Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Michael Johnson, “Give Me Wings”

“Give Me Wings”

Michael Johnson

Written by Kye Fleming and Don Schlitz

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

November 28, 1986


#1 (1 week)

January 10, 1987

The latest faded soft rock star lands in Nashville.

Michael Johnson was moderately successful in the pop and AC market in the seventies.  A well-trained musician from Denver, he collaborated with John Denver early in his career before releasing a series of solo pop albums in the seventies and early eighties.  Two classic hits emerged from this era – “Bluer Than Blue” and “This Night Won’t Last Forever.”

After his brief time on pop and AC radio ended, he teamed up with Brent Maher for his first country album, Wings.  After a top twenty lead single, he scored two No. 1 country hits from the project, his only singles to reach the top during his time as a country artist.

The second was written by Hugh Prestwood and is hopefully a better record than the first.  “Give Me Wings” is just the worst kind of wimpy seventies AM ballad, where the assumption is that if you sing something like it has meaning, it’s somehow magically transformed from a meandering and dishwater dull composition into something that has real emotional impact.

The song isn’t too great to begin with, but Johnson fumbles it so badly that it’s beyond redemption.  It is ludicrous to imagine that this milquetoast singer is a controlling man who is keeping a woman from spreading her wings. It’s about as believable as Hunter Hayes covering Johnny Cash and singing, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

I’ll give it a slight boost for some pretty instrumentation, but that’s all I can do with this one.

“Give Me Wings” gets a D.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. The other one was ”The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder,” and as I recall, it was a better song, although I am not particularly interested in going back and listening. This one wasn’t terrible, although I’m not particularly interested in ever hearing it again either.

    I went and Googled this album and come to find out that for it he also recorded ”It’s Only Over For You” and ”That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” I’m guessing the more famous versions of those were better as well. (Pretty sure I don’t need to tell any regular readers of this site who recorded the more famous versions.)

  2. I suspect it may be a case of either “all politcs is local” or “the endowment effect,” but Michael Johnson was an adoptive son of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

    Born in Colorado, Johnson claimed Minneapolis as his adoptive home since 1971, and he lived there up until his death in 2017.

    He frequently played intimate shows in local coffee houses and listening rooms. These venues suited his folk inclination and soft pop-rock sonic sensibility.

    The musical company Johnson kept throughout his career suggests he was legitimately invested in the sound heard on “Give Me Wings.” He came by his quiet and gentle aesthetic honestly. His music was comforting.

    To my ears, Johnson slotted in nicely in the quiet and cozy corner of country music with artists like Don Williams, Kathy Mattea, and later day Mary Chapin Carpenter.

    He dueted with Sylvia in 1985 on her final top ten single “I Love You By Heart.” In the same year, Johnson was the first artist to record the Keith Whitley penned country Christmas standard “There’s a New Kid in Town.”

    On his second RCA album “That’s That, ” he partnered with Juice Newton.

    Tanya Tucker and Holly Dunn would cover his work.

    Alison Krauss was a frequent promoter of Johnson’s music and musicianship in interviews.

    His own compositions were recorded by guitarist virtuosos Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke.

    Back to this chart topper, I liked it enough to purchase the “Wings” album despite there being a fair bit of national negativity about how effete and lame the music was compared to what was happening with the young kids’ return to traditional and familiar country forms.

    I heard a lovely song about trust and freedom, and not having to fear either. The song didn’t need a bad guy.

    In case anyone reading this believes gatekeeping is a new phenomenon, Johnson certainly had his distractors from within the country music industry back in 1986. He was viewed as an urbane sophisticate, an interloper and a coat-tail rider.

    I mean, he was a European trained classical guitarist. How country is that?

    Yet, the album was a quiet joy to listen to. Maher provided material from Kent Robbins, Mike Reid, Jaime O’Hara, Gary Nicholson, Dennis Linde, and Hugh Prestwood. There was a gentleness and humility to his work. It was an album you listened to to relax at the end of day. It was not a loud album proclaiming country music’s return to form or establishing its rural bona fides in either sound or appearance.

    It was unapologetically soft, adult contemporary folk country done respectfully.

    He never pretended to be something he was not. He did not measure himself by trends or other people’s expectations.

    To this day, I consider “Wings” one of the most unexpected delights of the late eighties.

    It is country in the most round-about of ways, but it works beautifully. “Ponies” and “True Love” are two of my favourites.

    I wonder if Johnson may have been better received had he landed in the middle of the decade as opposed to the more rugged back-to-its roots end of the ’80s.

  3. Michael Johnson has definitely got to be one of the most forgotten hit makers from this time frame. Maybe throw in Billy Joe Royal as well. While I can’t say I like this song but I do enjoy “That’s That” and “The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder” but it’s Hugh Prestwood so that makes send. Hugh was a great writer and the album by Rumer really emphasis this. I love her versions of “That’s That”, “Oklahoma Stray”, “Ghost in this House”, “The Song Remembers When” and my personal favorite hidden gem “There You Are” which blows my mind that noone has made that a hit. Trisha Yearwood would absolutely be perfect for that song.

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