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By Shaun Mather -

Johnny Paycheck is one of those unlucky buggers who is remembered for all the wrong reasons. Despite having one of the truly great voices in honky-tonk music, all tributes to him start by mentioning his big hit "Take This Job And Shove It" (nowhere near his best work) and the time he spent incarcerated for shooting a man in a bar room shoot-out. See what I mean - I've just done it. Never likely to be accepted by the Nashville establishment because of his hot rebellious streak, he nevertheless is one of the genres truly great singers. He was always a bad boy, not the type you'd take home to your mamma - if she liked country music you'd let him sing to her over the phone, but you wouldn't take him over the front door step and run the risk of spoiling a Thanksgiving weekend.

Even as a youngster growing up in the small Ohio town of Greenfield, Donald Lytle was always a bit restless and from an early age was riding the railroads, drifting from state to state, singing in all the seedy bars along the way. He joined the Navy in his late teens but the only water he was in was hot water once he'd bashed the brains out of a superior officer. He was convicted of court martial and spent the next two years in the brig, despite a couple of break-outs.

Upon his release he hitch-hiked to Nashville, hell bent on making a living as a country singer. At this time Nashville was a hard drinking town, with a circle of incredible songwriters who spent many a drunken hour on the Lower Broadway bar stools, searching the bottom of their glasses for inspiration. It didn't take him long to settle into that scene and before long was working in the bands of Porter Wagoner and Faron Young. He also played a bit in Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys, and wrote for Tree Publishing, including a hit for Price with Touch My Heart and Apartment No.9 for Tammy Wynette. He came to the attention of Buddy Killen at Decca Records who had him cut a few unsuccessful rockabilly songs for the label under the name Donny Young.

In 1960 he became the bass player for George Jones, the start of a lifetime friendship. There is debate as to who arrived at their distinct vocal style first. I don't know when Johnny came by his, but I think George Jones was there as early as 1962 - take a listen to She Thinks I Still Care, it may been in a higher key than he later used, but most of the anguished mannerisms were there. At the annual deejay convention in Nashville in November 1962 Eddie Crandell was hawking a demo tape of Paycheck's songs, trying to persuade Pickwick Records executive Aubrey Mayhew to buy them for $200. Whereas Crandell only wanted to sell the songs, Mayhew was just as interested in the singer, and bought the songs on the grounds that he could have access to the owner of those fine honky-tonk tonsils.

They started their collaboration on Hilltop and scored a minor hits with Hank Cochran's bar-room weeper, A-11 and Heartbreak Tennessee. In '66, Paycheck and Mayhew set up the Little Darlin' label. Paychecks singles for the label became some of the bravest in country history and although they achieved massive chart success and fortunes, they were artistically rewarding. He seemed to rejoice in the painful, dangerous lyrics. Country had always had murder ballads like the Louvins' Knoxville Girl, but never had a singer appeared to relish the mayhem so openly. Listen to the glee in (Pardon Me) I've Got Someone To Kill - the wife and her lover! Other highlights on the label included Motel Time Again, Jukebox Charlie, Don't Monkey With Another Man's Monkey and If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Sink To The Bottom). Another moment of greatness, was the The Cave, which was the weirdest top 40 single of 1967.

By 1970 the label had run it's course, and JP was becoming a physical wreck, courtesy of drugs and booze. The following year he came under the unlikely care of countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill at Epic records. Famed for his work with George Jones, Sherrill was famous for embellishing most of his productions in a sea of strings. Paycheck by this time was a first-rate outlaw complete with beard and haggard looks and a noted hard-liver. Sherrill signed him on the understanding that Paycheck dry-out and reform. This he did and was soon reaping the rewards. Whilst Paycheck was able to lay off the booze, Sherrill was unable to lay off the strings, but although the singles they cut together were well removed from the Little Darlin' sides, they were successful. His debut single for the label, "She's All I Got," went to number two in 1971 and earned him a Grammy nomination. It was followed soon after by another Top Ten hit, "Someone to Give My Love To". He enjoyed another dozen hits over the course of the next four years including "Something About You I Love", "Mr. Lovemaker," and "For a Minute There".

By the mid-70's he was socially-slipping shall we say, and was issued with a paternity suit and faced tax problems and bankruptcy. It was also little surprise that he felt compelled the Country Outlaw movement. In 1976 he recorded the album, 11 Months And 29 Days, a reference to a recent spell in prison for forging a cheque. Anyone left in doubt to the change needed only to look at the cover which showed him locked behind bars. In 1977 he again hit the Top Ten with "Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets" and "I'm the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)". I love the start of "Satin Sheets" where he sings the first couple of words like Roy Acuff - about the only thing they had Iin common! Later that year, he released his version of fellow hell-raiser David Allen Coe's workingman's anthem, "Take This Job and Shove It" which spent two weeks at number one and became his career song. Other late 70's hits included things like "Me and the I.R.S.", "D.O.A. (Drunk on Arrival)" and "Friend, Lover, Wife".

With his old pal George Jones also working for Sherrill on Epic, it was only a matter of time before George and Johnny were paired together for an album, appropriately enough called Double Trouble. They'd scored a hit single two years earlier when Paycheck was one of the guests on George's My Very Special Guests duets album. Their funky Jerry Reed inspired cover of Chuck Berry's Maybelline having climbed to #7 on the country charts. By October '81 they'd enjoyed another 3 hits together including a couple of r'n'b covers and the wonderfully ironic, When You're Ugly Like Us (You Just Naturally Got To Be Cool) - surely an early stab at the future country stars of the '90s - what insight!

