Hoyt Axton Biography
Source: Mark Weierman
Singer, Songwriter, Actor, Artist
Hoyt Axton was born on March 25, 1938, in Duncan, Oklahoma. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, co-wrote Elvis's monster smash Heartbreak Hotel with Tommy Durden, giving Elvis his first major hit record. Prior to becoming a Nashville music industry legend, however, Mae was a school teacher, a mother of two sons and wife to their father, John T. Axton, also a teacher and high school athletics coach. "Every weekend at our house," Hoyt recalls of his childhood, "we either won, lost or got rained out."
Under his father's guidance, Hoyt became a sixty minute football player at Robert E. Lee High in Jacksonville, Florida, playing both offense and defense. His athletic ability was such that he made All State and won a football scholarship to Oklahoma State University. Mae made sure that the inner-man was not neglected, though, making Hoyt take classical piano lessons until his preference for the guitar surfaced. Ironically, however, Hoyt credits his music career as much to John T. as he does to Mae: "He was a singer and he loved to sing, although never professionally, probably never performed on a stage in his life, but he had this wonderful baritone voice, and he sang all the time. So I learned to love singing from my father and to love songwriting from my mother..."
In the late-fifties, Hoyt left college to join the Navy, where he served a hitch as a carrier sailor. Although he already had thoughts at that point of pursuing a musical career, he kept athletically active in the service by boxing. He vividly recalls scoring a TKO in the ring, in less than a minute during a grudge match arranged by his Division Officer, over another sailor who had broken his nose with a sucker punch one day while they were standing in the chow line. "I didn't even spill my applesauce," Hoyt recalls. Professing to this day that he doesn't have a 'flight' mechanism, Hoyt went after the other man on the spot. They were quickly broken up, however, and the boxing match arranged.
"I knocked him down three times in 56 seconds of the first round," Hoyt remembers with relish. "He finally took off his gloves, climbed out of the ring, picked up a folding chair and struck a threatening pose. I motioned for him to come on back in the ring with it, but he didn't." Hoyt went on to become the Heavyweight Champion of a task force of 35 ships.
After his separation from the Navy in 1961, Hoyt went straight into the music business, writing and performing folk tunes in keeping with times, though he included rhythm and blues, blues and rock numbers in his repetoire. After a brief stint in Nashville, Hoyt headed for California, where he first attracted attention in 1962 while playing the San Francisco coffee-house circuit. His performing style, best described as intense, set him apart from the clean-cut, collegiate, almost 'formal' style of many of his his contemporaries. "I was a folk singer for ten years," he says of his early career. "I was recording for a small label called Horizon, which was distributed by a jazz label, and jazz was not a major seller in America at that time. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, through inexperience, bad management and some other things."
In 1963, the Kingston Trio had a near Top 20 hit on the US charts with Greenback Dollar, which Hoyt co-wrote with fellow folk singer Ken Ramsey. The song also made the Billboard charts on three different Kingston Trio albums during the sixties. However, the financial reward never came, and Hoyt made a mere $800.00 from the song. "After I got ripped off as a writer on 'Greenback Dollar', I didn't go into a blue funk and walk around crying that everyone's crooked," Hoyt says of the experience. "I've always been an optimist, and I'm going to stay that way until I die. I think I get that from my mother, who could go up to the devil himself, and she'd say 'Hello, young man, you're a lovely shade of red, but you're a naughty boy'. With 'Greenback Dollar', I had a crooked publisher, and that was when I'd only been in the business a year, so I didn't know anything - I was just a kid with a guitar living in a car... How could I sue when the whole point of the song was how I didn't give a damn about a greenback dollar?"
Rewards, financial as well as artistic, weren't terribly long in coming Hoyt's way, however. In the late sixties, his songs The Pusher and Snowblind Friend were immortalized by the prototypal metal band Steppenwolf. The Pusher, particularly, paid off at a good time for Hoyt: "I had two houses, three kids, two cars, $400 in the bank and bills to pay. The bank repossessed the Mercedes-Benz, and said I'd never get credit again," he remembers. "On a Saturday morning, I went to the mailbox and there was a check for $14,000 for the use of the song in Easy Rider. I had a real nice weekend, and then on Monday another ten grand came in."
