As Published in Cross Rhythms - A Personal Interview
(This article first appeared in September of 2011 in the 'Cross Rhythms' online publication. It is reprinted here exclusively with permission from the editors of 'Cross Rhythms' in the UK. We have also provided a link to their website at the bottom of this page.)
Gary S Paxton: From "Monster Mash" to "He's Alive" … an incredible journey!
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 futureGary 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.'"
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 abig 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 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."
But it was another Dallas Frazier song with which Paxton and Fowley's wing-and-a-prayer operation, Maverick Music, hit paydirt. A drunken session for Frazier's "Alley Oop" with various musician and non-musician friends and acquaintances and with Gary supplying the hilarious monologue beginning with the immortal line, "There's a man in the funny papers we all know," resulted in a huge hit. Dubbed the Hollywood Argyles, the single with its lugubrious black-sounding vibe fought off the East Coast cover versions and eventually topped the US pop charts. Kim Fowley remembered the "Alley Oop" phenomenon. "We're sitting in a hotel room [in New York] with Artie Ripp, and Red Gilson called from Hal Zeiger's office and said, 'You guys, Hollywood Argyles? We'll give you $25 apiece to play El Monte Legion Stadium.' I said, 'We don't need $25 that bad, why don't you get some phoney band for $10 apiece to be us, let them be the Hollywood Argyles.' Later on, when we did go back, we formed the Hollywood Argyles road band and that's who's on the album cover. Over a period of time, there were many Hollywood Argyles - I still meet people who say they were in the Hollywood Argyles, and they probably were, that night."
While Paxton and Fowley waited for their royalties to come in Maverick Music produced a tidal wave of singles. Remembered Fowley, "In that first year, it seemed we made a hundred singles. There were record companies everywhere, little tiny ones, and it's $100 to make a record and $100 to press up 500 copies, so with $200 you could change the world. It was like, if somebody had a sound, and somebody had a song, they were eligible to make a record; no matter how old, how young, how nice, how bad, how good, if they had a sound, and a song could be supplied to match that sound, then we would fill in the blanks with other people, or recording tricks, and then it would be done, and then we'd run out and dump it on somebody to put the record out and we'd go on to the next one. It was conveyor belt producing, just the sheer joy of the recording process. We were uneducated, underfinanced, unappreciated, unsponsored boys. Two 20 year old guys - most of the time at that age, you're on the dole or living with your parents, you're not out there creating careers for people and creating instant product."
The general arrangement was that Paxton would A&R and produce the sessions, while Fowley would find the talent and hustle the product, though that demarcation was quickly blurred. Amongst the early acts Kim brought in were the Innocents, a vocal trio whose original "Honest I Do" was the pair's second major success when it went Top 30 in August 1960.
Paxton historian Alec Palao summarized what happened next. "Paxton and Fowley parted ways in July 1961 and the fractured relationship was to remain acrimonious for decades afterward, but what these two youngsters had achieved in the face of considerable adversity, both commercial and logistical, has to be admired. For Gary Paxton, it was business as usual. He remained active as a recording artist in his own right, reviving the Maverick Music copyright "Sugar Babe" on Capitol with another studio-created group called, unsurprisingly, the Mavericks, produced by another up-and-comer, Nik Venet. But more importantly, over the course of the last year with Fowley, their successes had raised Paxton's visibility within the Hollywood milieu, so much so that prospective writers and performers, be they cornball country, doowopping R&B or rocking instrumentalists, were beating the off-the-track path specifically to his door. Paxton's abilities made him a natural to handle any genre he chose, and in this period he recorded everyone from Elvis' bodyguard Red West to Clint Eastwood, from "Louie Louie" author Richard Berry to "Love You So" hitmaker Ron Holden and future Seeds frontman Sky Saxon aka Ritchie Marsh. Gary also had a direct conduit to talent from specific areas including northern California and Bakersfield.
After a local radio station dismissed one of his records ("Elephant Game (Part One)" by Renfro & Jackson) as "too black", he assembled a protest parade down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, consisting of 15 cheerleaders and a live elephant pulling a Volkswagen convertible; he was arrested after the elephant got scared and began to defecate in the street.
