Johnny Paycheck – FitzGerald’s (Berwyn, IL)
From the moment he walked onstage, it was obvious Johnny Paycheck wasn’t feeling well. The veteran performer was short of breath, and he kept lifting his guitar off his chest, looking heavenward, inhaling air before singing a verse. After opening with the hits “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” and “A-11”, Paycheck explained, “My asthma’s acting up real bad, but I don’t give a damn….Sometimes it locks down on me, but I’ll handle it.”
Paycheck struggled throughout the set, repeatedly using an inhaler to aid his breathing. (The bout with asthma was complicated by the bitterly cold temperature in the Chicago area that night.) But his determination allowed him to overcome this physical limitation and deliver a fine show. During “A-11”, for example, his vocals were on the mark as he elongated the vowel sounds, singing, “If you’re gonna play the juuuuukebox, pleeeease don’t play A-11.” And despite his chest pains, Paycheck appeared happy to be performing for the appreciative crowd.
The show included several of the his most famous songs, including “11 Months and 29 Days”, “Apartment #9”, and the anthem that has become synonymous with Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It”. The dark humor of “Colorado Kool-Aid” — a song about a barroom fight that results in a man cutting off a drunk’s ear and then handing it to him — drew lots of laughs. The twangy boogie of “Friend, Lover, Wife” featured some hot licks from guitarist Joe Redo and pedal steel player Jay Andrews.
Paycheck mixed these hits with recent songs such as “I Wish My Mind Would Mind Its Own Business”, “Our Love’s on Fire Again”, and “If You Think You Feel Lonely (You Oughta Be Here with Me)”. The latter sounded like a George Jones honky-tonk staple (which isn’t surprising, given that Paycheck worked in Jones’ backing band and later recorded the album Double Trouble with him).
During his 35-year career, Paycheck has suffered a number of setbacks, including trouble with alcohol and drugs, commercial failures, and a jail sentence for shooting a man during a barroom argument. But he’s currently in the midst of a resurgence. He’ll have a new album out this spring, and last fall the Country Music Foundation released the critically acclaimed compilation The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin’ Years, covering Paycheck’s creative zenith from 1964-1968.
Another boost has come from royalties off of other writers’ recent renditions of his classics. During the concert, the 58-year-old singer joked about “a new segment to our show called ‘The Tracy Paycheck’,” referring to Tracy Byrd’s hit versions of the Paycheck songs “Someone To Give My Love To” and “She’s All I Got”.”
Paycheck admitted he had to rearrange the set list because of the difficulty of singing certain tunes, but the crowd shouted supportive comments in response to his apologies about his poor health. He received enthusiastic applause for his impassioned vocals on “If You Think You Feel Lonely”, and as the noise died down, he quipped, “Not bad for an old man, I’ll tell ya.” The audience agreed.