A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct 9513 weblog. Because the series in which it appeared was titled ‘Forgotten Artists’, I referred to the subject of the article as either Donald Lytle (his real name) or Donnie Young (his original sobriquet) so that I could get into his background without giving away his more famous sobriquet, that of Johnny Paycheck. Thanks to one monster song, “Take This Job And Shove It”, Johnny Paycheck’s name will be remembered for a long time; however, that song was hardly typical of the artistry of Johnny Paycheck. For this article we will refer to him as Johnny Paycheck.
Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Johnny Paycheck (May 31, 1938-February 19, 2003). Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, but not as much talent at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Johnny Paycheck was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night”, It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Paycheck, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.
He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Johnny Paycheck rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer. Paycheck was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig. Released after approximately three years, Johnny headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.
Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Paycheck fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities – and his unique vocals – came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Johnny’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency. Difficulties with the likes of Faron Young and George Jones, both notorious carousers, were destined to occur.
Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Paycheck/Young´s first single, “On This Mountain Top” was billed as a duet with another restless soul – Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). The single gave Johnny his first chart success as the single reached #31 on Cashbox´s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Paycheck was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones´ vocals, and listening to Jones´ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Johnny Paycheck’s influence will forever be subject to debate.
In 1964, the Beatles´ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event – the convergence of the vocal stylings of Johnny Paycheck with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer.
Mayhew and/or Paycheck renamed the heretofore Donnie Young as Johnny Paycheck, after one of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis’s Bum of the Month Club of opponents during the 1940s. This name change would remain in use (with minor variations) for the remainder of Johnny’s career. Aubrey Mayhew´s vision for Paycheck’s music was a complete 180 degree change from the bland product, overrun with orchestral strings and choral backgrounds while lacking fiddle and steel guitar, being churned out by Nashville. Mayhew´s vision for Johnny Paycheck was that of a rebellious honky-tonker with movie star good looks and a a taste for bizarre, sometimes humorous and/or violent songs that tempered their serious nature with upbeat instrumentation. The first Mayhew-produced recordings were issued on the Hilltop label. While 1964’s “I´d Rather Be Your Fool” failed to chart, a subsequent single, “A-11”, exploded onto the market, reaching #26 Billboard/#17 Cashbox–it would have done much better with a major label behind it. The song, a Hank Cochran composition, had appeared on the Buck Owens album Together Again/My Heart Skips A Beat and Mayhew recorded the song at Johnny’s insistence. It may be the only time another artist bested Buck on a song they both recorded.
Buoyed by the success of “A-11” and its follow up “Heartbreak Tennessee”* (which reached #40), in 1966 Mayhew and Paycheck established a record label to handle subsequent recordings, giving it the name Little Darlin´. While Little Darlin´ would never be a big moneymaker, the world of country music owes it a huge debt of gratitude for the terrific sides that the Dynamic Duo recorded over the course of the next four years. In setting a signature sound for Paycheck, Mayhew enlisted a cadre of musicians, most notably steel guitar wizard Lloyd Green, whose high piercing sound set Johnny’s sound apart from anything Nashville (or Bakersfield) was producing at the time.
Not only did a stream of exciting singles flow from Little Darlin´, such as “The Lovin’ Machine” (#8 Billboard/#6 Cashbox), “Motel Time Again” (#13), “Jukebox Charlie” (#15), “The Cave” (#32; a tale of nuclear apocalypse, “(It Won’t Be Long) And I’ll Be Hating You” (#59) and “Don’t Monkey with Another Monkey´s Monkey” (#41), but the albums were filled with some of the most extreme country music ever recorded. I´m not sure that even today many artists would have the courage to record songs such as “(Excuse Me) I Have Someone To Kill Tonight”, “Don´t You Say Nothing At All” and “There´s No Easy Way To Die”. Moreover, Paycheck continued to flex his muscles as a songwriter, co-writing “Apartment #9”, which co-writer Bobby Austin turned into a hit. Austin´s recording was quickly covered by Tammy Wynette for her first hit recording (I still think Paycheck’s version tops all the others).
There´s an old saying that ‘The honky-tonk life kills off the honky-tonk singers’, In Johnny Paycheck’s case, that almost proved to be true as the twin demons of alcohol and drug abuse brought his career to a halt. Little Darlin´ shut down operations in 1970. While he was drying out, the country music genre was undergoing some changes. Bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Byrds, Poco and Pure Prairie League were adding country sounds to their forms of rock music. Meanwhile, former rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were experiencing success on country radio. Hoping to capitalize on the new energy affecting country music, CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter tracked Paycheck down (there are stories of him sleeping under freeway bridges and on park benches). Hunter brought Paycheck to the attention of producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records and recorded him as a straight-ahead country balladeer. Success came immediately.
Starting in late 1971 “She’s All I Got” (#2 Billboard/#1 Cashbox) followed in quick succession by 1972´s “Someone to Give My Love To” (#4 Billboard/#2 Cashbox/#1 Record World), “Love Is A Good Thing” (#12) and “Somebody Loves Me” (#21). In 1973, he hit with “Mr. Lovemaker” (#2) and “Song and Dance Man” (#8). Along the way he also had a hit duet with fellow Epic recording artist Jody Miller on the old gospel classic “Let’s All Go Down to The River”, a song that topped many local charts (Johnny had previously recorded a gospel album for Little Darlin´).