In 1962 Paxton found himself with another multi-million selling hit, the horror-rock classic "Monster Mash" by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett. Pickett had once been a member of the vocal group the Cordials, who Paxton had produced, and during their on-stage routine would perform a monologue during the group's rendition of the doowop oldie "Little Darlin'" in a Boris Karloff voice. It cracked up the audience and eventually gave the singer-turned-actor the idea of making a novelty record. Paxton recalled the "Monster Mash" session vividly. "'Monster Mash' was cut on three-track, at Conway. It took about eight hours to do that intro and put it all together, because we looked through all sorts of sound effects records, but everything we got was distorted or hissy, just awful. So for the sound effects we got a ratchet wrench, two hair spray cans, a glass of water with a straw, a guitar string with a pick, an electric razor."
Remembered Bobby Pickett, "Leon Russell was supposed to play piano, but he was late for the session. Chuck Hamilton was on bass, Jesse Sailes on drums, Billy Lee Riley on guitar and Gary played piano and overdubbed Hammond B-3. By the time I got to the studio, the track was done, the music track and the backing vocals, so all I had to do was fill in my lead, and we did it almost in one take, because I knew exactly how I wanted to do it.
"With its goofy Karloff-style voice and absurd lyric ("The ghouls all came to my humble abode/To get a jolt from my electrode"). "Monster Mash" was unlike anything else in the marketplace. The industry agreed and numerous record labels turned the record down. Unperturbed, Paxton started his own record label. He recounted, "When I couldn't give 'Monster Mash' away I went down to a pressing plant on Santa Monica Boulevard, Alco, and I said, 'I wanna put this out on my own label, can you press up 4000 records on credit?' The owner [Al Levine] said, 'You mean you ain't got no money after "Alley Oop"?' I told him, 'I didn't get paid, but you pressed over a million singles, so you know that I cut records that will give you a lot of business.' So he said okay and pressed them up on Garpax. Lloyd Johnson came down and we loaded all 4000 singles in his huge '54 Lincoln and went up to Bakersfield, to KAFY. They said, 'Who's Garpax Records? We ain't playing nothing unless you got distribution - you get that and you can bring it back.' So I knew I was in trouble, but Lloyd and I devised a plan. Before we would go to the station, we would go to the number one record store in town and find the teenage girl that was running the cash register. I'd have my picture of Skip & Flip and the Argyles in the teen magazine and I'd say, 'I got this new record, we're just now putting it out. We want you to be the first to have it.' So I'd give them 10 free records, had them put it by the cash register, then we'd go to the radio station and if they asked about distribution we'd say, 'It's in the stores.' They'd call and the counter girl would say, 'Yeah, we got it right here.' Then we came back and within less than a week I had orders for 60,000 records. It would debut on station playlists at number two, or debut at number five."
"Monster Mash" by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett & The Crypt Kickers went on to become a number one US hit in 1962 and though it didn't hit in the UK, a re-issued version did in 1973, reaching number three. Gary estimates that it eventually sold 10 million copies. The record made the songwriter/producer a fortune. But money flowed quickly through Paxton's hands. "I had a lot of friends. It's true, the more you make, the more friends you have. I didn't really know anything. I was as dumb as a stick."
Famed country guitarist Chet Atkins advised Paxton to relocate to Nashville. But he didn't stay there too long. He recalled, "Chet and Shelby [Singleton - then heading up Smash Records] tried to get me to stay and to teach Nashville how todo hard rock'n'roll. They told me, 'If you stay down here, we'll all get richer.' I
said, 'Nah, I'm going back to Hollywood. I got rock'n'roll inside me.' But I was theonly one on the West Coast who could get the Nashville sound, because I had
lived there for a couple of months."
