Tony Cummings recounts the life and times of one of American music's most multi-faceted figures, GARY S PAXTON
Producer, songwriter, record label owner, engineer, music publisher and artist Gary S Paxton is unquestionably one of the most original and colourful talents in the long history of rock'n'roll. In the mainstream he produced million selling hits like "Alley Oop" and "Monster Mash". As a Christian he's produced CCM classics like "He's Alive" by Don Francisco and won a Grammy for his own gospel album. He's bounced back from an attempted assassination after having "died" on the operating table, and been libelled in the media over an imaginary affair with Tammy Faye Bakker. And today, though in the autumn of his years, Gary is still busy producing records for his Garpax Branson company and even occasionally performs as the masked artist Grandpa Rock. In all, he is the archetypal eccentric whose surreal humour and flamboyant personality don't hide his deep devotion to Christ who miraculously delivered him from the wild excesses of the rock'n'roll fast lane and from disasters that would have shipwrecked lesser men. In two extensive interviews, broadcast earlier this year on Mike Rimmer's Rimmerama programme, Gary shared about his past, present and, amazingly for a man now in his 72nd year, his future.
Gary Sanford Paxton was actually born Larry Wayne Stevens on 18th May 1939 in Coffeyville, Kansas, the child of an unwed teenage couple. He told Cross Rhythms, "My mother was 14 and my dad was 15. I was nine pounds when I was born, and when I was one I was seven pounds, because they didn't have anything apart from ketchup and water to feed me with. I had rickets and had lost about four pounds. Then this old couple who had lost two children heard I was available, so they adopted me. We lived on a farm in Coffeyville, Kansas. We had no electricity, no water, no heating. It was an old school house they were re-modelling, and for the first eight years my bed was a pile of sheep rock in the front room."
Gary's adopted parents not only gave him a new name but a Christian home, though one with a strict, some would say legalistic, regime. He told researcher Alec Palao with his usual effervescent wit, "Oh, us kids had drug problems. . .we were drug off to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night, every time the church door was open. But all I cared about from the time I was three years old was music, music, music. I was always baffled because none of my family could whistle, sing, tap their feet or clap. I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk. When I was seven years old, I was sexually molested by a neighbour for two years, and when I was 11 I was misdiagnosed as having polio, until they found out it was spinal meningitis. I lived, though for about three years I was crippled and very withdrawn, and the physical problems caused me to turn even more to music and songwriting. When I was in the second grade at school, I went on a field trip to the local zoo and as we rode along in my teacher's 1935 green Plymouth - she had the radio turned to KGGF Coffeyville - I told her, 'Mrs Harris, one of these days you're going to hear me on there with hit records of my own.'"
In Tucson, Arizona, Gary formed his first band, the Rockabillys. He remembered, "I bought me a Buddy Holly Stratacaster. I couldn't control my body; I just jumped all over the place. With the Buddy Holly Stratacaster I became the Elvis Presley of Tucson at 14, because they thought it was part of the act."
Having flunked high school, an auspicious win at Dean Armstrong's Arizona Barn Dance when Gary was 16 put him on the map locally in Tucson and he soon got involved with like-minded musicians, including Clyde Battin, a country singer/guitarist and University of Arizona student who, despite a baby-faced appearance, was several years Gary's senior. Clyde "Skip" Battin told Alec Palao, "There was this kid. . . I called him a kid because he was about 16 and I was 22. His name was Gary Paxton and he used to come in all the time. Gary was into rock'n'roll and Presley, and so he and I teamed up and formed the Pledges. We had a drummer and a sax player [Dick Gabriel] and Gary played lead. We got a rhythm guitarist called Bobby Verbosh and I switched to bass, because we didn't have anybody that could play it, so I had to learn. We made two sides, which we did in Phoenix for a local label called Rev, 'Betty Jean' and 'Her Bermuda Shorts'."
