Thursday, April 9, 2009
Johnny Paycheck, The Real Mr. Heartache
About the actor Charles Bronson, someone once asked “was he a good-looking ugly man, or just an ugly good-looking man?” Similarly, about Johnny Paycheck, one might ask was he a bum who sang great country, or just a country star who sang about bums? Mere mortals may never know. One thing is known, his relationship with Aubrey Mayhew and the Little Darlin’ label, for whom Paycheck cut his finest sides, was built on desperation and risk.
Born Donald Eugene Lytle, in Greenfield, OH, in 1938, the son of a laborer, Paycheck came up hard. By age six he got his first guitar. By 16 he dropped out of school. Then he drifted. He played his guitar. He joined the Navy, then he landed in the brig for punching out his commanding officer. Once released from the pokey, in 1958, the young hot-head landed in Nashville at a time when C&W was splitting in two directions: one being the countrypolitan schmaltz of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, a sound de-twanged and de-balled for crossover appeal, the other being the revised honky-tonk of the Ray Price beat. Donny Young, as Paycheck called himself then, got swept away by the latter current. He bounced around town, wrote songs, cut a couple of go-nowhere singles for Decca, and hired out as sideman for Price, Porter Waggoner, and George Jones, the Possum bringing considerable influence to bear on Paycheck’s subsequent career.
During that period in the early 60s when Paycheck played bass and sang harmony for him, George Jones began a gradual shift away from his earlier Hank Williams/Roy Acuff vocal stylings, developing a more mature voice, a voice likened by Nick Tosches, in his great profile on Jones, to a steel guitar for its nuances and subtle slurs. Just who came up with the style, Paycheck or the Possum, depends on who you ask, but a few examples of their work together are “Love Bug,” “I’d Rather Switch than Fight,” and “Feeling Single, Seeing Double,” all written by Wayne “Beer Thirty” Kemp, who also apparently didn’t smoke Tareyton cigarettes.
Whenever Paycheck wasn’t on the road, he’d often land in Las Vegas, gigging at Wynn Stewart’s club the Nashville Nevada. Here he soaked up the Bakersfield sound and struck up a friendship with brother hobo honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who, in the early 60s played bass in Stewart’s band.
You get the idea that Donny Young could almost grab all the necessary elements⎯the voice, the songs, the production, the catchy name⎯on his own. But somehow they remained out of his reach until Aubrey Mayhew entered the scene. Mayhew, a former Nashville producer with plenty of experience dealing with “egotistical, illiterate" hillbillies "who should have been picking cotton instead of earning more money a week than he ever thought existed.” By 1962 Mayhew held a comfortable exec position at Pickwick Records in NY. That is, until he heard Johnny Paycheck.
The story goes that former manager for Marty Robbins turned down-and-outer Eddie Crandall cornered Mayhew at the 1962 Nashville DJ convention (an annual, much wilder, sort of hillbilly predecessor to SXSW?). Desperate for money, Crandall insisted that Mayhew hear, and purchase, a 10-song demo by a mysterious unknown talent, the “best you ever heard.” Mayhew was used to dodging such requests, but the “dirty, half-drunk, overbearing and desperate” Crandall persisted. Luckily for him, the long-shot came in that night. After one listen, Mayhew didn’t simply buy the tape, but instead paid Crandall to take him to the unknown singer. Crandall reluctantly consented. They caught a cab to the Main Street Bridge, beneath which Crandall led Mayhew, in the dark, to find his new star sleeping there, passed out drunk, beneath a pile of newspapers. Or, like I say, so the story goes.
It was Aubrey Mayhew who re-named Donny Young Johnny Paycheck, stealing the handle from a failed prizefighter. Together they fused that Ray Price shuffle with elements of Bakersfield and their own sheer weirdness to come up with just about the hardest of hard honky-tonk sounds of the 60s. Their loose formula consisted of Lloyd Green’s blazing steel guitar, loud production, and lyrical content that skirted the outer limits of acceptability (“He’s in a hurry to get home to my wife”… “Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill”… ). Regarding the production, Mayhew explained, “What gets that sound is a combination of three things: highs, natural echo, and distortion.”
Paycheck’s first single to break was his take on the Hank Cochran song “A-11.” Here Paycheck is backed by the Jones Boys, on loan from a reluctant Possum, who agreed to the favor only after Mayhew met his request for a party, thrown in Jones’ honor, complete with hired female companions. Apparently Mayhew arranged to hire one call girl, then persuaded his secretary to likewise attend the party with several of her girlfriends, to, you know, complete the team. Apparently just which one of them was the sportin’ gal, the Possum had to surmise on his own.
Eventually Mayhew broke his own rule against managing and producing anymore egotistical, illiterate hillbillies. In 1966 he threw his comfortable exec position to the wind, and dropped all his savings into the creation of Little Darlin’ Records, with Johnny Paycheck as its featured artist. He put all his chips on that bum under the Main Street Bridge. From 1966 until 1969, Paycheck released a slew of singles, and three LPs, The Lovin’ Machine, Jukebox Charlie, and Johnny Paycheck at Carnegie Hall. Here’s the title track from “Jukebox Charlie,” plus another single from that record, Bobby Bare’s “Motel Time Again.” And to demonstrate the weirdness factor, here’s the post-apocalyptic nightmare “The Cave.”
Mayhew might have held some control over Paycheck in the studio, but he had little say about what the restless singer did on his own time. Together with “ole buddy” Eddie Crandall (who, by the way, penned a couple of Paycheck’s steppinest numbers: “Don’t You Get Lonesome” and “Don’t Start Countin’ On Me”), Paycheck continued to wander out west, continued to fight and gamble and ponder the bubbles in his beer. Such research eventually led Paycheck to the gutters of skid row LA, and culminated in his last single for Little Darlin’, “If I’m Gonna Sink (Might as Well Go to the Bottom)”. Yes sir, sometimes they go out looking about like they did comin’ in. By decade’s end, Mayhew and Paycheck had their final falling out, and Mayhew folded Little Darlin'.
Most this stuff is still available on CD. Pick up a copy of the Country Music Foundation collection The Real Mr. Heartache and Koch Records’ The Little Darlin’ Sound of Johnny Paycheck. Mayhew wrote liner notes for that last one, from which I plucked his quotes. Koch also released a collection by “Groovy” Joe Poovey, who wrote several of those songs Paycheck gave the royal treatment.