Back in Hollywood more singles on Garpax and another Paxton label, G.S.P., followed. Gary also met and married his second wife Jan, a talented songwriter and jazz singer. Then Gary teamed up with Charlie Underwood, who had been a recording engineer at the legendary Sun Records studio in Memphis, and built a recording studio, Nashville West. But the relationship with Underwood soured and by 1964 it was another studio, Gary S Paxton Sound Services, in an old two story building at 1633 Hudson Street where most of his music was flowing from. But it was a chaotic environment. Musician Buddy Biglow remembered, "Gary was working most of the time and was doing a lot of drinking and everything. I'd never seen so many drugs in my life as I saw at that house, from all the different people around him. Coming from a little farming town in northern California, I'd never imagined the stuff I was seeing. Amongst everything, drugs were certainly paramount. I remember a lot of times he would work around the clock. Eventually I would fade, fall on the couch there, and Gary would still be mixing something, adding a guitar to something. I was astounded at what he was capable of doing and playing."
No major hits had come out of the studio in the earlier period, but the homespun facility had hosted its share of memorable visitors - from obscure British beat group the Snobs, to the Ike & Tina Turner session at Nashville West where Ike pulled a gun on Gary. Paxton often recorded albums and singles at places like Capitol. It was there that he produced his first gospel group, the Art Reynolds Singers. Among the songs that Gary produced for their 1966 album 'Tellin' It Like It Is' was the original version of "Jesus Is Just Alright", recorded years before the Doobie Brothers and dc Talk. Remembered Gary, "I went down by Longbeach where this incredible group was singing. I brought them up to Hollywood and produced the Art Reynolds Singers' first two albums. Then Thelma Houston became a solo singer and I produced her on Capitol Records."
Sessions continued for Gary, including some with influential white harmonizers the Four Freshmen (a major influence on the Beach Boys). In 1965 he produced "Sweet Pea", a hit for Tommy Roe, and "Along Comes Mary", a massive hit for The Association, winning a Grammy nomination in engineering for his efforts. The following year, Paxton produced another hit for The Association, "Cherish", and another for Roe, "Hooray For Hazel". But Hollywood was becoming increasingly claustrophobic and cut-throat. Inspired by success in the country charts with the Gosdin Brothers, Gary moved to Bakersfield in late 1967, where he survived for a couple more years until debts, sour business investments and personal problems with Jan led him to flee to Nashville at the end of the decade.
Gary recounted, "I told everyone I was going back to Hollywood, but when I was driving I remembered Dallas Frazier had said I should go and visit. So I called him and asked, 'If I come down to Nashville, could you get me a job?' He said yes, so I just turned left, I had £2,800 in a trailer plus a truck. I went 10,000 feet high into the desert. It took three weeks to get to Nashville. I went up and was signed to RCA. I had already worked with the musicians and knew everyone in Nashville becauseThe rock'n'roll producer wild man didn't exactly fit in with the God-fearing folk of the country and gospel epicentre. Remembered Gary, "I'd walk along the streets, with my long blonde hair down to my waist. They were not going to let hippies come into their town in 1970. I wore boots up to my knees and wore a flag for a cape and would walk along with my songs in a paper bag. I kept going into places with my songs dressed like that, and the police kept arresting me.
After his dramatic conversion Paxton began writing gospel songs. But in the meantime some of his country songs he was writing began to enjoy major success. Don Gibson made "Woman (Sensuous Woman)" the number one country song in the nation and Paxton was nominated for a Grammy for Song Of The Year. Roy Clark had a number one hit with "Honeymoon Feelin'" the following year (1974). Paxton would continue to work with mainstream country music even after getting involved with gospel and contemporary Christian music. His hit list as a songwriter includes "Travelin' Light" for George Hamilton IV, "One Day At A Time" for Don Gibson, "The Great Divide" for Roy Clark, "Don't Let The Good Times Fool You" for Melba Montgomery, "Pictures On Paper" for Jeris-Ross and "If I'm Losing You" for Billy Walker.
In 1974, Paxton had his first success in gospel music when his song "L-O-V-E" won a Grammy Award for the Southern gospel group The Blackwood Brothers. More gospel hits would follow, as such traditional but big name artists as Doug Oldham, The Bill Gaither Trio, the Florida Boys and the LeFevres recorded his songs. With his background in rock and roll, a crossover to more contemporary sounds seemed inevitable and it came about appropriately through his work with the first major Southern gospel group to enter contemporary Christian music, The Imperials. CCM historian Mark Allan Powell wrote, "The Imperials' funky recording of [Paxton's song] 'No Shortage' would provide them with the best song of their career and establish their credibility with a new audience; Paxton also produced the group's landmark album for which that song served as the title track."
