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. Read more of this post