Monday, July 25, 2016
Gary S. Paxton, who began his career as a teenager in the singing duo Skip & Flip, produced the hit pop singles “Alley-Oop” and “Monster Mash,” composed hundreds of songs and ended his career as a Grammy-winning gospel musician who also performed as the masked Grandpa Rock, died on July 17 in Branson, Mo. He was 77.
The cause was complications of heart surgery and liver disease, his wife, Vicki Sue Paxton, said. Mr. Paxton’s professional trajectory as a songwriter, record producer and sometime performer coursed from rock ’n’ roll to contemporary Christian music. His personal life resembled a gangsta rap video that mixed violent, comic and countercultural overtones and ended with an inspirational beat.
“I was molested when I was 7,” he wrote in the testimony section of his ministry’s website. “I started writing songs when I was 10. I had spinal meningitis at 11. We moved to Arizona when I was 12 years of age. I had my own rock ’n’ roll band by the time I was 14. When I was 16 years old, I wrote my first million-seller, recording it at age 17.”
After surviving adolescence, Mr. Paxton was buffeted between sudden stardom and abject poverty. Twice he was delivered to mental institutions because of drug and alcohol abuse. He was accused of driving a wedge between the television evangelist Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, as scandal broke over reports of extramarital affairs. He was shot three times by hit men said to have been hired by a disgruntled singer. And after his business partner died, he wandered into a church and was baptized, turned to gospel music and went on to win a Grammy Award for best inspirational performance.
“He is the archetypal eccentric whose surreal humor and flamboyant personality don’t hide his deep devotion to Christ,” wrote Tony Cummings, the music editor for the website of Cross Rhythms, a Christian-music broadcaster in Britain. Jesus, he added, “miraculously delivered him from the wild excesses of the rock ’n’ roll fast lane and from disasters that would have shipwrecked lesser men.”
Mr. Paxton’s grin on the cover of his award-winning gospel album, framed by a Shenandoah beard and a black cowboy hat (“some bizarre hybrid of Jim Morrison and Abe Lincoln,” his friend Alec Palao wrote), belied troubled decades during which, before turning to Christian rock, he had morphed from the fresh-faced Flip into a hippie Jesus freak.
Mr. Paxton was a teenage high school dropout in Arizona when he wrote “It Was I” and recorded it as a demo with a guitarist and singer, Clyde Battin. It wound up with the producer Bob Shad, and Skip & Flip were born in absentia in 1959, supposedly named for the poodles belonging to Mr. Shad’s wife.
Mr. Paxton learned the song was a hit only when he heard it on the radio while working as a cherry picker in Washington State. Skip & Flip toured with the disc jockey Alan Freed and, after recording one more blockbuster, “Cherry Pie,” split up. (Mr. Battin later joined the Byrds.) By 1960, Mr. Paxton was in Hollywood. He produced (with Kim Fowley) and sang “Alley-Oop” with the short-lived group the Hollywood Argyles. Inspired by a popular comic strip about a cave man — “There’s a man in the funny papers we all know” — the song reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
He also produced “Monster Mash” for the singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett, a catchy single infused with crude sound effects and sung in the voice of a mad scientist who describes seeing his monster rise from his slab and introduce a new dance (“It was a graveyard smash”). The single reached No. 1 just before Halloween in 1962 and became a pumpkin-season perennial, hitting the Top 10 again a decade later.
“Paxton’s abilities made him a natural to handle whatever genre he chose,” Mr. Palao, a producer and archivist, said in an interview. He was not only versatile, Mr. Palao said, but also, by his own admission, “terminally weird.”
In Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Calif., Mr. Paxton recruited talent, opened studios, produced records for his own labels and promoted them. He went so far as to enlist a live elephant to lead a protest parade after a radio station refused to play one of his records, “Elephant Game (Part 1),” by Renfro & Jackson. He was arrested, according to the website of Gary S. Paxton Ministries, when the beast began defecating in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.
In 1970 he relocated to Nashville, where he wrote “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” a No. 1 country hit for Don Gibson. It was also where, after his business partner’s death, as he later recalled, he “walked into a church — stoned on drugs — and got saved.”
(The partner, Thomas Wayne, had been a one-hit wonder — the hit was “Tragedy,” in 1959 — and died in an automobile crash that Mr. Paxton said he believed was suicide.)
Mr. Paxton joined the hippie Jesus movement, fusing Southern gospel with Christian rock in songs that he sang or wrote for others and that denounced drugs, drink and tobacco. Among them were “Jesus Keeps Takin’ Me Higher and Higher” and “You Ain’t Smokin’ Them Cigarettes (Baby, They’re Smokin’ You).”
His gospel album “The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton,” won a Grammy in 1977.
The shooting that left him wounded occurred in 1980. Mr. Paxton believed the gunmen had been hired by a singer who wanted to break his contract. “All the while during the attack,” he later recalled, “I continued to yell, ‘In the name of Jesus, you can’t kill me!’” They nearly did, though, and he was sidelined for several years.
He was linked to Tammy Faye Bakker in 1987, when The Washington Post reported that she had developed a crush on Mr. Paxton around the time that her husband, Jim Bakker, had a sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn, a secretary at his evangelical church. The disclosure of that encounter not only caused Mr. Bakker’s downfall but also shredded Mr. Paxton’s credibility with gospel music stations. He insisted that he and Ms. Bakker were just friends.
Gary Sanford Paxton was born Larry Wayne Stevens in Coffeyville, Kan., on May 18, 1939, to an unwed teenage couple. He was adopted by a poor couple by the name of Paxton who had a farm without electricity or running water.
“All I cared about from the time I was 3 years old was music, music, music,” he told Mr. Cummings of Cross Rhythms. “I was always baffled because none of my family could whistle, sing, tap their feet or clap.” (He first learned he was adopted, he said, when his biological mother found him in Arizona years later, and he discovered that indeed some of his other relatives had been musicians.)
He married the first of his four wives when he was 17 and she was 14.
His survivors include his wife, the former Vicki Sue Roberts; his sons Gary Dean, Stephen and Gary Sanford III; his daughters Debra Lynn Paxton and Melody Paxton Waqas; and nine grandchildren.
By his own count Mr. Paxton wrote some 2,000 songs; among the latest was “When I Die, Just Bury Me at Wal-Mart (So My Wife Will Come Visit Me).” He was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1998. The next year, after moving to Branson, a magnet for musicians and live music performances in the Ozarks, he developed bleeding ulcers, which called for transfusions that left him with hepatitis C.
But he recovered and resumed his career, performing in a mask and cape as Grandpa Rock (“a sort of hillbilly Ozzy Osbourne,” Mr. Palao wrote) and composing devotional songs like “You Can Begin Again.”
Over the years, Mr. Paxton survived more than one near-death experience and more than his share of second acts. But he absolved the men convicted of shooting him, visiting them in jail, and defended the value of forgiveness.
“The only way you can start over is to forgive,” he once told Mr. Cummings in an interview. “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.”
Posted by Michael Godin at 6:23 PM