Hoyt particularly remembers how good the musicians to whom he owed money were to him before those Easy Rider checks came in. "The bank just couldn't wait for their money, not one minute," he recalls. "I didn't really care about the car - the grill was smashed in and it was dinged up pretty good. But the so-called 'little people' were very patient with me when I was down. I'd say 'I can't pay you right now', and they'd say, 'That's cool, man. Whenever you can.' I've never forgotten that."
After Easy Rider the ball was rolling, and it rolled right into the seventies. By then, Hoyt had turned over into the country/folk, country/rock style we are all so familiar with today. He had also signed on with Steppenwolf's managers. The same people managed Three Dog Night, and in 1971 they recorded (at about the same time Hoyt did) the song that has become Hoyt's signature tune, Joy to the World. Three Dog Night's cover went to number one on the U.S. pop chart, where it stayed for six weeks. In October of 1997, it was certified at two million performances.
Three Dog Night followed later that same year (1971) with a hit recording of another of Hoyt's songs, Never Been to Spain. In 1975, Ringo Starr covered Hoyt's The No No Song, and that recording went to number three on the U.S. charts. By this time he had attained an extraordinary level of mastery of the craft of songwriting, a mastery that is evident in his songs to this day. His own explanation of his ability is simpler, and humbler: "I write solely from my own experience of life," he says, "because that's the only way I know how to do it."
Hoyt was recording prodigiously himself through that period, and he produced, through the mid-seventies, what may be the finest of his own recordings in a series of albums on the A&M label (all now out-of-print): Less Than The Song, 1973; Life Machine, 1974; Southbound, 1975; Fearless, 1976; and Road Songs, 1977, a 'best of' the other four albums. When the Morning Comes, a duet with Linda Ronstadt from Life Machine, went to number one on the Canadian charts. That song, and Boney Fingers, a duet with Renee Armand from the same album, also received decent airplay in the States.
In 1979, Hoyt released Rusty Old Halo, another strong album, on his own Jeremiah label, which stayed on the Country charts for a year. The songs Della and the Dealer and Rusty Old Halo from that album both hit the Top 20, firmly establishing Hoyt's bona fides as a country artist. He also maintained a wicked concert schedule through the seventies and eighties that found him playing as many as 300 dates a year. In 1990, he released Spin of the Wheel, an album easily rivaling his A&M recordings in quality and consistancy.
I was privileged to see Hoyt live at one of the theaters in downtown San Diego in 1983 (I think it was the Fox, but I don't know - I don't remember last week all that well, much less last decade). However, I will never forget the performance. Not only is Hoyt a memorable baritone (he is, by the way, one of the few people on the planet who can truly pull off a song acappella), he is also a great story teller, and interspersed some wildly funny rambling anecdotes among his tunes. I will always recall it as an electrifying show and thoroughly enjoyable evening's entertainment.
Though he has had over thirty albums released through the years, Hoyt Axton's musical career isn't all there is to "The Man". He is also an artist, having published a book of his original line drawings, and an actor, whose Thesbian endeavors started with a part on the Bonanza TV series in 1965. To date, he has appeared in numerous TV shows and played parts in over a dozen movies, most notably portraying Alec's father in The Black Stallion (for which he wrote his own lines), the young protagonist's father in Gremlins and Father LeVesque in We're No Angels (with Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn). He has also done memorable TV commercial appearances and voice-overs for the likes of Busch Beer, Pizza Hut and McDonalds.
Unfortunately for all of us, Hoyt suffered a stroke in 1995. Fortunately for all of us, he has made a determined recovery and is once again active in show business, writing songs as well as ever, planning to record and even do more motion pictures. Jeremiah Productions is once again in business, and we can expect a reissue of Spin of the Wheel in the near future, as well as both new and previously unreleased material.
Hoyt made his first public appearance in two years on Crook and Chase's Today's Country, which aired October 29, 1997, and we can look forward to seeing more of him, coming right up. It is with more than "...just a little bit a' joy" that I welcome back, on behalf of all his fans, "The Man", the myth, the legend, Hoyt Axton, looking every bit of ten feet tall and bulletproof.
- Mark Weierman, November 25, 1997
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