The subject matter of "Betty Jean" was Paxton's recent bride, Betty Jean Brown. Said Gary, "I think Betty Jean was 12 years old when we met - she was 14 and I was 17 when we got married. By the way, we didn't have to get married! And she would sing in the band. We lived in a trailer park and during the day I had many jobs - janitor, irrigation worker and countless farm jobs. We kept working as the Pledges in Tucson, and we went up to Phoenix and recorded some more, but nothing happened."
When the Pledges broke up in the spring on 1959 Battin became a deejay for local country station KMOP. Then something happened in a Tucson restaurant on the day that he registered for the draft which was to have a profound effect on the rock'n'roll star wannabe Gary. He said, "I was sitting in a restaurant when a young woman walked up to me and said, 'I am your mother! I've been looking for you for a long time and if you don't believe me, go call your parents.' When I confronted my parents on the phone, there was a long silence. . . then I heard both of them crying. They had forgotten to tell me that I was adopted. Fern [my biological mother] told me she was half Kickapoo Indian and half Scottish, while my father was half Jewish and half ultra-white Irish. Because I had been raised strictly, and church-taught, I was suddenly confused to discover my whole existence was a lie, and that set me off on a mental search to find out who I really was, and where I really came from. It did answer a lot of questions about my musical abilities - Fern told me all about all of my relatives that played in bands and sang and wrote songs. But I was very confused and upset, so I left Betty Jean and went up to Washington, where Fern lived. She was married to a wonderful Filipino man, and his six brothers, his daughter and Fern's adopted daughter all lived together in this three-storey house in Seattle - what a zoo! Instead, I decided to go to nearby Tacoma, to the strip where there were about 30 clubs, and start begging for a job singing rock'n'roll."
In fact, it was a small country music group that gave Paxton a break. The group were led by Buck Owens - a few years later to find fame and fortune as a country music star. The group had a residency at Tacoma's hard-drinking Britannia Club and also played Saturday nights at the region's dancehall, Bresemans Park. Gary told Palao, "I was the young punk who sang all the rock stuff. I played bass when Don [Markham] played sax and I played enough drums to be decent, or a little piano - I played whatever instrument I had to. Buck also had a local television show at 12 noon every Saturday and me and this other guy named Dave 'Pigmeat' Meadmoore were on there as a duet called the Mavericks. Buck, he'd pay ya $10 a night, and I couldn't make enough money doing that, so sometimes during the day I would pick cherries and pecans, like I had done down in Oregon. We'd pull our cars up by the field there and turn the radio up real loud. One day I'm up a tree, I hear this song and I run over to the car to listen and suddenly I realise, 'that's my song!' So I went over to the local radio station and picked up this red record on the Brent label that said the artist was Skip & Flip, though it did have my name on there as the writer. And if you've never heard yourself on the radio, you don't know what you sound like. So I took the info off the single, called information in New York and got through to Brent Records to ask who cut my song, and they told me, 'That's you, fool! The record's number 47 in Cashbox and Dick Clark wants you on the Saturday night network show, and then he wants you on the Philly American Bandstand on Monday, so we've been waiting for your call.'"
The song in question was "It Was I", an unusual item that Paxton and Battin had cut at Audio Recorders as a demo, ostensibly to pitch to the Bell Notes, whose 'I've Had It' was making noise in the charts at the time. The song's naggingly catchy "na-na-na" was the result of a microphone test that producer Connie Conway decided to leave in. The studio's owner, Floyd Ramsey, had obviously taken their intent seriously and sent a dub to the Bell Notes' label, Time Records, owned by industry veteran Bob Shad. Explained Gary, "Supposedly it laid around there for a year, until a disc jockey heard it and told them, 'Man, this is a hit, why don't you put it out?' The story I got was Shad's wife had two poodle dogs name Skip & Flip, so that's the name they put on there. By the time I found out about it all, Clyde and another guy were on the road performing as Skip & Flip - they'd found him already but obviously they didn't know how to tack me. So I called Clyde and I said, 'Well, I'm here, and you better let your new partner go!' We flew to New York and met with a talent agency, Trinity Music. Bob Shad treated us OK."