By 1974, Johnny’s career was beginning to lose steam again, so he reinvented himself again, this time as an ‘Outlaw Country’ singer. Indeed, it can be said that he was the first ‘Outlaw’, dating back to his recordings on Little Darlin´. The rest of the story is pretty well known. Sherrill recast Paycheck´s sound to be similar to the that sported by Waylon and Willie, Tompall Glaser and David Allan Coe, and spun off another string of hits including “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (#7), “I´m The Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” (#6), and the David Allan Coe-penned “Take This Job And Shove It” (#1). The string of hits continued through the early eighties with ever-decreasing success. Paycheck left Epic in 1982 and only two other major hits were to follow, 1983´s “I Never Got Over You” (#30) on AMI, a record which with a major label behind it would have been a Top 10 hit, and the exquisite “Old Violin” (#21) on Mercury in 1986.
Paycheck had spent the early 1980s in and out of legal trouble. On December 19, 1985, he was involved in a barroom brawl at the Highland Lounge in Hillsboro, Ohio, that ended with him shooting and injuring his opponent. He was arrested for aggravated assault and spent the next four years appealing the sentence while he recorded for Mercury Records. He spent 22 months in prison and was pardoned by the then-Governor of Ohio, Richard Celeste.
Johnny Paycheck resumed recording after his release from prison recording for Playback Records while keeping himself clean with the aid of old friends like George Jones and the well wishes of his many fans. Unfortunately, the hard living world of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol finally caught up with him and he died of emphysema and other complications in 2003. His last recording was as a duet partner on Daryle Singletary´s remake of “Old Violin”, a fitting end as the song chronicles Paycheck´s own demise as a performer:
Well I can´t recall
One time in my life
That I felt as lonely
As I do tonight
Tonight I feel
Like an old violin
Soon to be put away
And never played again
Needless to say, all of Johnny Paycheck´s vinyl output is out of print. Personally, I feel that the Hilltop & Little Darlin´ recordings represent the absolute zenith of his career, followed by the Epic sides before 1976. That´s not to say that nothing after that is worth having – quite the contrary, every album has its merits. The early Epic albums are consistently good efforts.
The early stages of Johnny Paycheck´s career are well represented on compact disc. All 29 of the tunes he recorded under the name Donnie Young are available on a Bear Family CD titled Shakin´ The Blues. While the Johnny Paycheck style is not yet fully developed, the vocals are still distinctive. The songs are a mixture of covers and originals. These recordings originally appeared on the Decca and Mercury labels.
The genius of the Mayhew/Paycheck pairing is available on four CDs. Koch has issued two CDs of his secular material On His Way and The Beginning. These two CDs collectively contain 30 tracks with minimal overlap with the excellent Country Music Foundation release titled The Real Mr. Heartache – The Little Darlin´ Years. The CMF release has 24 tracks. Recently, the Omni label has issued Nowhere To Run, a 29 track collection that has many songs not found on the other collections.
Koch also issued The Gospel Truth containing the 20 Paycheck gospel recordings produced by Aubrey Mayhew. I think if you purchased all five of these CDs (most of which are available from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop) you would have nearly all of the Paycheck-Mayhew collaborations.
The Epic years are not nearly as well represented on CD. Sony/Legacy has a 23 track CD set titled The Soul & The Edge which covers the ‘Outlaw’ years fairly well, but really skimps on the early ‘Mr. Lovemaker’ years. Sony/Legacy did license the Mercury track of “Old Violin” making this the only set to contain the original hit recording of the song. To help cover the earlier Epic years you’ll need a set such as Super Hits or 16 Biggest Hits, and even then you´ll be missing some key songs. It would be wonderful if Sony Legacy were to put out a boxed set of Paycheck’s Epic recordings.
At various times, labels such as Raven have licensed some individual Epic albums, either as two-fers or stand-alones. Paycheck toured with Merle Haggard during the early ´80s and in 1980 Paycheck recorded the excellent Mr. Hag Told My Story which features Haggard on some of the tracks. Be on the lookout for this CD – it’s a definite keeper. I only wish Paycheck had gotten around to recording some more Haggard songs.
Paycheck also recorded for a number of independent labels after his peak days were over. Many of these recordings are remakes of earlier hits, but be on the lookout for I´m A Survivor, which was originally released in 1984-1985 for AMI. This collection has been reissued on several labels and features the title track and “I Never Got Over You” which is one of the best tracks he ever recorded, as well as the rest of the AMI tracks. The remakes, available on labels such as Double Play, Dominion, Deluxe, Hollywood and various other labels are not necessarily bad, and in some instances it may be the only way you’ll find some songs – just know what you are buying and only buy if the price is right.
Unfortunately the 1986 Mercury recordings have never been released on CD. There is a Live In Branson set which was released in 1993 by Laser Light. It´s nothing special (although at the time it was released it was the only Paycheck available, so I suppose it was something special after all) but it does show Paycheck in a live setting.
Currently the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available various Little Darlin’ collections, plus some Epic hit collections and the following two-fer CDs of Epic material:
Someone To Give My Love To (1972) / Somebody Loves Me (1972) – Hux 117
11 Months & 29 Days (1976) /Slide Off Your Satin Sheets (1977) – Raven 222
Take This Job And Shove It (1977) / Armed And Crazy (1978) – Raven 225
The Hux offering is two albums of pre-outlaw era Epic material (no bonus tracks) whereas the Raven CDs are each two CDs from Johnny’s outlaw period. The earlier collection features five bonus tracks from Johnny’s 1981 Mr. Hag Told My Story album and the later collection has five more songs from Mr. Hag Told My Story.