By the end of the decade he was virtually out of control and was becoming a more violent personality. He was supposed to have taken on a whole gang of rednecks in a barroom brawl. In 1981 he was sued for slander after he started a fight on a plane and the following year he was arrested for the alleged rape of a twelve year old girl. The charges were dropped when the parents didn't want their girl to testify in court. He was dropped by Epic and moved to AMI, but the hits got smaller and less frequent. In 1985 he shot and wounded a stranger at the Highland Lounge bar in Hillsboro, OH. He was arrested for aggravated assault and was back behind bars. Whilst on appeal he'd recorded for Mercury, Desperado Records and Damascus by which time he'd converted to Christianity.

In 1989, after his appeals had failed he was sentenced to ten years in the Chillicothe Correctional Institute where he spent the next two years before getting out on probation. Following his release, he recorded for Playback Records but the good times had gone. He was accepted onto the Grand Ole Opry in 1997 but died in a nursing home in February 2003 following a battle with diabetes and emphysema. He died penniless and his burial plot at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens was paid for by George Jones. One of country's greatest honky-tonk voices was silenced. As he sang on The Outlaw's Prayer, "This is Paycheck signing off. I'll see you Lord - I hope."

Recommended Listening:
There are two excellent compilations on the market which between them cover most of bases from when Johnny Paycheck was in his prime.

The Real Mr. Heartache - The Little Darlin' Years
Country Music Foundation Records
Covering the five years from the Hilltop releases in 1964 to the final days of Little Darlin' in 1968, this is pure honky tonk music at it's best. It ranks up their with Jerry Lee Lewis and George Jones for straight ahead, honest barroom music. Mostly self-written, the numbers show what a great song-writing partnership he had with Aubrey Mayhew. Listen to (Pardon Me) I've Got Someone To Kill or (Like Me) You'll Recover In Time for some of the most brutal country laid to wax, or the pitiful If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go To The Bottom). Another thing to love about this CD, is the Bakersfield sound he sometimes had, more so than most anyone else coming out of Nashville at the time.

The Soul & The Edge: The Best of Johnny Paycheck
Following on where the Little Darlin' CD left off. This covers the hits of the '70s and early '80s. The sound is still country to the bone, but in the outlaw mould, and sometimes given a bit more of a rockin' edge. It's great stuff like She's All I Got, Someone To Give My Love To and The Outlaw's Prayer (how did this only get to #27). There's a couple of lessor known album tracks that catch the ear, "Barstool Mountain" and "All Night Lady" from the his great Merle Haggard tribute album,. Mr Hag Told My Story. The two singers shared a lot in common and Paycheck's narrative before the song is telling. There's also a glimpse to the softer side in "I Did The Right Thing" where he goes back to the wife and family and straightened out his life. There's a couple of live numbers from the 1980 album, New York Town which was recorded at the city's famed Lone Star Cafe. Both Me And The I.R.S. and The Cocaine Train rock hard and helped maintain his Outlaw image to his Big Apple fans. A great overview of the Epic years plus Old Violin, a poignant 1986 hit on Mercury.

Billboard Country Charts

Year Top Song Label
1965 26 A-11 Hilltop 3007
1966 40 Heartbreak Tennessee Hilltop 3009
8 The Lovin' Machine Little Darlin' 008
13 Motel Time Again Little Darlin' 0016
1967 15 Jukebox Charlie Little Darlin' 0020
32 The Cave Little Darlin' 0032
1969 31 Wherever You Are Little Darlin' 0060
1971 2 She's All I Got Epic 10783
1972 4 Someone To Give My Love To Epic 10836
13 Let's All Go Down To The River
(with Jody Miller)
Epic 10863
12 Love Is A Good Thing Epic 10876
21 Somebody Loves Me Epic 10912
1973 10 Something About You I Love Epic 10947
2 Mr Lovemaker Epic 10999
8 Song And Dance Man Epic 11046
1974 19 My Part Of Forever Epic 11090
23 Keep On Lovin' Me Epic 11142
12 For A Minute There Epic 50040
1975 26 Love You Beats All I've Ever Seen Epic 50073
38 I Don't Love Her Anymore Epic 50111
23 All-American Man Epic 50146
1976 34 11 Months And 29 Days Epic 50249
1977 7 Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets Epic 50334
8 I'm the Only Hell
(Mama Ever Raised)
Epic 50391
1 Take This Job And Shove It Epic 50469
1978 17 Georgia In A Jug Epic 50539
33 Me And The I.R.S. Epic 50539
7 Friend, Lover, Wife Epic 50621
7 Maybelline
(with George Jones)
Epic 50647
1979 27 The Outlaw's Prayer Epic 50655
14 You Can Have Her
(with George Jones)
Epic 50708
1980 17 Drinkin' And Drivin' Epic 50818
40 Fifteen Beers Epic 50863
31 When You're Ugly Like Us
(with George Jones)
Epic 50891
22 In Memory Of A Memory Epic 50923
1981 18 You Better Move On
(with George Jones)
Epic 50949
1985 30 I Never Got Over You AMI 1322
1986 21 Old Violin Mercury 884720

Posted October, 2003

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