Promotion Director and he became president. Scott and I signed Trooper and we got L.A. to sign Lisa Dalbello. We had Elton John, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and country artists like Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn on tour. It was really the highest point in my music career.

Scott Richards passed away in 2003 which was a shock to so many of us as he was so young.  Your thoughts?

Scott and I had so much fun together running MCA Canada with the best field staff anyone could have. Promo guys in BC and Winnipeg like Jack Skelly who knew everyone. Just ask Tim Thorney. When I got news of Scott’s passing it blew me away. He also lost his son to illness.

You found long-term stability working sales and marketing in production houses specializing in radio and television jingles. This was the era of Syd Kessler, Robert Armes, Larry Trudell and Doug Riley. At the time, did you sense upheaval on the horizon? Studios were flourishing, budgets were wide open and musicians were residents of the big recording rooms.

Another big high in my career. This came after Change Records, and I am happy it did because the music industry was changing big time then. I learned a lot running an indie label with Jeff Smith who owned the label and Sounds Interchange.

Working with one of the icons in the jingle business, Syd Kessler and his music director Robert Armes, and composers Tim Tickner and Mark Hukezalie, was amazing. I had the privilege of meeting the best of the best in Toronto; musicians, singers, voiceover actors, and also travelling to the USA to promote our reel. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

What were some of the successful campaigns you worked on?

Blacks Is Photography, Look Who’s Drinking Pepsi Now, Labatt Blue, Hugga Mugga Max(coffee) I Am a CP Railroad Man, Thank You Very Much Milk. There were many more of course.

What was the key to success for you selling a client on an idea?

Simple, a relationship and a great TV and radio reel. It was as easy as dropping a needle on a hit record.

As a young man, how did you find yourself following a path into the world of radio and music?

Music was always in our house and I listened to the radio as a kid. Stations I could pick up in Montreal from NYC. My transistor went to bed with me. 

What were the teenage years like for you – family and school?

Teen years I was really a jock; played hockey, golf, baseball, got drafted by Montreal Canadiens farm team Lachine Maroons and played with guys like Jacque Lemaire, Craig Patrick and a few who were in the Major JR, Quebec league,

What were you tuning into on radio?

Top 40!

Did you have friends who were musicians or connected to the music industry?

Local bands like The Haunted, JB and The Playboys.

What was the first single or LP you purchased?

Chuck Berry’s “School Days"

Did you save a copy of your first paycheck?

I did not. I put it in savings and bought a car with my dad’s help.

Golf talk gets even play with you. Was this a sport you took up early on?

My dad was a golf pro so during summer months I was at the course with him at 6 a.m. washing clubs for members. I played in the afternoon, then practice until dark. Played Jr tournaments in Quebec and father and son tournaments with my dad... It was a blast.

What major tournaments have you attended?

Canadian Opens and a few in the US. I still haven’t made it to the Masters yet. Soon!

Do you have a favourite course to play?

Royal Montreal in Quebec.

I’m thinking Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and you watching their every move. Am I close?

Yes, but guys like Fred Couples were the ones I tried to emulate.

Where do you play today and do you have a posse of golfers as old friends who run the courses with you?

Great question: I play every Friday with musicians and hockey alumni. David Antonacci, composer/producer-writer of commercials like “Marineland, Niagara”, Glenn Goldup who played for Leafs, Canadians and LA Kings, also Mike Krushelnyski who has a few Stanley Cup rings.

What are you currently engaged in and what keeps you inspired and motivated?

I am VP Marketing and sales at Wanted Sound & Picture+Music. We are an audio and post facility in downtown Toronto and doing advertising, music and voice record for Antimatter TV series, feature films, docs etc. We also promote Canadian indie bands and artists.

I am still having the time of my life and hope it last for a while, Bill. Thanks for this my friend. I hope I made it interesting. The book I was interviewed for is all about the radio days in the '60s and '70s in Montreal and comes out in April. Info here 



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