Johnny Paycheck

Donald Eugene Lytle (Johnny Paycheck), singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Greenfield, Ohio 31 May 1938; three times married (one son, two daughters); died Nashville, Tennessee 18 February 2003.

A charismatic hell-raiser, Johnny Paycheck enjoyed one of the biggest country hits of the 1970s with “Take This Job and Shove It”, a song that in 1977 became an anthem for blue-collar workers across America. Its defiant spirit was typical of Paycheck, whose confrontations with authority figures and battles with the bottle would culminate in a nine-year prison sentence for aggravated assault.

He was born Donald Eugene Lytle in southern Ohio in 1938 and learned to play the guitar as a child. As a teenager, he thumbed his way across the United States, and frequently performed in bars and honky-tonks under the sobriquet “The Ohio Kid”. In 1956, he joined the US Navy, but an assault on his commanding officer led to two years in a military prison.

On his release, Lytle headed for Nashville, where he began to work with young songwriters including Bill Anderson and Roger Miller. He performed as a sideman in the bands of George Jones, Faron Young and Ray Price and even, as Donny Young, recorded a clutch of unsuccessful discs for Decca and Mercury. In 1964, having borrowed the name of a former heavyweight boxer, he enjoyed his first chart hit as Johnny Paycheck with “A-11” (1965).

In 1966 he and the producer Aubrey Mayhew formed Little Darlin’ Records and in the same year Paycheck scored a Top Ten hit for the label with “The Lovin’ Machine”. The sides he cut for Little Darlin’ are now widely admired, but they failed to prevent it from going into liquidation and, by the end of the decade, he was living in California and mired in drug and alcohol abuse.

In 1971, however, Billy Sherrill of Epic Records offered him a new recording contract. Sherrill had long wanted to work with Paycheck; Sherrill’s protégée Tammy Wynette had made her chart début in 1966 with Paycheck’s song “Apartment No 9”. Sherrill and Paycheck’s initial collaboration produced “She’s All I Got” (1971), which became a No 3 hit, crossed over into the pop charts and was nominated for a Grammy. They followed it with, among others, “Someone to Give My Love to” (1972), “Let’s All Go Down to the River” (1972), “Mr Lovemaker” (1973) and “For a Minute There” (1974).

Despite his renewed success, Paycheck’s private life continued to be troubled. In 1972 he received a conviction for cheque fraud and in 1973 he was declared bankrupt. In 1977 he had major hits with “Slide off your Satin Sheets” and the appropriately titled “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” and followed them with what would prove to be his career record, David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It”. Other successes followed, including “Friend, Lover, Wife” (1979) and a clutch of entertaining duets with George Jones, but personal problems began to take a toll and he found himself placed increasingly lower in the charts.

In December 1985 he became involved in an argument with two men in a bar in Hillsboro, Ohio, allegedly over the merits of turtle soup and deer meat. Paycheck shot one of them, wounding him in the head, and eventually found himself with a prison sentence. During a three-year appeal process he re-signed with Mercury records and charted with “Old Violin” (1987), an autobiographical number that he would later cite as a personal favourite. In 1989, however, he began his sentence, serving two years before gaining a conditional release.

Over the past decade, despite Paycheck’s often poor health, his career had undergone a resurgence. Younger acts acknowledged him as an important influence and successfully covered his old hits, and he finally gained membership of Nashville’s famous Grand Ole Opry. Throughout, he continued to acknowledge the importance of his loyal fan base, and recently said:

If it weren’t for the fans I would have been gone a long time ago. They’ve always stuck with me. I sing about the little guy who has been kicked around by the big guy. I sing from my heart and they know that.

Paul Wadey

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