Liner notes for Shakin’ the Blues: Johnny Paycheck aka Donny Young, Bear Family Records
Originally published in 2006
Much ado has been made of “the early years” of the artist known as Johnny Paycheck. In recent times several excellent compilations of his Little Darlin’ label recordings have been made available, which has been a blessing for collectors and new fans alike.
However, everything that has been written about the man born Donald Eugene Lytle seems to suggest that one day in 1964, he emerged perfectly hatched as country superstar Johnny Paycheck. Only a few of the bios mention in passing that he had made a few failed records early on under the guise of Donny Young, and even then only in the shortest words possible, as if this was an unpleasant factoid to be swept under the rug and forgotten.
What these historians seem to forget is that Paycheck (who, despite his numerous pseudonyms, shall be referred to henceforth as Paycheck, even when referencing his earlier self) had spent years making a slew of brilliant honky-tonk, near-rockabilly, and stone country records, some of the best records he would ever make, under that forgotten nom de plume of Donny Young.
The fact that these records did not sell—truthfully, that they could not even be given away—fails to diminish the excitement that they offer when heard with fresh ears some forty-five years down the road. They are great records, great songs, and great productions.
Nashville, then as now, only recognizes financial success, and these records were flops, therefore they must have been terrible records, according to the Nashville standard. Nobody bought Cadillacs from these discs, and the name Donny Young draws a blank stare from all but the most astute music historians. However, their failure was more likely due to the uncontrollable, ornery, drugging and drinking nature of the young man who sang them, and to the lack of promotion on the part of the record labels, than to any lack of musical greatness. The greatness was there, fully intact; it would just take a name change, a smart manager, and the advent of Outlaw Country before the Cadillacs would come, and the respect of the country music establishment with them.
Donald Eugene Lytle was born May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, Ohio, an unlikely place for a future country star to hail from, but not entirely out of character. Outside of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, Ohio was one hick town after another, and country music had always been king. The great radio powerhouse WLW broadcast out of Cincinnati, bringing the sounds of country music to towns like Greenfield, and of course WSM and the Grand Ole Opry were well within broadcast range.
The giant record label King was based out of Cincinnati, releasing hundreds of budget country albums, and the Jimmie Skinner Record Shop, also based out of Cincy, distributed millions of those country discs to rural areas such as Greenfield and every other little town in a thousand-mile radius.
When asked about his early years, Paycheck remembered his mother having Hank Williams 78 RPM records in their house and reckoned that Hank was his biggest influence. His mother gave the lad a guitar at the age of six and began entering him in talent contests in the nearby area when he was nine. By thirteen he was working steadily as a professional singer at Paul Angel’s Club 28 in Greenfield.
Not content with local stability, Paycheck began drifting early on, hopping a freight train at the age of fifteen and traveling to all the cities in the tri-state area. Wherever he would land, he would get a job as a singer at a local honky-tonk, and he worked at many of the top country nightclubs in Ohio before making the big decision to join the Navy.
It’s hard to imagine anyone less suited for the rigors of military life than Johnny Paycheck, and sure enough within a few months he had been court-martialed and put in the brig for fracturing an officer’s skull during a brawl. In 1956 he was sentenced to hard time for the offense and began serving it at a military prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
While in the brig, Paycheck attempted to escape so many times that eventually they reduced his sentence, and long before his release date they let him go out of sheer exasperation. After being freed, Paycheck drifted to Florida, Texas, and then finally decided to give it a go as a professional country music singer in Nashville.
After arriving in Nashville, Paycheck was discovered by Buddy Killen, who gave him a job as a songwriter and demo singer for Tree Publishing (still a huge force in Nashville, but now called Sony/ATV Music Publishing). While it was a professional gig in the music business, it was the sort of job where one barely made enough money to rent a hot attic room at a boardinghouse.
Paycheck caught a break, however, when the producer Owen Bradley, who also acted as an A&R man for Decca Records, heard one of his demos and signed him to a recording contract, which must have seemed like a huge break for the struggling young singer. It was, but as it went for Buddy Holly with Decca a few years earlier, simply having releases on the label was no guarantee of success.
Producer Owen Bradley must have believed in the young singer, though, as four singles were released over the next three years, all excellent examples of hard-core honky-tonk and country.
The first release was “It’s Been a Long, Long Time for Me” b/w “On This Mountain Top,” released as Decca 9-30763 in November of 1958. The topside was written by Paycheck, a great bouncy number reminiscent of the hits Faron Young was having at the time. The flip featured Paycheck’s “roaring” buddy Roger Miller on harmony vocals, and Miller was given a cobilling on the label. The record was superb on all accounts, with an impassioned vocal and the full A-team session-man treatment from Owen Bradley. This statement can be echoed time and time again throughout these notes, but it should have been a hit. It was a great record.
