Gary Sanford Paxton passed away peacefully on the night of July 16th 2016, his wife Vicki Sue at his side. His friend Alec Palao recalls the life of the original rock’n’roll maverick.
He was born Larry Wayne Stevens on May 18th, 1939 in Coffeyville, Kansas, the child of an unwed teenaged couple, and upon adoption was renamed Gary Sanford Paxton. Though raised in a devout Christian family, childhood sickness and abuse by a neighbour caused the young Paxton to become withdrawn and retreat into music, for which he discovered he had a natural aptitude. Moving to Tucson, Arizona at age 12, Gary had formed his first group, the Rockabillys, within a few years. Gaining notice locally, he graduated to the Pledges with the older Clyde Battin, who cut the single ‘Betty Jean’ for the Phoenix-based Rev label in 1958. The subject matter of the record was his first wife, and guitarist Paxton and bass playing Battin displayed a natural, Everly Brothers-ish harmony blend on this and a subsequent Rev 45. But the sudden appearance of his birth mother sent Gary into confusion, and he skipped town to spend time with his blood relatives in Tacoma, Washington.
It was whilst in Washington, picking fruit during the day and playing pick-up gigs at night with a combo led by a pre-fame Buck Owens, that Gary learned a catchy demo he had cut with the Pledges in Phoenix had been not only been released nationally, but was in fact rapidly becoming a hit. The label credit for ‘It Was I’ gave the artist as Skip & Flip, named after label owner Bob Shad’s dogs. Regrouping with Battin, the duo immediately hit the road in the summer of 1959 to capitalize on this unexpected record success. Further hits came with ‘Fancy Nancy’ and a revival of Marvin & Johnny’s ‘Cherry Pie,’ and Skip & Flip toured constantly through to the end of the year, sharing the stage with a good percentage of rock’n’roll and R&B royalty. But when Gary walked in on Battin and his wife, the partnership split, and he headed straight to Hollywood in his ’58 Oldsmobile, barely a dollar to his name.
Paxton arrived in Tinseltown at the start of the new shiny decade. Within a few short months, fuelled by a mixture of the innate musical skills that had been honed by his Skip & Flip experience, and some sheer pluck and determination, Gary S Paxton was a hot property. With a new partner, the ubiquitous Kim Fowley, to show him the ropes, Gary dove into signing and producing acts and shopping the subsequent masters. Amongst the first was the novelty smash ‘Alley Oop’; written by Dallas Frazier, credited to the Hollywood Argyles but otherwise one hundred percent a Gary S Paxton creation, despite what others have claimed. There were subsequent hits by the Innocents (‘Honest I Do’) and Paul Revere & The Raiders (‘Like, Long Hair’) and many worthy productions on the likes of Richard Berry, Doug & Freddy and the Paradons.
Paxton and Fowley dissolved their partnership in July 1961, but it would only be a year before Gary hit the top of the charts again in the autumn of 1962, when he produced one of vintage pop’s most enduring novelties for his own nationally-distributed imprint, Garpax. The success of Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett’s ‘Monster Mash’ provided the cashflow that enabled Paxton to establish his own recording facility in Hollywood and surround himself with writers and players that could keep up a steady flow of product. Though there would be few real hits and a fair tranche of misses, the mid-1960s would prove the Garpax golden era, resulting in a remarkable catalogue that straddled not just novelty but R&B, doo-wop, surf, hot rod, girl group, jazz, garage rock, country and gospel.
Not only that, but Gary S Paxton Sound Services – aka the converted homes he used on Hudson and Homewood Avenues for his studios – became an in-demand facility for outside artists, with engineering – and thus often by default, production – by Gary. The Association (‘Along Comes Mary,’ ‘Cherish’) and Tommy Roe (‘Hooray For Hazel’) were amongst the grateful clients. But the increasingly cut-throat nature of Hollywood grew anathema to Paxton, and in late 1967 he opened another studio a hundred miles north, in a disused bank in California’s country music centre, Bakersfield, a city he already had close ties to. By now self-medicating to an alarming extent, in this period Gary nevertheless oversaw a major chapter in the birth of country-rock thanks to his fine productions on the Gosdin Brothers, Guilbeau & Parsons, Clarence White and others.
