J.F.K, Hard Country, and the Point of No Return
September 7, 2010 § 1 Comment
This cover is certainly of its time – 1970 – and I think most would also say it falls into the classically tasteless category so completely that it could possibly be an all-time great. Its greatness may be aided by the fact that it is an album of versions of Johnny Cash songs… That just adds an aspect of coolness that a lot of collections of this sort often lack. I can’t help but wonder if he ever saw it. I would certainly think so, though I’m assuming he would have had no say in anything to do with this release, coming out as it did on a small Nashville label he had no connection to, and given that U.S. copyright law allows anyone to cover any published song, as long as they pay the required fees. But I like to think that he loved it, and had obtained the original artwork and had it blown up and framed on his wall.
One of the first things I noticed about this record was the odd name of the label that did release it, “Certron Corporation Music Division.” There was no doubt that a name like that was begging to be looked into, and what a strange story it turned out to be. It all revolves around the person credited as the producer of this record, Aubrey Mayhew. Mayhew was working for Pickwick Records in New York in the early ’60s when (according to a piece in The Chicago Sun-Times by Dave Hoekstra, from whom I gleaned many of the facts I will relate) he heard about a “down-on-his-luck Nashville singer named Donald Lytle” – who had, according to The New York Times, left home at 15 to roam the country on freight trains, later ending up in prison for assaulting an officer while in the Navy. After his release he had hitch-hiked to Nashville, where he wrote a few songs and played some bass for George Jones. Mayhew eventually found Lytle sleeping under the Shelby Street Bridge there. He changed Lytle’s name to Johnny Paycheck, got Pickwick in New York to release some of his stuff, and eventually moved to Nashville to start his own label with Paycheck and steel guitar legend Lloyd Green. He called the label Little Darlin’, and it became known for what was called “hard country” – a more renegade, energetic and ‘authentic’ alternative to the smoother, more poppy type of country music that even then had begun to take hold in Nashville. Little Darlin’ put out artists like Lightning Hopkins, Jeannie C. Riley and Stonewall Jackson, and is said to have – and this sounds incredible to me – over 5,000 unreleased songs.
By 1970 Little Darlin’ had run out of money, and Mayhew struck a deal with Certron, a producer of magnetic tape, to form a new label, which would continue on in the same vein with Johnny Paycheck and others. One of the people who recorded for Certron was Clint Eastwood. According to Hoekstra’s 2005 conversation with Mayhew, the actor had “always said he was a singer,” and after a bad experience in the early ’60s with “some slick guys in Philadelphia” (who apparently had tried to fashion him into something more country-pop), “Eastwood decided to give music another try when an industry friend told [him] that Mayhew could be trusted.” Eastwood ended up recording the single “Burning Bridges,” which appeared in his “Kelly’s Heroes” film, as well as, according to Mayhew, “six or eight other things.”
Apart from all this musical activity, though, Mayhew became known for a rather different interest. Fate had conspired to place him in Houston on the day J.F.K. was assassinated. Seeing the TV coverage, Mayhew somehow had the presence of mind to rush to the phone to call a friend in town, who “brought over two tape recorders and all the tape he could carry.”
Again, Mayhew from the conversation with Hoekstra: “We recorded everything off the television for about 12 hours. I rushed the material back to New York, and we put out the first ‘Kennedy Speeches’ album. At that time, we had 300 Woolworth stores in our pocket. We got prime display. We sold about 3 million albums in four months.”
Somehow all of this combined to leave Mayhew with such an interest in the Kennedy shooting that he became one of the most active collectors of Kennedy-related material in the world, amassing a collection of over 300,000 objects. His prize possession, however – incredibly – was the Texas School Book Depository, which he bought for $600,000 at a 1970 auction. He lost the building to foreclosure three years later, though until the end of his life he claimed he had removed the window from which Kennedy was shot, and had it stored in Nashville. This was disputed by the son of the owner of the building at the time of the assassination, Caruth Byrd, who, Hoekstra writes, “argued that he inherited the book depository window from his father, who … removed the window shortly after the assassination. Mayhew argued he had the true window because the elder Byrd removed the wrong one.” Elsewhere Mayhew has said, “I also have a letter from a very wealthy civic leader who was half-owner of the Texas School Book Depository who said he witnessed them taking the window out and told them they were taking it out of the wrong window.”
Mayhew, like one of the figures in the previous post, Bob Keane, who discovered Ritchie Valens, only passed away last year. He was 81. But what a life. My favorite story requires me again to credit the Hoekstra article, in which Mayhew recounts how he came to write “The Pint of No Return,” which became a big song for Stonewall Jackson. Mayhew had attended a Johnny Paycheck gig in Secacaus, N.J., and recalls:
“Two girls were at a table and I went over and started talking to them,” Mayhew said. “During his break, Paycheck came over. We all ended up going out after the show. Paycheck was driving. We had no idea where we were. We went down this long road and came to a pier on the seashore. It was 5 in the morning. There was a sign that said ‘Point of No Return.’
“I looked at Paycheck, he looked at me. He was drunk. I wasn’t. I said, ‘Paycheck, you’ve just reached the pint of no return.’ We took the girls home, went to the hotel and wrote the song. It had to be pretty important to turn down two pretty-looking women.”
When he died, The Guardian in London said about Mayhew: “The margins of the American record business have always been unregulated, a natural home for entrepreneurs such as Aubrey Mayhew, who has died aged 81. A producer and label owner in the 1960s and 70s, Mayhew swam against the current of mainstream music, in the nonconformist tradition of men such as Sam Phillips, Syd Nathan of King Records and the Chess brothers.”
Again like Bob Keane, Mayhew seems to me to have lived a particularly colorful, entrepreneurial, and ultimately perhaps “American” life: serving in WWII, then getting his start in the music business as a booking agent and promoter, eventually taking the initiative to track down the future Johnny Paycheck and later begin his own label, then another one. Even the recording of the Kennedy material: talk about seizing an “opportunity.” He works with people like Clint Eastwood and Charlie Parker, then develops his obsession with the Kennedy assassination and buys the Book Depository – then loses it, and later loses the rights to the Little Darlin’ catalog by trying to act as his own lawyer. He was also the author of three books. And he definitely had an imagination: he often suggested oddball song titles like “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill” and “Don’t Monkey with Another Monkey’s Monkey,” which ended up earning him songwriting credits on many Little Darlin’ songs. According to some he wasn’t always easy to get along with, but colorful people just aren’t a lot of the time. One of his obituaries called his a “fascinating and wonderful life,” and noted that his career spanned 60 years and that he was “survived by his loyal and loving dog, Pal.”
It’s hard to even know what to add to that.