Paycheck and Roger Miller were both destined for stardom, but in the studio at that moment in the fall of 1958 they were unknown, two very small fish in a very big pond. It would be years before either one would taste the glory of a hit record. By any standard it was an auspicious debut, but for all intents and purposes, the careers of both men began that night—the start of a long, hard slog for both of them.
The second record, “The Old Man and the River” b/w “Pictures Can’t Talk,” released as Decca 9-30881 in April of 1959, was yet another two-side artistic success that garnered no sales. Roger Miller’s tune on the topside (he was also writing song demos for Tree Music at the same time) was a great Cajun-flavored song with a memorable chorus, and Paycheck’s flip was a first-rate weeper that suited his wounded enunciation perfectly.
By this point Paycheck must have been tasting the bitter pill of realization, just as Buddy Holly had a few years earlier: that good product didn’t automatically translate into hit records and those elusive Cadillacs.
By the time of the third release, “Shakin’ the Blues” b/w “Miracle of Love,” Paycheck really hit his stride. This record can only be considered a masterpiece in every respect: songwriting (it was written by none other than Paycheck’s boss at this point, George Jones), arrangement, performance, and production. It was a record that had “HIT” written all over it, and yet again it failed to chart.
While “Shakin’ the Blues” has seen release on numerous rockabilly compilations, the truth is that it was just hard-driving honky-tonk with a beat. The twin fiddles and steel guitar could have made it a Ray Price session, but Paycheck’s frantic vocal separates into something else entirely, something entirely his own. The mold for the later Paycheck hits was cast with this record—edgy, unpredictable, and raw—which certainly would make him a good candidate for rockabilly but actually foreshadowed the Outlaw Country movement that would come some years later.
Ignored by the public and critics alike, as time went on gradually people became aware of “Shakin’ the Blues,” and now some forty-five years after its release, many collectors and country music aficionados now consider it one of the best records cut in Nashville during the golden era of the late 1950s “Nashville Sound.”
The failure of “Shakin’ the Blues” must have soured Decca on the marketability of Donny Young, and he was allowed to record no more sessions at Bradley’s studio. One more 45 was released in July of 1961, “I Guess I Had It Coming” b/w “Go Ring the Bells” (Decca 9-31283), which was made up of two leftovers from the earlier sessions. The topside was written by Paycheck and dated from the first session in 1958, featuring Roger Miller on harmony vocals once again, though he was not credited on this release. The flip was a ballad by Don Gibson, who was hot as a pistol at the time, but it didn’t seem to help Donny Young one bit. Although both were again great songs with a lot going for them, this release seems to have been an afterthought, with no promotion put behind it whatsoever. Decca dropped Paycheck soon thereafter, and he moved back to Ohio.
Collectors rejoice: One unreleased song from the Decca period, “Story Behind the Photograph,” has surfaced and is included here for the first time. Also, it should be noted that several Paycheck discographies list a record credited to Jimmy Dallas, “Hurtin’ in My Heart” b/w “My Kind of Love” (Decca 9-31133), as actually being Paycheck singing under a pseudonym. This simply isn’t the case. Jimmy Dallas was a fairly established country singer from Kansas City who had been making records since the early 1950s, and this Decca release bears no resemblance to Paycheck’s style whatsoever, making its inclusion on several Paycheck discographies all the more baffling.
While licking his wounds back in Ohio, Paycheck had the fortune to hook up with a like-minded young singer named Darrell McCall, who was also an Ohio native with a love for hard-core country music. The pair started singing together and discovered that their vocal harmonies meshed perfectly. Soon Paycheck was plotting his return to Nashville, this time as part of a duo, which he christened the Young Brothers (and, indeed, Darrell McCall would be known as Darrell Young around Nashville for a number of years).
As McCall recounts, the pair hit Nashville with something less than a splash, with literally pennies between them. The first night in town, they slept underneath the Main Street bridge before getting a room at Mom Upchurch’s boardinghouse, which served as a headquarters for broke musicians looking for work. Roger Miller also lived there, and Paycheck relished being reunited with his old buddy. Between Paycheck, McCall, and Miller, they began setting a standard for rowdy behavior that is the benchmark for country musicians to this day.
Darrell McCall blames most of this on their copious use of uppers, a common party favor during the 1960s. To quote McCall, “You had to take uppers back then, just to keep up with the grueling pace. We started out with what they called Ol’ Yellers, which weren’t too bad for you, as they had vitamins and nutrients inside. Then we got into White Crosses, Black Mollys, Yellowjackets, and Speckled Birds, which were harsher and harsher forms of speed as time went along. By the time we got around to Speckled Birds, things were getting pretty nuts.”