In 1975 Gary linked up with Nashville's Paragon Records, the label run by long time gospel music executive Bob MacKenzie. With Paragon's roster distinctly middle of the road (Ronn Huff, Bill & Gloria Gaither, Dave Boyer) the label seemed an unlikely company to associate with the still zany producer/songwriter. Yet the launch of Gary's NewPax Records proved to be a big success. The title of Gary S Paxton's album debut of 1976 really summed up the producer/songwriter and now artist/record label owner's eccentric persona. Even the cover photo of 'The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievably Different World Of Gary S Paxton' depicted the copiously bearded Paxton poking his head out of a manhole. The album contained the folk ballad "Love, It Comes In All Colors"; a tirade against the insanities of modern civilisation and the possibilities of nuclear destruction, "Sophisticated Savages"; a song reminding believers that the highs of drug abuse were nothing compared with knowing God's Son, "Jesus Keeps Takin' Me Higher And Higher"; and an anti-smoking anthem "You Ain't Smokin' Them Cigarettes (Baby, They're Smokin' You)".
Despite the fact that 'The Astonishing, Outrageous.' album didn't get past the conservative gatekeepers of US Christian radio the album unexpectedly won Paxton his one and only Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance. A torrent of NewPax albums by Amplified Version, John & Kathy/Shane & Alice, Scott Wesley Brown, Mike Johnson, Austin Roberts, Sammy Hall, Madeline Manning Jackson, Deliverance and Don Francisco were all released in 1976. Don Francisco told Contemporary Christian Magazine how he had begun attending Belmont College in Nashville. He recounted, "One morning on my way to school, I drove past a church that had a 7am prayer meeting. The Lord led me to it and I found myself sitting next to Gary S Paxton - who I didn't know. Turns out I was sitting next to the only man in Nashville who was producing contemporary Christian music. For some reason, I had a demo with me of some of my recent Christian songs. He liked it and I ended up with a contract with NewPax Records."
Don's first album 'Brother To The Son' didn't sell particularly well. But his second NewPax record changed everything. As Don said, "Nothing much really changed until my second album, 'He's Alive', was released. Then everything happened at once. 'He's Alive' has an interesting history. I'd spent such a long time in rebellion against both my parents and God that even though I knew I was saved, I didn't know if I was forgiven - really forgiven - in spite of all of the good teaching I was getting to the contrary. I was carrying around an incredible amount of guilt. . . Peter was always someone I'd identified with. Many of the stories of Jesus, Peter actually witnessed. He was just an ordinary guy who was filled up with the power of God. As I wrote 'He's Alive' I became personally involved because if anybody needed forgiveness - besides me - it was Peter. He committed about the worst kind of sin a guy could commit.
"When I performed the song for [wife] Karen for the first time, it stopped after 'Every fear I'd ever had just melted into peace'. But she said it wasn't finished yet. This was after I'd spent weeks cutting verses and polishing the music and the phrasings. 'What do you mean it isn't finished yet?' I screamed. I didn't want to hear that. But the Lord had spoken through Karen. Eventually, I went back and saw that she was right and I added what became the present chorus and ending. When I did, I played it for her in the bedroom again. I can still remember jumping up and down on the bed because I knew I had been set free as well."
With Gary's dramatic arrangement bringing out the full impact of the narrative song, and a surging climatic chorus of "He's alive, yes he's alive/He's alive and I'm forgiven/Heaven's gate are open wide" the song, on Francisco's 'Forgiven' album, went to number one on America's Christian radio chart where it stayed for a phenomenal 14 weeks.