Skip Battin added his piece to the story. "They said, 'Hope you don't mind the name change, but you are now Skip and Flip.' They did things like that in those days! Well, that record happened so Gary came back from Oregon and we started going on the road. The Dick Clark Show, we played that thing three or four times a week. It was quite a thrill to watch the show and hear my voice on it." Skip & Flip's "It Was I" became a major pop hit (reaching 11 on Billboard's single chart in July 1959). The duo followed that with the rocky "Fancy Nancy" and then a revival of the Marvin & Johnny doowop oldie "Cherry Pie" gave the group another number 11 hit and saw them booked into black venues.
"We'd been touring with James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry and the Coasters, all the black group, because when 'Cherry Pie' hit they thought we was black, and we'd be the only white artists on the show - maybe sometimes Santo & Johnny too, because with those instruments they didn't know what colour they were. Me and Clyde walked out on stage in the Apollo one time and 5000 people went, huh? Alan Freed yelled from backstage, 'Start singing "Cherry Pie" quick!' When it was a trio, it was myself on guitar and Clyde on bass and different drummers. The we would pick up whatever horn men were in the other groups, or a keyboard player, so there would be more pieces."
Gary's ideas about music came thick and fast. He recounted a tale about how he came up with the idea for Johnny & The Hurricanes' "Reveille Rock", only to see the group's management take writer credit and publishing and leaving him with nothing. But despite a hectic touring schedule, Gary was gaining invaluable experience in the studio, and his growing, multi-faceted abilities - writing, arranging, producing and singing - manifested themselves with numerous releases, not only under the Skip & Flip banner, but also with pseudonyms like Chuck & The Chuckles and Clyde Gary & His Orchestra. Battin and Paxton were to part in early 1960 in an uncomfortable fashion.
"I suspected Clyde was having an affair with my wife - he may or may not have been, but I figured it was a good time to [split]. Plus he wanted to travel and play, and I wanted to stay home and produce. When I had moved to the Northwest, Betty Jean had stayed in Tucson and had our first son, Gary Jr. She had told me she had filed for divorce, but she came up to Tacoma because I wanted to see my son, and then she told me, 'Guess what, I didn't get a divorce.' And I was already engaged to some other girl! So Betty put it on me and she got pregnant again, and I went back to Tucson with her. I was still married to her - I was engaged to a girl in Seattle, and another in Tacoma. I was living in Seattle and driving back and forth to Tacoma and Oregon too. But I'd be on the road all the time, so eventually I left a guitar and a pair of boots at all three places and said, 'I'm gonna go to Hollywood and make it big and then send for ya,' but I never did see any of them again. I just got in my car and drove to Hollywood."
Paxton arrived in Hollywood with just his '58 Oldsmobile and barely a dollar to his name - but that was all about to change. Newly arrived in Hollywood Paxton teamed up with another colourful character from the Los Angeles rock'n'roll industry, Kim Fowley. There's considerable confusion of precisely how and when the two rock'n'roll hustlers met but suffice to say that they were soon knocking on doors. Fowley told Alec Palao, "I think Gary was a couple of months older than me. We were a lot younger than other people [in the industry]. I didn't drive, but Gary had a big flashy Oldsmobile and we'd go around - 'this is Flip of Skip & Flip' - and he was a celebrity to everybody, because he had had hits and he was new in town, though we neglected to say he had no money and I had no money. Hollywood was a very unique principality and Gary didn't know how things worked, but I was born into it because I had parents in show business, so I knew the neighbourhoods, I knew the mentality. First off, I had found Mike Gradney [owner of the Gardena-based Case label], who was a sleazy creole hustler and seemed ancient to us. Oh, he was okay, he was arthritic and stiff, and he gave us bad money and so the first record we produced was for him, 'Sugar Babe' by Gene & Eunice, written by Dallas Frazier."