During Paycheck’s tenure with Decca Records, he had been hiring himself out as a sideman to help pay the bills. In fact there hadn’t been much promotion of Donny Young the solo artist to speak of, save for one aborted tour with Roger Miller and Bill Anderson that had ended with Miller having to pawn his newly purchased portable record player (which he had bought so the trio could listen to their own records while on the road) for gas money home. Paycheck had a reputation as a good bass player and high harmony singer, and he filled that role with Porter Waggoner, Faron Young, Ray Price, and, most notably, George Jones over the next few years.
Darrell McCall remembers that Ray Price had a custom suit made originally for Paycheck, and that due to Paycheck’s volatility, both he and Willie Nelson were called on at various times to play bass for Ray Price, simply because they both fit into Paycheck’s suit—something that didn’t sit too well with McCall due to both Paycheck’s and Willie Nelson’s extreme body odor!
Faron Young took Paycheck, Roger Miller, and Darrell McCall out as sidemen at various times during this period. Paycheck’s yearlong stint with Young proved to be one of his longest uninterrupted road gigs.
Of all of his sideman jobs, it is probably Paycheck’s tenure with George Jones that is best remembered. Jones and Paycheck had a long history over a period dating roughly 1959-66: an on-again, off-again relationship that was as stormy as it was productive.
The seeds were sown during these years of 1964-69 for what would then be known as Outlaw Country, and no one could fit that bill better than Johnny Paycheck, a man who lived the life he sang about.
According to Darrell McCall, Paycheck had a nasty habit of getting drunk and fighting with his employers, and George Jones was no pushover himself. Both men were short in height and short in temper. The explosive relationship between the two was tempered by the fact that both men dearly loved each other and would always forgive and forget, only to repeat the exact same scenario the next time around.
Notably, music historians have pointed out that George Jones seemed to absorb Johnny Paycheck’s vocal styling during this time frame, a fact Jones has not exactly denied. Many of the inflections, dips to the low registers following by soaring high notes, and other examples of the classic George Jones style seem to have come directly from working with Paycheck during those years. The proof does lie in the chronology of the recordings: Jones’s Starday and Mercury output before working with Paycheck demonstrates a completely different mode of singing that is more rooted in the traditional Hank Williams style than anything else. However, once Donny Young (aka Johnny Paycheck) began singing harmonies with Jones, the style so associated with Jones in later years began to take shape. Paycheck, to his credit, only intimated that both men influenced each other during the time they worked together.
In fact it was Jones that got Paycheck his next recording contract, with his own label, Mercury Records. Another two excellent singles were issued under the Donny Young name, presumably backed by the Jones boys (who would also back up Paycheck a few years later on his first hit record, A-11).
“On Second Thought” b/w “One Day a Week” (Mercury 71900) was released in September 1961, only a few months after the last Decca record escaped. It was another great single . . . that yet again failed to chart. Despite Jones’s efforts, the name Donny Young seemed doomed to obscurity.
The second Mercury release, “I’d Come Back to Me” b/w “Not Much I Don’t” (Mercury 71981, released in June 1962) was a strong foreshadowing of the style that Paycheck would soon be recording for Hilltop and Little Darlin’. Again it made no waves and sank without a trace.
Paycheck had now had two major-label contracts without a lick of success. Continuing to work as a sideman paid the bills, but there were often months where there was no work, and the frustration must have been maddening.
One way to keep a finger in the business and earn some money on the side was by cutting scab, or nonunion, sessions for budget labels around Nashville. During the period of 1960-61 Paycheck, along with Darrell McCall and Roger Miller, would make many soundalike scab recordings for Starday. These were covers of the top hits of the day, which were then sold at a budget price to people who often didn’t realize they were being duped by singers attempting to re-create the sound of the original hits.
Darrell McCall recalls that these sessions paid ten dollars each. That must have been demeaning, especially to such talented young men, but it was one way to keep food on the table and get experience in the studio as well.
Paycheck had several of his songs released on a series of Dixie EPs (Dixie was a Starday imprint) with no artist credit, and at least one track released on a budget Starday album was credited to Donny Young. All the tracks he recorded during this time are included here, some making their debut after having remained in the can for forty years.
While these are by no means the best recordings Paycheck ever cut, they are fascinating examples of low-budget early-1960s country music. Paycheck does attempt to sound like the singers he’s covering, but his own personality can’t be helped, and they sound more like what an actual Johnny Paycheck live show must have sounded like than anything else. Darrell McCall and Roger Miller (as well as George McCormick) can be heard singing vocal harmonies on these tracks, and Paycheck can in turn be heard singing harmonies for songs credited to both McCall and Miller, recorded at these same scab sessions.
