Forgotten Artists: Donald Lytle, aka Donny Young
Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Donald Eugene Lytle (May 31, 1938–February 19, 2003). Possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, Lytle was not as talented at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Lytle was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night.” It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Donald Lytle, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.
He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Lytle rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer who nearly killed him. Lytle was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig.
Released after approximately three years, Lytle headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.
Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Lytle fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities–and his unique vocals–came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Lytle’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency (Young and Jones were notorious carousers).
Lytle then cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ’50s under the moniker Donny Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Young’s first single, “On This Mountain Top,” was billed as a duet with another restless soul–Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). Also in 1960, Lytle had his first chart success as his single “Miracle of Love” reached #31 status on Cashbox’s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Lytle was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones’ vocals, and listening to Jones’ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Lytle’s influence will forever be subject to debate.
In 1964, the Beatles’ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event–the convergence of the vocal stylings of Lytle with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer.
At this point, I should mention that Donny Lytle again underwent a name change, one that would remain in use (with minor variations) for the remainder of his career.
Aubrey Mayhew’s vision for Lytle’s music was a complete 180 degree change from the bland product, overrun with orchestral strings and choral backgrounds while lacking fiddle and steel guitar, being churned out by Nashville.
Mayhew’s vision for Lytle was that of a rebellious honky-tonker with movie star good looks and a a taste for bizarre, sometimes humorous and/or violent songs that tempered their serious nature with upbeat instrumentation–led by the piercingly high tones of steel guitar wizard Lloyd Green. The first Mayhew-produced recordings were issued on the Hilltop label. While 1964’s “I’d Rather Be Your Fool” failed to chart, a subsequent single, “A-11,” exploded onto the market, reaching #26 Billboard/#17 Cashbox–it would have done much better with a major label behind it.
Buoyed by the success of “A-11” and its follow up “Heartbreak Tennessee” (which reached #40), in 1966 Mayhew and Lytle established a record label to handle subsequent recordings, giving it the name Little Darlin’. While Little Darlin’ would never be a big moneymaker, the world of country music owes it a huge debt of gratitude for the terrific sides that the Dynamic Duo were to record over the course of the next four years.
Not only did a stream of exciting singles flow from Little Darlin’, such as “The Lovin’ Machine” (#8 Billboard/#6 Cashbox), “Motel Time Again” (#13), “Jukebox Charlie” (#15), “The Cave” (#32; a tale of nuclear destruction), “(It Won’t Be Long) And I’ll Be Hating You” (#59) and “Don’t Monkey with Another Monkey’s Monkey” (#41), but the albums were filled with some of the most extreme country music ever recorded. I’m not sure that even today many artists would have the courage to record songs such as “(Excuse Me) I Have Someone To Kill Tonight,” “Don’t You Say Nothing At All” and “There’s No Easy Way To Die.” Moreover, Lytle continued to flex his muscles as a songwriter, co-writing “Apartment #9,” which co-writer Bobby Austin turned into a hit. Austin’s recording was quickly covered by Tammy Wynette for her first hit record.
There’s an old saying that “The honky-tonk life kills off the honky-tonk singers.” In Donny Lytle’s case, that almost proved to be true as the twin demons of alcohol and drug abuse brought his career to a halt. Little Darlin’ shut down operations in 1970.
While he was drying out, the country music genre was undergoing some changes. Bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, Poco and Pure Prairie League were adding country sounds to their forms of rock music. Meanwhile, former rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were experiencing success on country radio. Hoping to capitalize on the new energy affecting country music, CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter tracked Lytle down (there are stories of him sleeping under freeway bridges and on park benches). Hunter brought Lytle to the attention of producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records and recorded him as a straight-ahead country balladeer. Success came immediately. Starting in late 1971 “She’s All I Got” (#2 Billboard/#1 Cashbox) followed in quick succession by 1972’s “Someone to Give My Love To” (#4 Billboard/#2 Cashbox/#1 Record World), “Love Is A Good Thing (#12) and Somebody Loves Me” (#21). In 1973, he hit with “Mr. Lovemaker” (#2) and “Song and Dance Man” (#8). Along the way he also had a hit duet with fellow Epic recording artist Jody Miller (see previous Forgotten Artist article) on the old gospel classic “Let’s All Go Down to The River.” (Lytle had previously recorded a gospel album for Little Darlin’.)