NewPax releases continued to flow. Over the next two years the label released albums by Francisco, Sammy Hall, Truth, Mike Johnson and Tammy Faye Bakker, plus more of Gary's left-of-centre albums. 'More From The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievably Different World Of Gary S Paxton' was released in 1977. Like its predecessor it contained some attention-grabbing songs like "Jesus Is My Lawyer In Heaven" and "The World Didn't Give It To Me (And The World Can't Take It Away)". But possibly the best cut is a little meditation on mortality called "When The Meat Wagon Comes For You". Gary's next release as an artist was 'Anchored In The Rock Of Ages' on Pax Records. It produced a minor Christian radio hit with its title track. On 'Terminally Weird But Godly Right' (also released in 1978) Paxton asked the musical question "Will There Be Hippies In Heaven?" He also offered the provocative "Fat, Fat Christian" and a powerful anti-abortion song called "The Big A = The Big M", along with a reading of the traditional hymn "Blessed Assurance". In 1979 Paxton produced twin surprises: 'The Gospel According To Gary S Paxton' by The Gary Paxton Singers featuring a choir singing medleys of his better known songs; and the album 'Gary Sanford Paxton' which opened with a track called "Ain't Gonna Sing No Rock And Roll Song Tonight" and then featured Paxton singing a number of classic hymns, including Thomas Dorsey's "Peace In The Valley" and "Precious Lord (Take My Hand)".
Then on 29th December 1980 a set of events occurred which when spoken about by the producer/songwriter/artist are often summarised with the attention-grabbing phrase "the day that I died." It began when two men turned up at Paxton's home and requested help with their automobile. Paxton later reported that "a strong word from the Lord" told him something was wrong and he placed a pistol in his pocket before leaving the house. He would never get a chance to use it. Once inside Paxton's van (ostensibly so he could drive the men to their car), the pair attacked the singer, striking and choking him. He maintains that he shouted repeatedly, "In the name of Jesus, you cannot kill me!" Gary's collarbone and shoulder were broken and his right eye split open, blinding him with blood. One of the assailants had a gun and shot Paxton in the hand. Gary then managed to turn that gun around and pull the trigger, shooting the man who held it. Escaping from the van, Paxton tried crawling for help but was shot twice more in the back. Neighbours secured aid and that assailant he had wounded was arrested.
Paxton was rushed to hospital but before he lost consciousness with the last of his strength Paxton told God that he forgave the men. "I died twice in the operating room. But God sent me back. I'm here because Jesus forgives, so I forgave."
The two men who had tried to kill Paxton had in fact been hired by Vern Gosdin, the country star for whom Gary had written a string of hits and who wanted out of his contract. While convalescing after the attack another of Paxton's ill-judged business partnerships went pear-shaped. Gary explained, "While I was in the hospital, my partner in the recording studio embezzled me out of $500,000. He was a banker who took everything away from me. I wound up living in an old house (that I had bought through my publishing company, called Raise Your Name) with no electricity, no heat and no light for two years; sleeping in a sleeping bag on a concrete floor. I still forgave all of them. The only way you can start over is to forgive. I said that someday this will be over and Jesus said, 'You got me.' It made me think, look what Jesus went through. I don't just mean the cross, which was unbelievable, but look at what he went through before that: the rejection; being made fun of; being spat on. Here's the man who created the world. And he forgave everybody. If he could forgive everybody, that's the least I can do."
