Hoyt Wayne Axton (, 1938 ??? , 1999) was an American country music singer-songwriter, and a film and television actor. He became prominent in the early 1960s, establishing himself as a well-known folk singer on the West Coast with an earthy style and powerful voice. As he matured, many of his songwriting efforts became well known throughout the world. Among them are "Joy to the World," (which many know for its opening lyric "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog!") and "Greenback Dollar."
He was born in Duncan, Oklahoma and spent his pre-teen years in Comanche, Oklahoma with his brother, John. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, co-wrote the classic rock 'n' roll song "Heartbreak Hotel", which became the first major hit for Elvis Presley. Some of Hoyt's own songs were also later recorded by Elvis. Hoyt's father, John T. Axton, was a Navy officer stationed in Jacksonville, Florida; the family joined him there in 1949. Axton graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1956 and left town after Knauer???s Hardware burned down on graduation night, a prank gone wrong. Axton attended Oklahoma State for a short length of time before following his father and enlisting in the Navy. Hoyt served aboard the USS Princeton (LPH-5), before pursuing a music career.
After his discharge from the Navy on the west coast, he began singing folk songs in San Francisco nightclubs. In the early 1960s he released his first folk album titled The Balladeer (recorded at the legendary Troubadour), which included his song Greenback Dollar, a 1963 hit for The Kingston Trio. Axton released numerous albums well into the 1980s, changing somewhat with the times but always retaining an honest, down-home and fairly "country" approach to his music. Axton had many minor singing hits of his own, such as "Boney Fingers" ("Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers, boney fingers"), "When the Morning Comes", and 1979's "Della and the Dealer as well as Jealous Man" (which he sang in a guest appearance on WKRP in Cincinnati). His vocal style featured his distinctive baritone (which later deepened to near-bass) and use of characterization: at times gritty and defiant, other times exceptionally mellow, occasionally deliberately cartoonish. One song, "Officer Ray," is styled in self-parody, as Hoyt softly croons curses at a sadistic police officer that would seem more likely to come from the narrator of "The Pusher": "Officer Ray / .... / May you have a bad day / May your wife run away/ With a hippie."
But his most lasting contributions were songs made famous by others: "Never Been to Spain" (Three Dog Night), the previously mentioned "Greenback Dollar" (Kingston Trio), "The Pusher" (Steppenwolf), and "No-No Song" (Ringo Starr) and for an array of others, including Joan Baez, John Denver, and Waylon Jennings. Axton also sang a couple of notable duets with Linda Ronstadt, including Lion in Winter and When the Morning Comes (a top 40 country hit). His most popular and signature song, "Joy to the World" (Three Dog Night), was No. 1 on the charts for six straight weeks in 1971, making it the top hit of the year.
Axton first appeared on television in a David L. Wolper ABC production of The Story of a Folksinger in 1963. In 1965, he appeared in an episode of Bonanza, then followed with other TV roles over the years. As he matured, Axton as an actor specialized in playing good ol' boys on television and in films. His face became well-known in the 1970s and 1980s through many TV and film appearances, e.g. the movies Gremlins and The Black Stallion. He sang the jingle "Head For the Mountains" in the Busch beer commercials in the 1980s (and also sang The Ballad of Big Mac touting the recently released McDonalds Big Mac on screen in a 1969 commercial he filmed for the hamburger franchise).
Hoyt Axton on Austin City Limits in 1978
Axton spent some time struggling with cocaine addiction and several of his songs, including "The Pusher", "Snowblind Friend", and "No-No Song" partly reflect his negative drug experiences. He had been known as an opponent of drug use for many years when, in February 1997, he and his wife were arrested at their Montana home for possession of approximately 500 grams of marijuana, a little over a pound. His wife explained later that she offered Hoyt marijuana to relieve pain and stress following a 1995 stroke; both were fined and given deferred sentences.
Hoyt never fully recovered from his stroke, and still had to use a wheelchair much of the time. His mother, Mae, drowned in a hot tub at her Tennessee home in 1997. Hoyt Axton died of a heart attack in Victor, Montana, on , 1999, at the age of 61. Axton had suffered a severe heart attack two weeks earlier and experienced another one while undergoing surgery in Montana.
On November 1, 2007 he and his mother were inducted posthumously to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Selective list of songs
Among his best-known compositions (or co-writing credits) are:
"Greenback Dollar" covered by The Kingston Trio
"The Pusher," covered by Steppenwolf on their debut album in 1968
"No-No Song," which became a #3 hit for Ringo Starr in March 1975
"Never Been To Spain," covered by Three Dog Night, Waylon Jennings, and Elvis Presley
"Joy to the World", the Three Dog Night hit from April 1971 which held US #1 for six weeks
"Snowblind Friend" (1971), covered by Steppenwolf
"Lightning Bar Blues" (1973) covered by Brownsville Station and Arlo Guthrie (also a big hit for the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks in the '80s)
"Sweet Misery" (1974) covered by John Denver
"The Morning Is Here" (1974)
"Boney Fingers" (1974)
"Della and the Dealer" (1979) (Reached the top 20 of the Billboard Country charts in the USA and the top 50 of the British pop charts)
"Hotel Ritz" (1979)
"Rusty Ol' Halo" (1979)
"Hangnail In My Life" Snowblind Album (1977)
Della and The Dealer and Hotel Ritz both became minor hit singles in the UK after extensive playing by the British D.J. Terry Wogan on his BBC Radio 2 breakfast programme of the time.
Movies and television appearances
The Black Stallion
Heart Like a Wheel
We're No Angels
Deadline Auto Theft
Buried Alive II
Flo's Yellow Rose
Christmas Comes to Willow Creek
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
I Dream of Jeannie
Dukes of Hazzard
WKRP in Cincinnati (performed "Della and the Dealer" and "Jealous Man")
Diff'rent Strokes (as fictional country/western impresario "Wes McKinney")
Murder, She Wrote
Faerie Tale Theatre - Goldilocks and the Three Bears
The Bionic Woman -"Road to Nashville"
Axton also composed and sang the theme song to the short-lived television sitcom Flo.
The Rousters was a short-lived television sitcom (1983) with Axton as 'Cactus' Jack Slade. The show starred Chad Everett (as Wyatt Earp III, the grandson of the legendary Wyatt Earp), and Jim Varney (as his dim-witted brother, Evan).
In the mid '90s, Axton was chosen to host and narrate the profile series on The Nashville Network, The Life and Times in which a different country music figure was spotlighted each hour. His voice was heard throughout and he was seen on-camera doing the introduction and closing of each show in which he participated.