Singer, songwriter, guitar
Throughout his 30-year career as a musician and actor, the songs of entertainer Hoyt Axton left few, if any, untouched in some way. In addition to penning Three Dog Night’s number one hit “Joy to the World,” which became a modern folk-rock standard, Axton also wrote songs for recording artists such as Ringo Starr (“No No Song”), Steppenwolf (“The Pusher”), and the Kingston Trio (“Greenback Dollar”), among others. His film credits include The Black Stallion and We’re No Angels, while his appearances on television included work in the 1960s for episodes of Bonanza as well as roles in the 1980s on Murder She Wrote. Known for his sense of humor, his large physical stature, and his generous nature, Axton felt most at home writing songs and performing his music on stage.
Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, on March 25, 1938, Hoyt Wayne Axton came by his talent and ambition naturally. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, also worked in the music industry and was widely known in Nashville, Tennessee, for mentoring struggling musicians and songwriters. Among those she helped secure recording and publishing deals included Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Mel Tillis. A successful songwriter as well, Mae Axton penned several hit songs that were recorded by country stars such as Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Hank Snow, and Conway Twitty. Her biggest hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” (co-written with Thomas Durden), was Elvis Presley’s first single for RCA Records and held the number one spot on the Billboard magazine charts for eight weeks. Although she originally intended to work as a journalist, graduating from the University of Oklahoma in that subject, she broke into the music business when comedienne Minnie Pearl started introducing Mae Axton, at the time a freelance writer, to friends as a songwriter. When her son’s career took off, she occasionally joined him on stage to sing duets. Influenced by his mother’s interests, Axton studied classical piano as a child and also learned to play guitar. However, Axton’s father, John Thomas Axton, also played an important role in his son’s development. A high school football coach, he encouraged Axton to participate in athletics. After graduating from high school, Axton attended Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship.
However, in 1958, Axton dropped out of college, realizing that singing and songwriting, rather than sports, were his true calling. After serving time with the United States Navy from 1958 until 1962, Axton concentrated solely on performing and began his musical career as a country-flavored folk singer in the Southern California coffeehouse/folk club circuit. After a memorial service held in Santa Ana, California, shortly after the songwriter’s death, keyboard player David Jackson and guitarist David Brooks recalled watching Axton perform early on
Born Hoyt Wayne Axton on March 25, 1938, in Duncan, OK; died on October 26, 1999, at his home in the Bitterroot Valley near Victor, MT; son of John Thomas (a high school football coach) and Mae Boren Axton (songwriter); married Kathy Roberts, 1963 (divorced, 1973); married Donna, 1980 (divorced, 1991); married Deborah Hawkins, April 28, 1997; children: Mark Roberts, Michael Stephen Axton, April Laura (Axton) Ruggiero, Matthew Christopher. Education: Attended Oklahoma State University, 1957-58. Served in the U.S. Navy, 1958-62. Member of the Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Federation of Musicians, Country Music Association, Broadcast Music Inc., and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association.
Started performing on the Southern California coffeehouse/folk club circuit, early 1960s; Kingston Trio recorded Axton’s “Greenback Dollar,” 1962, which became a hit in 1963; Three Dog Night recorded the Axton original “Joy to the World (Jeremiah),” which became a number one hit, 1971; released hit song “Boney Fingers” with Linda Ronstadt, 1974; released Road Songs, 1977; performed as many as 300 shows per year during the 1970s and 1980s; made numerous film, television, and commercial appearances (for McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Busch Beer) from the 1960s through the 1990s; chairperson, Jeremiah Records, 1975-late 1990s; spokesperson for American Heart Association, 1975, and Unicef, 1975-76; active in Democratic political campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Edmund Brown, and David Borean; fundraiser for INTERPLAST, Free Clinics, Redwing Foundation, and Bread and Roses Foundation.
Awards: Bread and Roses Foundation Award, 1984.
in his career. “I first went to see him at a place called Mon Amie in Tustin,” Jackson, who joined Axton’s band as a teenager, told Los Angeles Times reporter Randy Lewis in 1999. “Man, after that I ran off and joined the Hoyt—not the circus. I joined the Hoyt, because he was the trapeze act and the elephant all in one.” Brooks, who frequently opened for Axton’s band in the 1960s, noted that the showman was always willing to share the spotlight. “Sometimes I think songwriters are a little too sensitive about not getting more press,” Axton revealed in a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “When you consider there are about a million songs out there, it does nothing but make the inside of my brain shine when somebody records one of my songs.”
The now-defunct Golden Bear nightclub in Huntington Beach, California, as well as the Troubadour in West Hollywood, were two of the key venues where Axton earned a reputation for his memorable tunes that often reflected his wry sense of humor. “At one point I think I did about 30 weekends straight [at the Golden Bear],” Axton told the Los Angeles Times in a 1982. “It was literally my home away from home.” While honing his skills on stage, Axton made his first significant mark as a songwriter with the song “Greenback Dollar.” In 1963, the single became a hit for the Kingston Trio and has since been recognized as a modern folk standard. Another Axton original, “The Pusher, “was recorded in 1964 by Steppenwolf for their debut album and became an instant hit; the song was also featured prominently in the acclaimed 1969 film Easy Rider. In 1967, Steppenwolf recorded another song written by Axton entitled “Snowblind Friend.”
