Johnny Paycheck: 1938 to 2003
Obituary writers remembered Johnny Paycheck, who died February 18 at age 64, as an outlaw. For proof, most cited his 1977 hit version of David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job And Shove It”, for better or worse his signature tune. His peers praised his artistry. Yet in Paycheck’s case, even in death, perception and reality often diverged.
For most of Paycheck’s career, he faced personal demons, business reverses and bad luck that would have derailed lesser beings. It began after a shiftless teen named Donald Lytle, who’d played music since age 6, left his native Ohio and wound up in the Navy where, in 1956, he busted an officer’s skull. Two years in the brig and two escapes later, the Navy surrendered and let him loose on the world.
It didn’t take him long to attract attention in the Nashville of 1958. Buddy Killen signed the 20-year-old to Tree Publishing as a writer; Decca’s Owen Bradley recorded him under the name Donny Young. As his Decca and subsequent Mercury singles fizzled, he learned his craft as a studio harmony singer and sideman with Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and Ray Price, and on and off with George Jones.
Some Paycheck partisans speculate that he influenced Jones’ vocal style. It’s true both emerged from the Hank Williams school, sharing a similar passion for achingly intense phrasing. While some cross-pollination could have occurred, that theory ignores a couple facts. Before he met Paycheck, seeds of Jones’ later style appeared on early Starday 45s such as “Just One More” and the Thumper Jones rockabilly singles. Also, Paycheck’s magnificently flinty, explosive roar of a voice reflects the influence of two other ex-bosses: Faron and Price.
New manager Aubrey Mayhew reinvented Donny Young as Johnny Paycheck in the mid-’60s, appropriating the name from an obscure prizefighter. On Hilltop Records, Paycheck revealed his true potential with his first chart hit, a 1965 cover of Hank Cochran’s honky-tonker “A-11”. He and Mayhew formed Little Darlin’ Records shortly afterward.
In an era when Waylon and Willie were still trying to play the game at RCA and the Nashville Sound’s past ingenuity had given way to formula, Paycheck’s singles stood out like a red hot coal against those graying embers. Only the Bakersfield Tele-twang of Buck, Wynn and Merle equaled that work. As the metallic twang of Lloyd Green’s pedal steel swirled around him, Paycheck proved he had finally found himself.
His first Top-10 hit, “The Lovin’ Machine”, and his tough rendition of Bobby Bare’s “Motel Time” heralded a powerful arrival. His writing talents spoke for themselves on “Apartment #9” and “Touch My Heart”, hits for Bobby Austin and Ray Price, respectively. Paycheck and Mayhew’s subversive audacity extended to the title of his debut album, the studio-recorded Johnny Paycheck At Carnegie Hall.
As for his other singles, a commercial tune such as “Jukebox Charlie” was one thing. But no way would the country radio gatekeepers of that time, fixated on family values, ever touch such dark dramas-in-miniature as “The Late And Great Me”, “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone To Kill”, or “(Like Me) You’ll Recover In Time”, a chilling tale of mental meltdown — much less Larry Kingston’s gripping, post-nuclear war ballad “The Cave”.
Little Darlin’ finally died around 1969 when Paycheck and Mayhew parted ways. Hits notwithstanding, Paycheck scuffled for beer in sleazy Los Angeles joints until Nashville record vet Nick Hunter retrieved him. He stabilized enough to join Epic Records. Though accustomed to calling his own shots in the studio during the Little Darlin’ era, Paycheck was now paired with legendary producer Billy Sherrill, who was in many ways even more controlling than Chet Atkins.
Sherrill nonetheless got quick results. Playing Paycheck’s voice against commercial material such as Freddie North’s 1971 pop hit “She’s All I Got” resulted in a majestic performance; it gave Paycheck a heartening second wind and his second Top-10 single. The snappy “Song And Dance Man” and “Mr. Lovemaker” built on that momentum, and for a time Paycheck attained the wider popularity he’d deserved earlier, only to see it fizzle by the mid-1970s.
It is no small irony that the outlaw era of that decade, which finally made Paycheck a household name, was in some ways the most contrived phase of his career. The outlaw ethos as practiced by Waylon, Willie and Tompall involved total artistic control of recordings. Paycheck’s hirsute, blue-jeaned image notwithstanding, Sherrill called the shots, packaging him as a swaggering Everyman singing testosterone-powered ditties such as “Take This Job And Shove It” and “I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”.
“Take This Job” connected, but again, it didn’t last. Following a couple more Top-10s, “Me And The IRS”, designed to kick-start Paycheck’s proletarian resentment, was only a middling success. His last big hit was an incendiary 1978 duet on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” with George Jones. The Epic years yielded one other masterpiece: the album Mr. Hag Told My Story, a magnificent 1981 homage to his buddy Merle Haggard.
Moving from label to label to label, Paycheck occasionally managed a gem such as his 1985 Mercury recording “Old Violin” as he reverted to the real-life hell-raising he’d sung about at Epic. Substance abuse, bankruptcy, lawsuits, arrests and bona fide IRS woes were all mere appetizers for the Big One: shooting a man in the head during a 1985 Ohio barroom brawl (the victim lived). For that, he spent 1989-91 in prison.
Paycheck did the time and regained his equilibrium. Clean and sober, he resumed performing, now seen as a battle-scarred veteran of a long-past golden era, though some Opry veterans outraged by past transgressions did some sub rosa griping when he joined the show in 1997. Respiratory problems gradually sapped his strength. He managed a final cameo on Daryle Singletary’s 2002 rendition of “Old Violin”.
George Jones donated Paycheck’s final resting place. For decades, conventional wisdom had it that Jones would precede everyone into the void. Things have a way of turning out differently than anyone expects. It wasn’t quite a storybook ending, yet it somehow seems altogether fitting and proper that the two old friends and hell-raisers will rest for all time near each other. It could have been a punchline to a Paycheck original.