Later in the decade the highly publicised fall of tele-evangelist Jim Bakker led to Gary being named by the Washington Post and other media as having had an
adulterous affair with Bakker's gospel singing wife Tammy Faye Bakker, Paxton
having produced a couple of Tammy Faye's albums. Commented Gary, "It was all lies. I did not have any kind of relationship whatsoever. I was her friend. She
depended on me because a lot of the things going on at PTL all fell apart. I
encouraged her. I never touched her, nor had anything to do with her. She had
an emotional attachment to me. Everyone took that as if maybe we were
sleeping together. Then they went out and started reporting that. It was all lies. Before she died, she wrote in her book that we did not have an affair. Jim
[Bakker] wrote in his book that we did not have an affair. The Washington Post
were just being told lies. That means they were not to blame. I don't hold
Paxton left Nashville and relocated to Branson, Missouri with his fourth wife, Vicki Sue Roberts in 1999. There, despite suffering from hepatitis C, he has, amazingly, continued to turn out gospel and mainstream releases under the Garpax Branson imprint. They include releases by artists in an amazing variety of styles. There's an album 'Touched By His Hand' by Gloria Elliott, an inspirational singer who has recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra; re-issues of Paxton's 'Astonishing, Outrageous.', 'More Astonishing. . .' and 'Terminally Weird But Godly Right' albums plus a head-spinning compilation 'The Adventures Of Dr Redempto Alias Gary S Paxton Crainially Presents The Wordologist Series Vol 1'; an album by inspirational singer Kevin Shorey; a single by a still gigging Comets (of Bill Haley fame); and an album by Al Brumley Jr whose father Albert Brumley penned "I'll Fly Away", one of the most recorded gospel songs of all time. Gary spoke about working with Al Brumley Jr. "He was a friend of mine. I produced him in Bakersfield, Hollywood and Nashville. We're both up here in Branson now. One day, we were sitting round the front room. He said that he'd like to cut 'I'll Fly Away' and bring it up to date. A friend of mine named Jim Lust said we ought to do it in Spanish. I got Tony Melendez, who's this amazing guy who has no arms and who plays guitar with his feet. I had him translate 'I'll Fly Away' into Spanish. We did an English version, a Spanish version and a bilingual version. It's the most recorded country gospel song in history - over two thousand times - yet it's never been done in any foreign language, which is hard to believe. I give a lot of credit to Michael W Davis - he was my programmer and music conductor; and my daughter, Debra Lynn Paxton, and her vocal group, who did all the backing singing. Anyway, we had a lot of fun doing that."
Also, it looks and sounds like Gary had a lot of fun returning to the studio in his own right. Donning a mask and cape the grizzled studio veteran recorded a single under the moniker Grandpa Rock. Gary's version of "Cry Me A River" might not be up there with Julie London's and Marie Knight's but it still demonstrates that even in old age, Gary still has the pipes.
Gary clearly enjoys his latest home. "Branson, Missouri is a beautiful part of the country. It's halfway between Springfield, Missouri and Conway, Arkansas. There are over 100 theatres here and a lot of big stars live here. Paul Revere & The Raiders are here. Andy Williams is here. On the Comets track I recorded, 'When I Die, Just Bury Me At Wal-Mart (So My Wife Will Come Visit Me)', I had people like Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers) and Paul Revere doing backing vocals. I have a good rapport with a lot of people. I discovered Paul Revere & the Raiders in Boise, Idaho at an A&W Root Beer stand in 1959. Paul is a wonderful person. So is Bill Medley."
One of Paxton's most powerful compositions of recent times is "You Can Begin Again". Said Gary, "There was a book by Dr Gerald Mann. He's a big time author who had a church and was married almost 50 years. One day, all of a sudden, his wife dropped dead. He said, 'God, what in the world are you doing? I've been faithful for 50 years.' Three months later, he found out that he had cancer. He started dwindling away. God said, 'You can either get up and start over, or you can lay there, shrivel up and die.' So Gerald Mann wrote a book called You Can Begin Again. I heard his testimony and got the book. He told a lot of stories about the things he's been through. I said, 'You know what? It doesn't matter what has happened to you,' because when I had spinal meningitis when I was a kid, and crippled, I had to begin again. When I was murdered, I had to begin again. When I was embezzled, went through bankruptcy, living on food stamps and welfare - after I'd been rich four or five times. I had to begin again with Jesus. You can't always do it by yourself, but if you have God on your side, no matter what, you can begin again. I wrote another song called 'Scars (Thank You For The Scars)'. I thank God for every scar, trial and setback I've ever had, because they help you grow."
The 72 year old human dynamo is very active in the Branson community. And Still Garpax Branson is pumping out music. "I've got a lot of wonderful people I'm working with: Dr James David Brown, of Kingsway Christian College & Theological Seminary, and his son Daniel Brown are moving down here. I'm working with General John Ashcroft, who is a great writer, a great man and a great pianist. I've got a new record called 'Innocent Blood' (a powerful anti-abortion song sung by Joie Jaye Christensen). The reason our country's economy is bad is we've murdered 48 million [potential] taxpayers."
About Tony Cummings:
Tony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.