Deep in debt, with the marriage to his talented second wife Jan in tatters, Paxton cut his losses and defected to Nashville at the end of 1970. He got a job with a publishing company, and somehow managed to finally forsake drink and drugs for Jesus Christ. Thus began what he referred to as the “A.D.” portion of his life. With renewed vigour, Gary scaled the heights of the music business once again, although this time in the gospel and country fields, with a Grammy for his production of the Blackwood Brothers and a thriving songwriting career. Rather than mimic the bland platitudes of so much devotional music, he specialized in offbeat but powerful humour, whether with a religious slant (‘Jesus Is My Lawyer In Heaven’) or more worldly messages (‘If You’re Happy, Notify Your Face’). He was responsible for country crossover smashes like ‘Woman Sensuous Woman,’ and penned at least one devotional standard in ‘He Was There All The Time.’
His Nashville sojourn was not without it’s dark side. In 1980 Gary was severely beaten by hired goons, one of the perpetrators later admitting in court they were put up to the assault by a disgruntled country star, angry over Paxton’s enforcement of an artist contract that had been ruled legal. Later on that decade, the producer was innocently pulled into a major scandal in order to deflect attention from the guilty parties, with the result that for a time he was blackballed by the gospel radio network. Still resolutely the square peg, by the late 1990s, Gary had had enough of Nashville’s generic, cookie-cutter sensibilities, and decamped to the downhome environs of Branson, Missouri, the entertainment capital of the Ozarks, which was then in the throes of a Vegas-like expansion. This was where he would spend his last two decades, writing, producing and dreaming until the very end.
So much for the history. What the rote details don’t infer is just how unique a personage Gary S Paxton remains within that elite of record men who graduated from rock’n’roll’s golden era. Firstly, one must remember a signal fact – Paxton very likely either wrote, arranged, performed upon, sang upon, engineered, A&R’d or published any of the literally thousands of records that have his name upon them. In most cases, it very well may be a combination of several or all of these elements. There was absolutely no-one else in the American record industry like him. There still isn’t, and now there probably never will be.
The Garpax story might also seem to be the veritable bootstrap, rags-to-riches, triumph-over-adversity tale, but that doesn’t hint at the man’s wilful non-conformity, a facet that on paper might spell failure, but in reality won through, because of his honest talent. I was once taken to task by a critic for writing that Phil Spector was scared of Gary. While Spector may have been envious of Paxton’s all-round talent – as well he should - what I actually meant was the “tycoon of teen,” like many others in the Hollywood arena, was truthfully frightened of Gary. They just couldn’t fathom him. Record executives would awkwardly inform him that weren’t supposed to talk to him, that they couldn’t be seen with him, even though they knew that every master Paxton brought them had a potential to be a hit. Musicians might roll their eyes at the producer’s excitable demeanour in the studio, only to be be routinely silenced by the results of his instruction.Gary had no problem taking the guitar out of James Burton’s hands to demonstrate what he wanted, or brazenly dictating parts in front of the microphone to a vocal team as venerable as the Four Freshmen.
Paxton had supporters within the industry itself, most notably Walt McGuire of London Records, and equally other producers and executives envious of his success. Some, like Buck Owens, maintained an ongoing rivalry. But while even the most hard-nosed of Paxton’s associates from across the years may grumble about perceived lack of credit – the producer was as bad a businessman as he was great as a creative force – when pressed they will invariably wax lyrical of Gary S Paxton, frequently describing him either as the most talented man they had ever encountered in the music business or, more simply, a ‘genius.’ As for the artists he recorded, many retain fond memories of their time with Gary, and a fair percentage continue to marvel at what he could do with them in the studio. Many of his more cognizant contemporaries, like the similarly unconventional Brian Wilson, openly admired him.
