Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Money Man

So, I was posting songs by the fellow who called himself Johnny Paycheck the other day, and I thought I'd write a few words about him, his talent, his excesses, and the sad waste that his life - which ran from 1938 - 2003 - became.

He was a country music singer, never a super-bigshot in the field, but always highly regarded by those who like their country served country style.  I'll link you to a few songs here so you can get a sampling, if you'd like.

He was born Donald Lytle in Greenfield, Ohio, and somehow that sounds like the sort of town where country singers are born.  From his early days, he wanted to be an entertainer, and did so under the name "The Ohio Kid" before joining the Navy at 18. While in the Navy, as another writer put it, the only water he was in was hot water.  Young Donny slugged an officer, which is not an acceptable practice in the Navy now, and certainly not then.  He spent two years in a Navy prison and hitchhiked to Nashville as soon as he was released.

What can you say about a guy with talent, and also demons?  The talent usually surfaces, and then the demons do too, and pull him under.  He released a couple of records on the Decca label as "Donny Young." They were good songs but they didn't make hits.  He was working as a bass player for Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, during which time he wrote a hit song called "Touch My Heart" for Price.  Some years later, he recorded it and had one of the finest records of his early career.

For six years, 1960 - '66, Donny played bass and raised hell with George Jones, the great singer of so many classics.  There is some dispute among chroniclers of country music as to who influenced whom the most here, but whereas Jones had been sort of high-pitched in his early recordings, Jones became more of a nuanced growler by the time Donny left his band to go out as a solo act under his newly-coined sobriquet of Paycheck. By the way, this was not a name chosen in honor of Johnny Cash, as some suspect.  Paycheck liked a prize fighter from Chi named Johnny Paychek.  Anyway, in this video, you can see Jones and Paycheck doing a duet on "The Love Bug."

Paycheck and a man named Aubrey Mayhew started Little Darlin' records in 1966 and JP did well in his new venture.  "Jukebox Charlie," from '67, is a typical honky-tonk howler from that era.  The problem was, Little Darlin' was still an independent record label at the dawn of the day when the majors  - Columbia, RCA, Mercury - were taking over the business.  Paycheck's business lost, and a curious thing happened...in fact, several curious things.

By 1970, JP was homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, seemingly living out the sad, lonesome lifestyle that so many of his records extolled.  That could have been the end, but one man remembered, and that man, Billy Sherill, was one of the founders of the new Nashville sound of the 70's.  He actually hired a guy to go through the hobo jungles and find Paycheck, sent him to rehab, and together they began a string of hit records on the Epic label that covered the entire decade.  Songs such as "(Don't Take Her) She's All I Got" and "I'm The Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)" are emblematic of that era in country music, with one big difference.  Paycheck, unlike some of his contemporaries, still sang in a mournful honkin' style.  I once read someone's essay on JP that claimed that the difference in him was that he "enunciated on the vowels" which, when you think about it, doesn't mean doodly.  We all do that.  Can you imagine someone drawling on a consonant?  But with Paycheck, the feeling that he put into a song was real.  The listeners could feel that he hurt when he sang a hurting song.  You could listen to David Cassidy or Perry Como or Will I. Am. and never hear them reveal their true emotions.  Oh, they might be more on key, but they don't show the heart and soul like Paycheck did.

But, singing the blues leads to the blues far too often. Paycheck's star dimmed in the 80's as his alcohol and drug problems turned out to be taller than he was. (He stood 5' 5".)  He was dropped by Epic in 1983, and by 1985 he was off to serve 22 months of a seven year prison sentence in Ohio for shooting a guy in the head in a barroom fight.  And even when he was a freed man, he still fought his substances.  He was finished as a performer by 1998, for health reasons, and died in 2003, leaving behind the tarnished legacy over which we puzzle today.

Is it possible to sing about a lifestyle and not lead that same lifestyle?  The parallel that comes to mind is actor George Raft, who played so many cheesy gangsters in so many cheesy movies that he actually became better known for hanging around mobsters than actually portraying them in movies.

But what a shame about Paycheck.  Sometimes, you try to outrun the demons, and you've been chasing after them all along.  His final days were sad ones, marked with hospital stays for emphysema, asthma, and more.  He died broke, and Jones paid to bury him.

Yet, for a minute there, he had it all.

1 comment:

Ray Weaver said...

One of my favorites. To hear him sing "Old Violin" is to hear a song transfigured...