Thursday, July 31, 2008

"A Lovely Shade Of Red, But A Naughty Boy": Hoyt Axton And "Greenback Dollar"

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?"
- Mark Weierman

Hoyt Axton was a character and a half. Voice, personality, physique, creative success - he was a sort of a larger than life latter-day Burl Ives on drugs. If Axton was never either quite the singer or actor that Ives was - and he wasn't, as Ives could range from "The Blue Tail Fly" to "Long Black Veil" as a singer and from melodrama to Faulkner and Miller as an actor -
Burl never wrote a succession of iconic songs as Hoyt did - "Joy To The World" (Three Dog Night), "Sweet Misery" (John Denver), "The Pusher" (Steppenwolf and the opening song in Easy Rider ), "Never Been To Spain" (Waylon Jennings and Three Dog Night) - and of course, "Greenback Dollar."

As most fans probably know, Axton was the son of "Heartbreak Hotel" co-writer Mae Boren Axton and came to the LA/San Francisco folk scene somewhat late in the game - around 1962, making GD a relatively quick if not quite golden financial success for a 24 year old singer/writer who was just about a year older than John Stewart.

Axton, however, was seduced by the music business drug culture that took off roughly simultaneously with Axton's career, and Hoyt's ongoing battles with addiction to alcohol and cocaine likely contributed to his premature death in 1999 at 61.

I saw him solo several times at the Troubadour and the Roxy in LA, and he gave no outward evidence of those problems. He was a large bear of a man with an engaging personality, ready wit, and utterly no pretension about him. He just didn't fit comfortably into any niche - too throaty and rough edged for the smoother 70s singer/songwriters like Simon, Taylor, Denver, and so on - but neither rocked out enough to appeal to the metalheads nor pseudo-country enough to appeal to the Flying Burrito-Poco-Eagles crowd. But he kept plugging away, a workman-like actor, performer, and songwriter who stayed on the job til the end.

Axton related somewhere I can't find that he met cowriter of GD Ken Ramsey in a laudromat, and that Ramsey had some of the words and part of a chorus for the song that became his first writing hit. Ramsey and Axton finished the song in an afternoon, did a demo, and sent it to the abovementioned publisher, who promptly bought their rights to the song for $800 each.

I'll bet it looked like a lot of money at the time........

You might think that the Kingston's version was all that there was to the song.............but not at all so. The enduring appeal of the KT version, though, is reflected on its continually self-renewing popularity, most recently as we know at the end of the film Thank You For Smoking - and in the fact that a weak video montage of the Trio that includes photos of many KT troupes (but not the one that sang the song!) would garner more than 370,000 views:

A YT video of Hoyt doing his own song was yanked for CopyVio - but another YouTube phenom - Fretkiller performs a version close to Axton's own. He did not permit his videos to be embedded - a stricture I evaded for nearly two years by using an international site that permitted embedding. The web cops caught up with that site though...and with Fretkillr, whom they banned for unspecified reasons (probably copyvio complaints from rights holders of some of the songs he covered). Some intrepdid YouTubers, however, managed to rescue some of FK's work from the dump - here is his excellent "Greenback Dollar":

Speaking of Mama Mia - here are Sweden's famous Hootenanny Singers with future ABBA star Bernie Ulvaeus - a real KT tribute:

For the just plain strange, how about surf guitar/singer/legend Dick Dale giving it a try - with the DelTones, sax, drums - but no Dick on guitar:

Finally - of all the straight-on rock versions on YouTube, the benchmark performance is probably 80s neo-folk group the Washington Squares:

Nostalgia moment: I still have stored somewhere a beautiful vinyl album with my favorite KT album cover - New Frontier. A red sticker is affixed to the upper right of the record - an ink drawing of a genie with a crystal ball and the legend "Preview Album! Hear 1963's Music Today!"

Of time and the river.............

2011 Addition

Johnny Rivers, who never gets enough credit for his pop-rock-folk-blues contributions, - live from 1965:

...and Barry McGuire of "Eve Of Destruction" fame - a good friend of both Axton and Ramsey and an uncredited co-writer of this song,

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