Our June Spotlight Artist is perhaps the most interesting artist we’ve featured in terms of personality and the ability to reinvent himself.
Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck, Johnny PayCheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck (5/31/1938 – 2/19/2003) was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist and songwriter, 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, serving a not too successful hitch in the US Navy and eventually winding up in Nashville where he obtained work as a sideman in the bands of several prominent Nashville stars such as Ray Price, Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and George Jones. He also appeared as a harmony vocalist on numerous recordings.
Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young. 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 prove to be a false start.
Our story will begin with the classic recordings that Johnny recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ label (1966–1969) and carry us through his recordings with Epic Records. The Little Darlin’recordings will reveal some of the archest hard-core honky-tonk recordings ever made, recordings (mostly featuring Lloyd Green on steel guitar) with a taste for bizarre, sometimes humorous and/or violent songs that tempered their serious nature with upbeat instrumentation.
The Epic years will reveal two more sides of Johnny. The early Epic years (1971–1975), sometimes called the “Mr. Love Maker” years after an early 1970s hit, will find Johnny cast as a romantic balladeer complete with the ubiquitous “country cocktails” trappings of producer Billy Sherrill. The later Epic years (1976–1982) will find Johnny reinvented as an “outlaw” with songs such as “(Stay Away From) The Cocaine Train”, “Colorado Kool-Aid” and “Take This Job and Shove It”.
Throughout this entire period, Johnny Paycheck remained an outstanding and distinctive vocalist, fearless in his choice of material and basically unique in his approach to his music.
In writing about Don Williams last month I wrote: ”So kick back and enjoy our overview of May Spotlight artist Don Williams”. There is nothing laidback about our June spotlight artist, it’s hold onto your hats – here comes Hurricane Johnny.
Johnny’s only child recently set up this useful website.