It was at the 1962 Nashville Dee-Jay convention that Eddie Crandall, a music hustler associated with Marty Robbins, played a demo tape of songs for the New York-based A&R man Aubrey Mayhew, who worked for Pickwick Records. Although Crandall was attempting to sell the songs on the tape, Mayhew paid Crandall $200 just to know who it was singing on the demos.
Reportedly, Crandall then led Mayhew to the aforementioned Main Street bridge, under which Paycheck was sleeping one off (Mom Upchurch’s boardinghouse locked its doors at midnight). Mayhew began managing the singer, at least as well as anyone could manage him, and spent the next couple of years developing him. According to Mayhew, Paycheck was supposed to keep a low profile and write songs, preparing for their big push, but the stipend Mayhew provided actually translated into pouring a lot of money into an endless black hole of parties and pills.
Paycheck ventured westward and spent most of 1962 and 1963 in both Southern California and Las Vegas. In Vegas he worked for Wynn Stewart, who ran the house band at the Nashville Nevada Club. Wynn’s bass player at the time was none other than Merle Haggard, and Haggard hit it off with Paycheck right away—another pairing of two rowdy souls schooled in the art of “roaring.”
Paycheck loved the West Coast and its country music scene and was a big fan of Buck Owens in particular. According to Darrell McCall, Owens had Paycheck to thank for finally getting him played on the radio in Nashville, which had shut him out up to that point due to his outsider status. Paycheck spent many sleepless nights staying up with Ralph Emery at WSM, and he persuaded Emery to play one of Owens’s discs, which helped break Owens into the Nashville establishment. Later on, after being christened Johnny Paycheck, he would cover an obscure Buck Owens album track, “A-11,” and turn it into his first breakout hit.
Exactly how Paycheck’s last release under the name Donny Young came about is unknown. The Todd label was the brainchild of the Decca A&R man Paul Cohen, who had run it as a sideline business since 1957, releasing everything from rockabilly (Jericho Jones) to surf (Bobby Fuller) and all styles in between. Presumably Paycheck still had some contact with Paul Cohen from the Decca days, or perhaps it was a deal brokered by Aubrey Mayhew, but either way it was a great record that never had a chance.
“Don’t You Get Lonesome” b/w “I’m Glad to Have Her Back Again” was released as Todd 1098 in early 1964. If it were possible, it made even less of a splash than the Decca and Mercury singles, vanishing without a trace, and today it remains the rarest of all the Donny Young releases.
Little is known about the Todd record, though both sides are again excellent honky-tonk shuffles. They closely resemble the type of songs that Paycheck would soon become known for on Hilltop and Little Darlin’. Gino King, who played guitar with Little Jimmy Dickens for many years, remembers playing guitar and singing harmony on the Todd disc, but beyond that all session details are unknown.
Another collectors’ note: Several discographies list a Donny Young single on American-Canadian (AmCan) as being another Paycheck disc. The record features an obviously different singer and is not included here.
Had it not been for Aubrey Mayhew, the man born Donald Lytle might have continued using the Donny Young stage name indefinitely, perhaps making scads more obscure singles and touring as a sideman with a dozen more big-name stars. As it turned out, Mayhew rechristened Donny Young as Johnny Paycheck after an obscure prizefighter, and he even formed a new Pickwick subsidiary, which he named Hilltop, specifically to release Johnny Paycheck records.
The timing was right this time around. With Paycheck’s third release on Hilltop, “A-11,” Paycheck finally had a chart hit. During the course of the next few years Paycheck and Mayhew, along with steel guitarist Lloyd Green, would record a slew of highly influential records and set the mold for exactly who and what Johnny Paycheck was supposed to be—dark, brooding, moody, violent—with such milestone recordings as “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” “You’ll Recover in Time” (about being straightjacketed in a mental ward) and “The Cave” (a song about nuclear destruction), all of which sent influential waves of change throughout the country music community.
The seeds were sown during these years of 1964-69 for what would then be known as Outlaw Country, and no one could fit that bill better than Johnny Paycheck, a man who lived the life he sang about. By the time of his next resurrection in the early 1970s with producer Billy Sherrill, Paycheck was poised for superstardom with such megahits as “She’s All I Got” in 1971, and of course his 1977 anthem “Take This Job and Shove It,” the song that would forevermore define him.
It was an astounding nineteen years between the day Paycheck first entered a recording studio and his first number-one hit. It’s likely that few of the bikers, truckers, and long-haired rebels buying the Paycheck records of the late ‘70s knew that the gravelly-voiced survivor dated back to a completely different era, when he was a skinny, pompadoured young man with a soaring, high voice, trying to make a name for himself with a name that no one would ever remember: the forgotten alias of Donny Young.
Postscript: Johnny Paycheck died on February 19, 2003, from emphysema and asthma. He is buried in Nashville at Woodlawn Memorial Park in a plot paid for by his old friend George Jones.