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Johnny Paycheck Dies

Country legend was sixty-four

February 19, 2003 12:00 AM ET

It's one of the tragedies of the logistics of a hit song-driven music industry that Johnny Paycheck's legacy will be preserved by a single single, rather than the oft-forgotten sum of its parts.

Granted, that single, a cover of David Allan Coe's rebellious blue collar anthem, "Take This Job and Shove It," is part of the greater American fabric. It transcended music to institute itself as a piece of our national vocational vernacular, even spawning a series of wildcatter strikes and a film of the same name. But Johnny Paycheck cut some of country music's finest honky-tonk sides over the span of fifteen years, particularly during his first solo recordings between 1964 and 1968, a decade before "Take This Job and Shove It" made him a star.

Paycheck died in Nashville yesterday after a long battle with emphysema; he was sixty-four.

Paycheck never achieved the mythical notoriety of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, two fellow out-of-control country music peers from the Seventies. He lacked their cool: Cash's was otherworldly and Jennings' seasoned. Those icons acted out their rebellious streaks, but it was a calculated rebellion of sorts, for both remained professionals dedicated to craft in spite of any chemical haze. Johnny Paycheck's fire teetered on the brink of control, sometimes it would land safely, other times he would lose his grip, as he did in 1985 when he shot a man outside a bar in Ohio, putting an exclamation point on a barroom brawl. The incident sent Paycheck to prison in 1989, where he stayed for two years.

Early Sixties photographs of Paycheck show a clean-shaven, ducktailed young man with a devil's eyes, a randy smirk and a boxer's chin. He was, in those days, Donny Young (an alteration of his birthname, Donald Eugene Lytle) and even as a twenty-year-old, he carried a past that hinted at his future. Born on May 31, 1938, Lytle was a teenage runaway, who opted to sing in honky-tonks, rather than stick around his hometown of Greenfield, Ohio. He made a mistake by joining the Navy, and a stint on an aircraft carrier ended in the brig after he was court martialed in 1956 for assaulting a superior officer. He drew an eighteen-year sentence, and escaped twice during his captivity, but inexplicably scored a reduced sentence that resulted in his release in 1958.

With a relatively clean slate, he became Donny Young and tried recording some rockabilly and country sides, with no success. Determined to succeed as a musician, Young took work as a sideman for a who's who of country stars, playing bass and guitar for Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, Ray Price and, in 1962, George Jones. Jones and Young were a perfect music match, as the Possum provided a personality every bit as pugnacious as his bassist. The job lasted four years, with Young singing backup on some of Jones' early hits, including "The Race Is On."

It was near the end of this run that Donny Young switched his handle to Johnny Paycheck, pinching the moniker, appropriately enough, from a boxer. The move from sideman to frontman was pushed along with a dash of serendipity. In late-1962, Aubrey Mayhew, a well regarded executive at Pickwick Records, was offered a demo tape of songs for $200 by another industry player hoping to drum up interest in the songs themselves. Mayhew took up the offer, but he was less interested in the songs than the singer, the fairly anonymous Paycheck. Mayhew promptly dragged Paycheck into the studio to record some sides for Little Darlin', an independent label that the two men started together.

Drawing on honky-tonk tradition that included elements of Buck Owens' Bakersfield sound, the 5-4 Ray Price beat and his own piercing clean vocal/rhythm-heavy sound, Paycheck tore into songs like Hank Cochran's classic "A-11" like a wolf. The song only climbed as high as Number Twenty-six on the country charts, but earned Paycheck a Grammy nomination and helped set his career apart from that of his former boss. He broke into the Top Ten with a cover of Larry Kingston's "The Lovin' Machine" in 1966, the same year he penned "Apartment #9," a hit for Tammy Wynette and "Touch My Heart," one for Price.

But more striking than the more popular songs were some of the compositions Paycheck co-wrote with Mayhew, which sounded unlike anything else in country music. Paycheck penned some of the most unsettling songs in country music, the quartet of parentheses-filled classics: "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill," "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate," "It Won't Be Long (And I'll Be Hating You)" and "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go to the Bottom)."

The songs were striking for their matter-of-factness, and unlike some of Cash's best work -- which put some space between the man and his fictional characters -- they weren't necessarily third-person tales, though Paycheck insisted they were. "When I wrote a song, I'm not thinking about myself," he had said. "I'm thinking of this crazy guy that maybe I read in the paper, where a guy walked in and shot." Perhaps most disturbing about Paycheck's output during this time is just how engaging the actual music was, a rich mix of pop melody and country tradition.

While the years on Little Darlin' were fruitful for Paycheck as an artist, they didn't provide a full-fledged commercial breakthrough. And even the moderate hits dried up by the late-Sixties and Paycheck retreated to San Diego to work on a substantial substance abuse problem, occasionally taking gigs in Los Angeles for alcohol. Paycheck's sink to the bottom lasted several years, until 1971, when star producer Billy Sherrill tracked him down and offered him a deal to record for Epic.

Paycheck's comeback was almost immediate. His first Sherrill-produced single, "She's All I Got," marked a more lush sound than the raw takes for Little Darlin'. It also proved a quite successful reinvention, rising to Number Two. The song was trailed by a dozen hit singles. Though Paycheck's professional life was back on track, he suffered numerous legal tangles, both financial and domestic. But the brewing Outlaw movement, headed by Waylon Jennings (for whom Paycheck had reportedly written "It's a Mighty Thin Line"), was timed perfectly for his reckless persona. He released 11 Months and 29 Days in 1976, with cover art featuring a picture of him in a jail cell. But Paycheck took the Outlaw image a bit too close to heart, perhaps inspiring Jennings' "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got a Bit Out of Hand." After "Take This Job and Shove It" topped the charts, he released a string of singles in which the line between art and life was, again, blurry: "Me and the I.R.S." and "D.O.A." (a.k.a. "Drunk on Arrival.)"

The comeback didn't have enough momentum to carry Paycheck deep into the Eighties. He was dropped from Epic after the hits dried up. Numerous legal tangles including fights and tax evasion might have been the decade's low point, were it not for the 1985 shooting, for which he was handed a seven to nine year sentence for aggravated assault.

Paycheck appealed the verdict for four years, during which he recorded a pair of albums, before surrendering himself for his sentence at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute. Paycheck pulled his life together during the stint, finding God and ultimately working towards his release in 1991, when the Governor of Ohio commuted his sentence.

Paycheck took work in Branson, Missouri, where he recorded the 1993 Live in Branson album. In 1996, he offered his last collection of new recordings, I'm a Survivor. But Paycheck's best work can be found on two releases: 1996's The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin' Years, which compiled all of his recordings for the label, and last year's The Soul and the Edge, a collection of twenty-three of his best Seventies sides, released by Epic/Legacy.

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