A Fond Flashback at Johnny Paycheck, Icon and Ex-con

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Had he lived, Donald Eugene Lytle, a.k.a. Johnny Paycheck, would have been celebrating his 81st birthday Friday (May 31).

Known first and foremost for his only No. 1 hit, the 1977 “Take This Job and Shove It,” Paycheck played in bands for George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Faron Young and Ray Price before taking his stage name and signing a recording deal as a solo artist.

Johnny Paycheck Striking With Teamsters, 1977

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Paycheck & Merle Haggard At Countryside Opry

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In a recording career that lasted from 1965 to 1989, when he went to prison for 22 months for shooting a man in a bar fight, Paycheck charted 60 singles, including the Top 5 “She’s All I Got” and “Someone to Give My Love To” and the Top 10 “Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets” and “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.”

Paycheck was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1997.

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I did not know Paycheck, but I was one of the reporters invited to George Jones’ house for a press conference soon after Paycheck was released from jail in 1991. Here’s my account of that encounter:

Johnny Paycheck Returns, Humbler and Smarter

Broke but buoyant, Johnny Paycheck perched himself on a high stool in the middle of George Jones’ Brentwood, Tenn. living room and genially bade the encircling reporters to start pecking. This was not the cadaverous and combative Paycheck of old, the feisty yeast of a thousand swollen tabloid stories. Just hours out of jail, here sat a man reborn — a virtual hymn to rehabilitation. “I learned that [prison’s] a terrible place to have to go,” he said, “but it can sure get your priorities straight.”

One of his priorities, it developed, was completing his high-school education, an enterprise he had originally abandoned about the time he reached the eighth grade. “I learned a lot about the educational system, and what not having it does to you,” he explained. He said he spent part of his time in prison working as a teacher’s aide. By the time he entered prison, he added, he had given up drugs and drinking. Inside, he gave up smoking and was evidently rewarded for his abstemiousness with a respectable paunch.

Did his celebrity status make life within the walls easier for him, a reporter wanted to know. “I didn’t try to be anything but an inmate,” said the singer, “but still most of them called me ‘Mr. Paycheck.’ … I signed more autographs in there than I did out here for a while.”

Paycheck said he had a radio and TV in his cell and was able to keep up with what was happening in country music: “A lot of great new talent came along while I was in there,” observed the man who regaled an earlier generation with such memorables as “She’s All I’ve Got,” “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets,” “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” and that eternal cry of freedom, “Take This Job And Shove It.”

Since exiting the Bastille, he said, he’s formed a band, found a booker and is ready to take to the road again. He’d also just recorded a single with Jones, he said, called, “The Last Outlaw Is Alive and Doing Well.” No record deal yet, but he’s busy shopping for one.

While Paycheck fielded questions, his old buddies Jones, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall and David Allan Coe stood with their backs to the wall, radiating support and affection.

Never a model of fiscal prudence, the 52-year-old Paycheck admitted that his prison stay had left him tapped out again: “I don’t have anything right now,” he reported — without a hint of despair or self-pity. “I’m starting over again. I have to start over from the bottom, and that’s fine with me.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.