Johnny Paycheck made a name for himself as a country music rebel, and even non-country fans were familiar with his working-class anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Unfortunately his notoriety, highlighted by episodes of violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, court dates, and a prison sentence, overshadowed his musical accomplishments.
Paycheck was born Donald Eugene Lytle in 1938 in Greenfield, Ohio. He’d learned to play guitar by the age of six and by nine was entering talent contests throughout the state. At 15, he ran away from home, billing himself as the “Ohio Kid” and playing in honky-tonks. In 1956 he joined the U.S. Navy, but was court-martialed for assaulting a superior officer, landing him two years in prison.
After his release, Paycheck moved to Nashville, where he recorded two rockabilly singles for Decca as Donny Young, though neither charted. Next he cut two country singles for Mercury, but they also flopped. He then went to work as a bass player, but here again his short temper caused him to move from band to band. He worked successively with Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, and Ray Price before settling into a four-year stint with George Jones between 1962 and 1966.
Donald Lytle rechristened himself “Johnny Paycheck” in 1965, borrowing the name from a Chicago boxer, then recorded “A-11” and “Heartbreak Tennessee” for the Hilltop label. “Though it only charted at number 26,” wrote Dan Cooper in All Music Guide, “‘A-11’ caused a sensation within the country community, earning several Grammy nominations as well as reviews that compared Paycheck to his mentor, Jones.” In 1966 Aubrey Mayhew started Little Darlin’ Records, primarily as a vehicle to promote Paycheck, and in the summer of 1966 the team released “The Lovin’ Machine” which became a top-ten hit. Paycheck also penned “Touch My Heart,” which became a number-three hit for Ray Price, and wrote “Apartment 9” with Bobby Austin and Fuzzy Owen, which became Tammy Wynette’s first hit.
Between 1967 and 1969, Paycheck recorded a steady stream of hits for Little Darlin’, though he never rose to star status. “Motel Time” climbed to number 13 in 1967, “If I’m Gonna Sink” rose to number 73 in 1968, and “Wherever You Are” reached number 31 in 1969. Despite this modest success, Paycheck’s erratic behavior and heavy drinking foiled his Nashville career, and following “Wherever You Are,” Little Darlin’ closed its doors. Paycheck moved to California where he sank even deeper into substance abuse.
In 1971 producer Billy Sherrill began searching for Paycheck, hoping to bring him back to the studio for Epic Records. When the label found him, they offered him a contract under the condition that he get his life back on track. Paycheck complied, and soon, under
Born Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, OH; died on February 18, 2003, in Nashville, TN.
Played bass for Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Ray Price, and George Jones, early to mid-1960s; rechris-tened Johnny Paycheck, 1965; recorded a series of albums for Little Darlin’ Records, 1966-69; rediscovered by producer Billy Sherrill, early 1970s; charted with “Mr. Lovemaker,” “For a Minute There,” and “Something about You I Love,” early to mid-1970s; topped charts with blue-collar anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It,” 1977; recorded sporadically for Mercury, Lucky Dog, and Playback, 1980s-1990s.
Sherrill’s tutelage, he had recorded a number two hit, “She’s All I Got.” Unlike his earlier sides for Little Darlin’, these singles included strings and a smoother pop production. Over the next four years Paycheck had 12 hits, including “Mr. Lovemaker,” “For a Minute There,” and “Something About You I Love.” Despite his success, his personal life remained in turmoil and in 1972, he was convicted for check forgery; in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.
During that same year, amid a paternity suit and tax problems, Paycheck released 11 Months and 29 Days. Once again he had transformed his musical style, this time in conjunction with the Outlaw movement that had swept country music in the mid-1970s. After a short transition period, Paycheck produced two top-ten hits in 1977: “Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets” and “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised).” He secured his “outlaw” status when he released David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” late in 1977.
Paycheck spoke about the appeal of his blue-collar anthem to Carol Vinzant in Fortune. “I think it’s what everybody would like to say to their boss but can’t.” The single spent two weeks at number one, and even the B-side, “Colorado Kool-Aid,” reached number 50. Although Paycheck’s singles continued to chart in 1978 and 1979, would-be humorous releases like “Me and the I.R.S.” and “D.O.A. (Drunk on Arrival)” seemed a little too close to reality to be funny.
Soon Paycheck’s life began to unravel once again. In 1979 Glenn Ferguson, the singer’s former manager, initiated a lawsuit against Paycheck and in 1981 an airline stewardess charged him with slander. The following year Paycheck was accused of rape and sued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for $103,000 in back taxes. In 1985 he became embroiled in a barroom brawl in Hillsboro, Ohio—reportedly over the virtues of venison and turtle soup—and allegedly shouted “I’m no country hick!” before firing a gun and grazing his opponent’s skull.
Paycheck appealed the charges stemming from the incident for four years, and then served two years in Chillicothe Correctional Institute beginning in 1989. By 1990 he was $1.6 million in debt (most of it owed to the IRS), and declared bankruptcy. Concerning his incarceration Paycheck told Billboard, “I learned that [prison’s] a terrible place to have to go, but it can sure get your priorities straight.” He used the time to his advantage, finishing his high school diploma and working as a teacher’s aide.
Following his release in 1991, Paycheck maintained a lower profile, recording for Playback and Lucky Dog, and performing in Branson, Missouri. He recorded a single with friend George Jones, “The Last Outlaw Is Alive and Doing Well,” and traveled throughout the United States to talk to young people about alcohol and drug addiction. He was plagued by poor health during the last years of his life, and spent several years bedridden in a nursing home. Through all these difficulties, Paycheck never forgot his fans—and they never forgot him. In his obituary in the Independent, Paul Wadey quoted Paycheck: “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.”
Johnny Paycheck at Carnegie Hall (live), Little Darlin’, 1966.
The Lovin’Machine, Little Darlin’, 1966.
Country Soul, Little Darlin’, 1967.
Gospel Tme in My Fashion, Little Darlin’, 1967.
Jukebox Charlie, Little Darlin’, 1967.
Wherever You Are, Little Darlin’, 1969.
Again, Certon, 1970.
She’s All I Got, Koch, 1971.
Someone to Give My Love To, Epic, 1972.
Somebody Loves Me, Epic, 1972.
Mr. Lovemaker, Richmond, 1973.
Country Spotlight, K-Tel, 1974.
Song and Dance Man, Epic, 1974.
11 Months and 29 Days, Epic, 1976.
Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets, Epic, 1977.
Take This Job & Shove It, Epic, 1978.
Bars, Booze, & Blondes, Little Darlin’, 1979.
Armed and Crazy, Epic, 1979.
Everybody’s Got a Family, Meet Mine, Epic, 1980.
Encore, Epic, 1981.
Mr. Hag Told My Story, Epic, 1981.
Extra Special, Accord, 1982.
Back on the Job, Intermedia, 1984.
Modern Times, Mercury, 1987.
Difference in Me, Playback, 1995.
I’m a Survivor, Sterling, 1996.
Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin’ Years, Country Music Foundation, 1996.
16 Biggest Hits, Sony, 1999.
Tribute to George Jones, K-Tel, 2002.
Soul and the Edge: The Best of Johnny Paycheck, Epic, 2002.
Billboard, February 9, 1991, p. 39.
Fortune, February 7, 2000, p. 200.
Independent (London, England), February 21, 2003, p. 18.
“Johnny Paycheck,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Paycheck, Johnny." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/paycheck-johnny
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