Remembering Johnny Paycheck


Born as Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, Ohio, Johnny Paycheck began his musical journey early, performing in talent contests at just nine years old. By fifteen, he was a drifter known as the 'Ohio Kid,' playing in bars and clubs. His path took a turn when he joined the Navy, only to land in the brig for two years following a skirmish with an officer. Upon his discharge, he made his way to Nashville, where under the guidance of Buddy Killen, he recorded for Decca and Mercury as Donny Young. 

Between recording sessions, he honed his craft with top country bands, including those of Porter Wagoner, Ray Price, and Faron Young. In 1960, he joined George Jones' band, contributing bass and high harmonies on at least 15 albums, with hits like "The Race Is On" and "Love Bug." The relationship with Jones was tumultuous, marked by mutual volatility and substance abuse. Despite this, Paycheck’s vocal influence on Jones was undeniable. In 1965, he rebranded himself as Johnny Paycheck, inspired by a Chicago prizefighter named John Austin Paycheck. Collaborating with producer Aubrey Mayhew, he began charting minor hits like "A-11" and "Heartbreak Tennessee." 

The following year, they founded Little Darlin’ Records, releasing hits such as "The Lovin’ Machine," which celebrated the automobile. Paycheck’s recordings during this era were pure honky-tonk, driven by his keening vocals and Lloyd Green's masterful steel guitar. Despite their lack of commercial success, these recordings stood out against the prevailing pop-country trend. Paycheck also made his mark as a songwriter, penning "Apartment No. 9" for Tammy Wynette and "Touch My Heart" for Ray Price. 

The end of the 1960s saw Little Darlin’ fold, leading to a split with Mayhew and a two-year exile in California fueled by drugs and alcohol. Billy Sherrill, a legendary Nashville producer, revived Paycheck's career in 1971 with hits like "She’s All I Got" and "Someone to Give My Love To," showcasing a blend of countrypolitan arrangements and Paycheck’s raw edge. His chart success continued, but so did his personal troubles. Convictions for check forgery, a paternity suit, and tax issues plagued him. His 1976 album "11 Months and 29 Days," reflecting his suspended sentence for passing a bad check, marked a return to a harder sound. Hits like "Slide Off Your Satin Sheets," "I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)," and "Take This Job and Shove It" cemented his place in country music, though his personal life remained chaotic. Legal troubles, including a slander suit from a flight attendant and an arrest for alleged rape (later reduced), led to his departure from Epic Records in 1982. 

Paycheck found a brief respite with AMI, scoring minor hits between 1984 and 1985. However, a bar-room brawl in Hillsboro, Ohio, in which he shot and injured a stranger, led to a nine-year prison sentence for aggravated assault. During his appeal, he recorded "Old Violin," a 1986 top twenty hit for Mercury Records. Despite becoming a born-again Christian in 1988, he eventually served two years in prison, where he even performed a concert with Merle Haggard. Upon his release in 1991, he remained sober, fulfilled his parole obligations, and gave anti-drug talks nationwide. He resumed his touring career and recorded for Playback Records. 

In 1996, the Country Music Foundation released a collection of his early Little Darlin’ recordings, gaining him new fans. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1997 and recorded a live album at Gilley's, released on Atlantic in 1999. Plagued by health issues, including asthma and emphysema, Paycheck was hospitalized in 1998 after a severe asthma attack. He had signed with Sony Music Nashville's Lucky Dog Records, but his health prevented further recordings. Despite his health battles, Paycheck's final years saw him maintain his sobriety and credibility. 

His last performance was a recitation on Daryle Singletary’s "Old Violin" for the album "That’s Why I Sing This Way.” Johnny Paycheck passed away in his sleep on February 18, 2003. Paycheck specialized in dark, heartbreaking songs, often reflecting his tumultuous life. His 1960s recording "The Late And Great Me" prophetically mused on his own demise. His music was genuine, mirroring the life he lived. Despite his headline-making exploits overshadowing his musical achievements, he was one of the era's greatest honky-tonk singers. Johnny Paycheck's legacy is colorful and enduring, an 'outlaw' who did things his way, regardless of the consequences. 

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