"Be prepared for a lot of hard work. Keep on the straight and narrow and don't be blinded by the excitement. Most important of all, stay away from the drugs and alcohol." – Johnny PayCheck.
Soft words from one tough bastard who, for most of his life was every bit the surly, whiskey-drinking hell-raiser his fans wanted him to be. The perfect antithesis to today’s unimaginative Shania Twain pop country, PayCheck will no doubt live on primarily through the single that made him a legend: "Take This Job and Shove It," a cover of David Allen Coe’s blue collar anthem that spawned one-man strikes, inspired a movie by the same title and became an all-purpose answer for America’s disgruntled workingman. But as much as that one bright light illuminated his career (and all of the lawsuits, financial problems and drugs darkened it) this was a man of prolific musical talent, not some cheesy one hit wonder.
"I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)" – Title of a 1977 PayCheck Top Ten single
Born Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31st, 1938 in rural Greenfield, Ohio, a town complete with mom and pop stores and brimming with civic pride. He started playing guitar at six years old and three years later he was rocking talent shows all over the state. At fifteen, PayCheck decided he’d had enough of small town living, hit the road and rode the rails, singing for his supper under the moniker "Ohio Kid" in whatever juke joints he could get to. In his late teens he made the mistake of joining the Navy and then the bigger mistake of assaulting a superior officer (apparently nearly crushing the man’s skull in a fit of what would later become the famous PayCheck temper). That landed him a two-year stint in the brig.
After doing his time, PayCheck hit the road again, this time bound for Nashville where he hoped to make a living doing the only work he’d ever been good at: honky-tonk singing. In those days, Nashville exemplified the country music stereotypes, boasting hard drinking and harder living, where a musician could get lost in the fray, but new kid in town Donald Lytle, who could write a solid melody and play a mean guitar, was quickly noticed.
He got his start doing backing vocals for country greats in the making like Ray Price, Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and the legendary George Jones. He shuttled from employer to employer, cut a couple of rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury under the name Donny Young, his white-hot temper gaining notoriety, before finally hooking up with Jones in 1960, who he worked with for six years playing bass and steel guitar. (Test: Listen to some early George Jones, listen to some PayCheck, and then form your opinion in the debate on whether or not Jones bogarted PayCheck’s vocal style) Already an accomplished singer, he went on to gain recognition as a songwriter, penning Tammy Wynette's "Apartment #9" and Ray Price's "Touch My Heart."
"I sing from the heart, and the fans know that," - PayCheck
In 1964 Donald Eugene Lytle (a.k.a Donny Young) met producer Aubrey Mayhew, a veteran of the Nashville music scene, and one year later Johnny Paycheck (from John Austin Paycheck, a Chicago prize fighter) was born – handsome, determined and with a knack for serious lyrics backed by rollicking upbeat music. PayCheck and Mayhew’s relationship led to Little Darlin', the record label created as a vehicle for PayCheck's brand of country-billy sound coupled with pedal-steel player Lloyd Green’s guitar. While Little Darlin’ was never a moneymaker, it certainly earned its place in the annals of music history with the extraordinary amount of music that PayCheck churned out during its four years in existence.
And what a four years it was. You might say that Outlaw music was born on those Johnny PayCheck tracks with his gleeful approach to vengeance and violence, where he turned drippy-eyed country music into something a little more catchy and a lot more graphic. But by 1970, Little Darlin' wasn’t the darling it had started as and PayCheck’s hard drinking habits had graduated to excessive. It was during this time that country music started to crawl out of the hole it had been relegated to by anti-Southern bias and into the American mainstream consciousness.
Rock was going country, and Johnny PayCheck was reputedly in California, drunk, on drugs and with no prospects. In 1971, with country music's newfound audience growing by leaps and bounds, Billy Sherrill at Epic Records managed to track down PayCheck and offered him a contract, provided he tossed the monkeys off his back. He did, and the new Johnny Paycheck was born. Instead of the clean-shaven, devilishly handsome young man who sang all those songs about beating and killing and going insane, Sherrill’s sappy production style turned PayCheck into the grizzly outlaw (complete with beard and big belt buckle) who crooned out ballads. A loveable loser.
The new PayCheck was a hit and a half. His debut single with Epic, "She’s All I Got," shot up to number two upon its release. During the next four years, he scored thirteen more hit singles with his new pop-oriented image including "Mr. Lovemaker" and "For a Minute There." But his real tastes hadn’t strayed from that old-school Nashville style of living on the edge you cut for yourself, and in 1972, PayCheck was convicted of check forgery and in 1976, he was slapped with a paternity suit and filed for bankruptcy. It seemed the prudent time to get back on the train he’d left when he joined Epic and there was nowhere left to go but up.
"My music’s always been about life. And situations. Situation comedies, situation life." - PayCheck
The man that had always been on the verge of something big now really was. He kept the outlaw look and then re-injected the outlaw back into his soul in his 1976 album "11 Months and 29 Days" (the length of his first suspended sentence for writing bad checks) which had a picture of PayCheck behind bars on the cover. In 1977 he netted himself a pair of Top Ten singles and then in 1978, with the country in a recession and unemployment on the rise, he struck a chord with America’s working man with a cover of David Allen Coe’s sour-love song “Take This job And Shove It.” He didn’t know it right away, but that song, which spent two consecutive weeks at number one, was going to be a sensation. Was going to speak to dissatisfied people. Was going to forever secure a place for the name Johnny PayCheck.
An overnight success over twenty years in the making, Johnny PayCheck became the one hit wonder that really wasn’t, but most folks never knew the difference. He was the "Take This Job and Shove It" guy. Not the guy who’d practically opened the door a crack so that mainstream country could squeeze through, decades later. Just another forgotten two minute thirty-four second hero. And, of course, there was nowhere for him to go but down.
Not long after his first and only big success, his career started to crumble because of that famous PayCheck temper. In 1981 he began a brawl on a Frontiers Airline flight and was sued for slander by one of the flight attendants on the plane. The next year, he was arrested for alleged rape, though the charges were reduced and he was only fined. But the damage was done and Epic, fed up with the negative press, dropped him from the label. He moved to AMI and had a number of small hit singles, but nothing even coming close to his former fame.
Situation life. PayCheck’s life was a series of ups and downs with no reprieve from the cycle. He was sued by the I.R.S. for $103,000 in back taxes in 1982. Still the same old Hell-raiser, in 1985, at a small bar in Southern Ohio called the Highland Lounge, he got into a bar fight that ended with his firing a .22 at another man’s head, though not fatally. That landed him in the Chillicoth Correctional Institute for two years (after a lengthy appeals process) where he says he heard from fans by mail every day and performed with Merle Haggard. Lucky for PayCheck, his sentence was trimmed down from its original seven years to two and the singer returned to what was left of his career.
In 1990, PayCheck capitalized the "c" in his name. Maybe it was his time in prison or maybe it was the devotion of his fans while there, but something during those years knocked most of the outlaw right out of him. He started giving anti-drug and pro-G.E.D. talks to young people and became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1997.
“They still remember me as that crazy, good-time-Charlie honky-tonker, and I don’t tell 'em any different.” - PayCheck
On Tuesday, February 18, 2003, Johnny PayCheck died in Nashville of complications due to asthma and emphysema and the world lost another one of its beloved outlaws.