Paxton did thrive upon eccentricity, but he wasn’t a buffoon either. By his own admission, Gary was just “terminally weird.” Between 1964 and 1966, he sported longer hair and a grubbier appearance than even the Seeds or the Mothers, further alienating the Hollywood record establishment. Once in Nashville in the 1970s, he indulged in equally strange looks, such as 1974’s ‘Clone Affair,’ for which he shaved his head and eyebrows and wore a monastic cape. When the aptly-named 1975 solo album “The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S Paxton” won an Inspirational Grammy, Gary blew minds at the otherwise penguin-suited ceremony by showing up in a sleeveless black vest and leather rocker pants. Coupled with his by-now trademark Shenandoah beard and stovepipe hat, the total effect was like some bizarre hybrid of Jim Morrison and Abe Lincoln. The walls of his house in Branson are still adorned with portraits of Gary glad-handing the country superstars of the 1980s and 1990s, many of whom look a mite uncomfortable with this crazy longhair by their side.
That’s what I loved about Gary S Paxton, and that’s what makes this obituary particularly difficult to write. I’ve yet to meet a more fun and off-centre, yet equally good-hearted, character in all my travels, and my relationship with him and his enduringly supportive wife Vicki Sue has been one of the most pleasurable amongst the many valued friendships I have acquired since working for Ace. We really got to know each other during marathon week-long tape copying sessions, in a basement that overlooked the lake in Branson, where one could hear the guides on the tourist barges point out “Gary ‘Alley Oop’ Paxton’s house, folks!” What most other people might have regarded as a chore has been in fact one of the highlights of my archiving career, especially with Gary himself assisting, fixing the tape splices and providing a running commentary on the music into the bargain. From sifting through this hard evidence, I quickly discovered that the “genius” tag was richly deserved.
Since those first few visits in the early 2000s, not a week would go by without Gary calling about his latest idea, concept or plan, which may stretch to a song, an album project or something more extensive. To be honest, some, in fact most, were half-baked or relied on connections in either the music business or the Christian community that were tenuous at best. But the mere description of these schemes had me rolling on the floor, as I recognized how they were merely an extension of the same lunacy that had begat ‘Alley Oop,’ ‘Monster Mash’ and all the rest. The grandest plan towards the end of his life was Grandpa Rock, a sort of hillbilly Ozzy Osbourne in Gary’s image, that would perform oldies for the new generation – he envisaged an army of them touring the country. Gary’s response when questioned on the viability of such brainstorms was always, “I’m so far ahead, I’m irrelevant!” While he didn’t dwell on the past constantly, he was especially appreciative of our subsequent reissue campaign of his masters on Ace, including the Bakersfield collections and the likes of “Boy Trouble” or “Beach Party” – as well as the “Hollywood Maverick” anthology. And I have to say, these stand amongst the Ace compilations that I am the most proud of having assembled.
Vicki has frequently told me that what originally attracted her to Gary was “his spirit,” and that spirit was still abundantly in evidence when I last saw him, on a visit to Branson a couple of months ago, when it was clear the end was near. Considering how he had abused his body back in the 1960s, not to mention the 1980s assault and a subsequent contraction of hepatitis C, it is a miracle that Gary lived as as long as he did. But while his body was clearly failing, his eyes still flashed with inspiration. Even in a hospital bed, he donned another silly hat and insisted that his next novelty smash would be ‘Now That I Depend On Depends,’ credited to “Al Zeimer”. And as always, Gary would follow up the laughter with an earnest “I’m serious!” That’s Gary S Paxton – always thinking of the studio, happiest behind the board or out on the floor, creating, directing, brainstorming, making magic. With his departure, we’ve lost one of the truly great ones.