By 1974, as Lytle’s career was beginning to lose steam again, so he reinvented himself again, this time as an “Outlaw Country” singer. Indeed, it can be said that he was the first “Outlaw,” dating back to his recordings on Little Darlin’…
I must interrupt this narrative for a confession. I have been referring to this artist as Donald Lytle and/or Donny Young, but by now the more astute among you have figured out that I really writing about someone very, very famous. I really wanted to write about this fellow but because of a huge #1 record in 1977, the title of which was used in a Hollywood movie, and which is still sung by country acts in bars and on stages across the nation (possibly all over the world), the name of Johnny Paycheck is quite well known and forever associated with the novelty song “Take This Job And Shove It.” What is forgotten is what a great and versatile country singer he was before ever becoming associated with the “Outlaw” movement.
The rest of the story is pretty well known. Sherrill recast Paycheck’s sound to be similar to the that sported by Waylon and Willie and Tompall Glaser and David Allan Coe, and spun off another string of hits including “Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets” (#7), “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” (#6), and the David Allan Coe-penned “Take This Job and Shove It” (#1). The string of hits continued through the early eighties with ever-decreasing success. Paycheck left Epic in 1982 and only two other major hits were to follow, 1983’s “I Never Got Over You” (#30) on AMI, a record which with a major label behind it would have been a Top 10 hit, and the exquisite “Old Violin” (#21) on Mercury in 1986.
Paycheck had spent the early 1980s in and out of legal trouble. On December 19, 1985, he was involved in a barroom brawl at the Highland Lounge in Hillsboro, Ohio, that ended with him shooting and injuring his opponent. He was arrested for aggravated assault and spent the next four years appealing the sentence while he recorded for Mercury Records. He spent 22 months in prison and was pardoned by th then-Governor of Ohio, Richard Celeste.
Johnny Paycheck resumed recording after his release from prison recording for Playback Records while keeping himself clean with the aid of old friends like George Jones and the well wishes of his many fans. Unfortunately, the hard living world of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol finally caught up with him and he died of emphysema and other complications in 2003. His last recording was as a duet partner on Daryle Singletary’s remake of “Old Violin,” a fitting end as the song chronicles Paycheck’s own demise as a performer.
Well I can’t recall/One time in my life
That I felt as lonely/As I do tonight
Tonight I feel/Like an old violin
Soon to be put away/And never played again
Needless to say, all of Johnny Paycheck’s vinyl output is out of print. Personally, I feel that the Hilltop & Little Darlin’ recordings represent the absolute zenith of his career, followed by the Epic sides before 1976. That’s not to say that nothing after that is worth having–quite the contrary, every album has its merits.
The early stages of Johnny Paycheck’s career are well represented on compact disc. All 29 of the tunes he recorded under the name Donny Young are available on a Bear Family CD titled Shakin’ The Blues. While the Johnny Paycheck style is not yet fully developed, the vocals are still distinctive. The songs are a mixture of covers and originals. These recordings originally appeared on the Decca and Mercury labels.
The genius of the Mayhew/Paycheck pairing is available on four CDs. Koch has issued two CDs of his secular material On His Way (Amazon MP3) and The Beginning (Amazon MP3). These two CDs collectively contain 30 tracks with minimal overlap with the excellent Country Music Foundation release titled The Real Mr. Heartache – The Little Darlin’ Years. The CMF release has 24 tracks. Recently, the Omni label has issued Nowhere To Run, a 29 track collection that has many songs not found on the other collections.
Koch also issued The Gospel Truth (Amazon MP3) containing the 20 Paycheck gospel recordings produced by Aubrey Mayhew. I think if you purchased all five of these CDs (most of which are available from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop) you would have all of the Paycheck-Mayhew collaborations.
The Epic years are not nearly as represented on CD. Legacy has a 23 track CD set titled The Soul &The Edge (Amazon MP3) which covers the “Outlaw” years fairly well, but really skimps on the early “Mr. Lovemaker” years. Legacy did license the Mercury track of “Old Violin” making this the only set to contain the original hit recording of the song. To help cover the earlier Epic years you’ll need a set such as Super Hits (Amazon MP3) or 16 Biggest Hits (Amazon MP3), and even then you’ll be missing some key songs.
At various times, labels such as Raven have licensed some individual Epic albums, either as two-fers or stand-alones. Paycheck toured with Merle Haggard during the early ’80s and in 1980 Paycheck recorded the excellent Mr. Hag Told My Story which features Haggard on some of the tracks. Be on the lookout for this CD.
Paycheck also recorded for a number of independent labels after his peak days were over. Many of these recordings are tepid remakes of earlier hits, but be on the lookout for I’m A Survivor, which was originally released in 1984-1985 for AMI. This collection has been reissued on several labels and features the title track and “I Never Got Over You” which is one of the best tracks he ever recorded, as well as the rest of the AMI tracks.
Unfortunately the 1986 Mercury recordings have never been released on CD. There is a Live In Branson set which was released in 1993. It’s nothing special but does show Paycheck in a live setting.
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