Axton recorded for several small labels beginning in 1961, including Horizon, Vee-Jay, and Exodus, but saw little chart action until the mid-1970s. In the meantime, as the 1960s came to an end, Axton started opening shows for the group Three Dog Night. They recorded two of Axton’s songs, “Joy to the World (Jeremiah)” in 1971 and “Never Been to Spain” in 1972. “Joy to the World,” originally written for a children’s television program though never used, reached number one on the pop charts, where it stayed for six weeks, and sold more than one million copies in 1971. Likewise, “Never Been to Spain” climbed to the number five position the year of its release. Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night and a longtime friend of Axton recalled that the songwriter was never crazy about “Joy to the World” until a new arrangement led to its success. “Then he called and said, ‘They’re playing this song too damn much—I hope I never hear this song again,’” Negron told Richard Skanse of Rolling Stone in 1999. He went on to call the singer/songwriter “a wise man and a cool man. The guy seemed to have done everything. He was big as life, not just physically. Great stories, funny man.”
Axton’s own recording career flourished in the early 1970s. He recorded for Capitol, A & M, MCA, and later for his own label, Jeremiah. During these years, much of Axton’s work focused on country-rock music. His greatest success as a recording artist occurred in 1974 with his top ten country hit “Boney Fingers,” a duet performed with singer Linda Ronstadt. Two other top 20 hits followed: “Della and the Dealer” and “A Rusty Old Halo.” Axton’s most recognized full-length album, Road Songs, was released in 1977. Two years earlier, in 1975, Axton produced his first album, Tales from the Ozone, for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Still widely covered by some of the industry’s biggest stars, Axton’s songs were recorded by the likes of Ronstadt, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Joan Baez, Ringo Starr, and others. In the early 1980s, Axton signed with the Elektra label, but his later songs and albums saw little chart success.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Axton continued to tour and record. An entertainer who would at times perform up to 300 shows a year, Axton thrived on touring and an active lifestyle. “I like everything about touring,” he revealed to the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “I like the traveling, the cheeseburgers and the French fries, the starry nights and rolling out of town in the dark.” In addition to music, Axton also enjoyed a side career as an actor, usually playing character roles such as the portly good ol’ boy, for both television and in film. He made appearances in several made-for-television movies, miniseries, and episodic series, including the 1960s television series Bonanza. Axton’s film credits included roles in The Black Stallion in 1979, Gremlins in 1984, and We’re No Angels in 1989. After playing the role of Sheriff Henault in the 1989 film Disorganized Crime, Axton moved to Montana, where the movie was filmed. However, Axton rightfully admitted that music, not acting, brought him the most fulfillment. As he explained to the Los Angeles Times, “The freedom of songwriting and the spontaneity is wonderful…. There’s a certain blending of melody and lyric, there’s a harmony to it that just strikes a chord, and that’s what I really like—that contact with heaven.”
Axton died of heart failure on October 26, 1999, at the age of 61 at his home in the Bitterroot Valley near Victor, Montana. Two weeks prior to his death, he suffered a heart attack at his home and another while undergoing surgery. In addition, Axton had never fully recovered from a stroke he suffered in 1996, which left him confined to a wheel chair much of the time. His fourth wife Deborah Hawkins, aged 46 at the time of Axton’s death, told People magazine that her husband was happiest making music and never gave up hope of walking again. Years of drug use and compulsive overeating had also taken a toll on Axton’s health, and he eventually sought help through a drug rehabilitation program in 1991. Axton was survived by Hawkins and his five adult children. He divorced third wife Donna Axton in 1990, though they remained friends after the breakup. Donna Axton, the mother of four of Axton’s children (he had one child out of wedlock), also played piano for Axton’s touring band. Despite personal vices, Axton was beloved by all who knew him and was known for his generous nature, as well as for his girth and songwriting achievements.
Joy to the World, Capitol, 1971.
Less Than the Song, A & M, 1973.
Life Machine, A & M, 1974.
Southbound, A & M, 1975.
Fearless, A & M, 1976.
Road Songs, A & M, 1977.
A Rusty Old Halo, Jeremiah Records, 1979.
Spin of the Wheel, 1990.
Snowblind Friend, MCA, 1977; reissued, 1995.
Free Sallin’, MCA, 1996.
Hoyt Axton, Youngheart Music, 1996.
(With Ken Ramsey) “Greenback Dollar,” recorded by the Kingston Trio, 1962.
“The Pusher,” recorded by Steppenwolf, 1964.
“Snowblind Friend,” recorded by Steppenwolf, 1967.
“Joy to the World (Jeremiah),” recorded by Three Dog Night, 1972.
“Never Been to Spain,” recorded by Three Dog Night, 1972.
“Ease Your Pain,” 1973.
“When the Morning Comes,” recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Axton, 1974.
“Boney Fingers,” recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Axton, 1974.
“Lion in the Winter,” 1974.
“The No No Song,” recorded by Ringo Starr, 1975.
“Flash of Fire,” 1976.
“You’re the Hangnail in My Life,” 1977.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 18, Gale Research, 1998.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 27, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1997; October 27, 1999; October 30, 1999; November 1, 1999; November 2, 1999; November 8, 1999.
New York Times, October 27, 1999.
People, November 15, 1999, p. 69.
Publishers Weekly, October 14, 1996.
Rolling Stone, December 9, 1999, p. 24.
Variety, November 1, 1999, p. 105.
Washington Post, April 11, 1997; October 27, 1999.
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