The Remarkable Journey of Johnny Paycheck: A Country Outlaw
Johnny Paycheck, born Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31, 1938, left an indelible mark on the world of American country music. As a member of the esteemed Grand Ole Opry, he gained fame for his rebellious spirit and his iconic recording of David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Paycheck’s heyday came during the 1970s, a period when country music witnessed the rise of the “outlaw movement” pioneered by artists such as Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, and Merle Haggard.
In 1980, Paycheck graced the stage of the renowned PBS music program, Austin City Limits, during its fifth season. However, despite his early successes, the following decade posed numerous challenges for the talented singer. His music career suffered setbacks due to struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as legal troubles. In the early 1990s, Paycheck served a prison sentence, and his declining health ultimately brought his career to an end in the early 2000s. Throughout his life, he signed autographs as “PayCheck,” a testament to his unique identity and artistic independence.
From an early age, Paycheck displayed his musical talents. By the tender age of nine, he was already participating in talent contests, and he began his professional singing career at the age of fifteen. After serving in the Navy in the 1950s, he made his way to Nashville, Tennessee, where he joined the ranks of the esteemed country music scene. Paycheck’s rich tenor voice complemented the sounds of numerous prominent country artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Ray Price. He collaborated with the likes of Willie Nelson as a tenor singer in Price’s band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Additionally, Paycheck lent his vocal talents to recordings by Faron Young, Roger Miller, and Skeets McDonald.
In 1960, under the name Donny Young, Paycheck achieved recognition as his song “Miracle Of Love” climbed to the Top 35 on Cashbox magazine’s country charts. During the early 1960s, he successfully convinced the legendary George Jones to hire him as a harmonizer, providing bass and steel guitar accompaniment. Paycheck even co-wrote one of Jones’s hit songs, “Once You’ve Had the Best.” As a songwriter, Paycheck enjoyed some notable successes, with his biggest hit being “Apartment No. 9,” which launched Tammy Wynette’s chart-topping career in December 1966.
In 1964, Paycheck legally changed his name to Johnny Paycheck, inspired by a top-ranked boxer named Johnny Paychek from Chicago, who once fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight title. Contrary to popular belief, the name change was not a humorous response to Johnny Cash but rather a homage to the boxing legend. Paycheck made his first chart appearance under his new moniker with the song “A-11” in 1965. Among his memorable singles from that era was the bestselling “She’s All I Got,” which reached No. 2 on the US country singles charts in 1971 and even made its way onto the Billboard Hot 100. Another notable success was “Mr. Lovemaker,” which reached No. 2 on the US country singles chart in 1973.
As the popularity of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings soared in the mid-1970s, Paycheck transformed his image to align with the outlaw persona that resonated with audiences. With the help of his producer Billy Sherrill, Paycheck’s sound and image were revitalized. Sherrill, known for his meticulous attention to detail and pop sensibilities, brought a fresh perspective to Paycheck’s records, drawing inspiration from the bands that backed Jennings and Nelson. During this phase, Paycheck achieved his greatest commercial success. His most recognized hit single, “Take This Job and Shove It” (written by David Allan Coe), released in 1977, sold over two million copies and even inspired a motion picture of the same name. Hits like “Colorado Kool-Aid,” “Me and the IRS,” “Friend, Lover, Wife,” “Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets,” and “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” further solidified Paycheck’s status as an outlaw country artist. In 1977, he received the prestigious Academy of Country Music Career Achievement award.
Later in his career, Paycheck continued to release new albums, with his single “Old Violin” reaching No. 21 on the country chart in 1986. His last album to chart was “Modern Times” in 1987. Despite personal and health challenges, Paycheck remained committed to his craft, performing and touring until the late 1990s. In a moment of great honor, he was personally invited by Bob Whittaker, the general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, to join the esteemed institution in 1997, defying the usual protocol. Paycheck’s contribution to country music earned him a well-deserved place among the industry’s legends.
Johnny Paycheck embodied the essence of an outlaw—an artist who fearlessly pursued his own path, regardless of whether it was met with approval. His music resonates with audiences to this day, a testament to his unique style and unwavering spirit. The remarkable journey of Johnny Paycheck will forever be celebrated as a significant chapter in the rich tapestry of country music history.
Birth name: Donald Eugene Lytle
Also known: Donny Young
Born; May 31, 1938 , Greenfield, Ohio, U.S.
Died: February 19, 2003 (aged 64) , Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres: Countryoutlaw countryhonky tonk
Occupations: Singer, songwriter
Years active: 1953–2003
Labels: Sony, Little Darlin’, Epic, Certron
To me, an outlaw is a man that did things his own way, whether you liked him or not. I did things my own way.
— Johnny Paycheck