Jesus Music forerunner Mike Johnson passed away in his sleep of a heart attack on February 9th in his Nashville home. We labored together on various projects starting in the mid-70s, and I always respected his vision, skill, and hard work in wanting to expand God’s kingdom through creative means. One of his closest friends, Randy Matthews (whom I consider part of the triumvirate that Jesus Music was birthed out of alongside Larry Norman and Andrea Crouch), wrote about Mike this week…
It was 1972 and there was nothing but wide-open road in front of us. It was on this trail that I first met Mike Johnson. We were at a rather primitive Christian rock festival held in a high school gym. Mike was one of the headliners, along with Larry Norman and myself. I was excited about meeting Larry, but even more so about meeting Mike who, in my mind, was THE true father of what we now call Contemporary Christian Music. It was because of his young visionary work with The Exkursions, a missionary band who worked with the Billy Graham Association and at the same time performed on street corners that had captured my imagination. My first impression upon seeing him onstage was, "HEY, he's doing my act!!" But our dreams were the same and we immediately got along. I casually invited him to visit me and my new wife, Barb, in Nashville. The next thing I knew he and his whole family were living in their camper in my back yard. My wife swears he beat us home. From that point on he was a part of my life all these many years.
I, along with Wes Yoder and Bill Grine, had a Christian talent agency called Dharma Productions. We started booking dates for Mike, and he and I also did road shows together. We started writing special songs as a duo. We then brought in Danny Taylor and recorded Matthews, Taylor and Johnson. The three of us toured for some time then Mike signed with New Pax Records and we all went back to doing solo gigs. Mike was also a great record producer. He helped countless artists with their projects and as long as I knew him he never stopped recording custom albums of his own work. I know this for sure because I have one whole corner in my garage stacked full of everything from two inch master tapes to 8 tracks to cassettes to CD's all titled "Mike Johnson."
We were friends; we were rivals. We loved each other; we fought each other. We struggled endlessly to make Christians accept rock music and for non Christians to accept Christ. We were at the top together, we were at the bottom together. Our separate roads home intertwined in so many ways.
Of all of Mike's accomplishments I am certain it was his work with Compassion International that he would be most proud of. He pioneered a new way for a Christian artist to communicate the plight of third world children...a way that has seen great success over the years, saving thousands and thousands of children's lives and touching the hearts of artists who, to this day, continue to communicate the heart of Compassion in concerts around the globe.
I'm fortunate in that all my life I have been surrounded by people who were far more talented than myself. Mike was truly one of the most talented and inspirational of them all. I don't know if he realized just how deeply he touched so many. I’m not sure how many songs he wrote…hundreds that I know of…but I do know he was the most prolific writer I've ever known. And it was my great opportunity and experience to co-write with him for almost forty years.
He would always make me laugh by telling me the latest joke he just heard and, like his songs, he had tons of hilarious tales. He was, without a doubt, the funniest guy I ever met. We were the best of friends. So, when I think of Mike Johnson I hear music and laughter and remember a spirit that never, ever gave up. He was a true Christian man and we'll never replace him. Nor would we try. Thank you for everything Mike!