Gary S. Paxton, also known as “Grandpa Rock,” “Flip,” “Pax,” or “His Weirdness,” died Saturday at the age of 77 after a lengthy battle with several health issues.
I first interviewed Paxton in 2009, and it was without a doubt, one of my coolest experiences as a writer. What was supposed to be a 30 minute “in and out” interview at his home/recording studio ended up turning into a four-plus hour chat with Paxton and his awesome wife, Ms. Vicki.
Of course I knew he, along with Bobby “Boris” Pickett, was one of the main guys behind the greatest Halloween song of all time, the “Monster Mash,” but I had no idea how many other songs he’d written (more than 2,000 written and close to 700 recorded), produced and sang throughout his life. In fact, more than 150 of his songs have been hits on the rock, country, R&B and gospel charts. His work has also been used in television shows, commercials and movies.
Born in Mesa, Arizona, Paxton was adopted, unbeknownst to him, and moved to Coffeyville, Kansas, at age 3. He told me he always knew he was different, even comparing himself to Navin Johnson, Steve Marti’s character in the comedy classic “The Jerk.”
“Ever see the Steve Martin movie ‘The Jerk?,’” Paxton asked me with a huge grin. “Well, that was me. Nobody in my family liked music, and from the time I was old enough to walk, I was banging on everything I could to make music.”
He began playing in bands as a teenager and in 1957, penned the song “It Was I,” which he and his partner Clyde “Skip” Battin recorded.
Two years later, Paxton heard the song playing over an old transistor radio while picking cherries on a farm in Oregon. The song had been released by Rev Records under the artist name of Skip & Flip, named after the poodles belonging to the wife of a record executive. “It Was I” sold a million copies, and the next thing he knew, he was in the music business.
By 1960, Paxton was living in Hollywood, producing hit tunes including the stellar “Along Comes Mary” for The Association and the poppy sing-along hit “Sweet Pea” for Tommy Roe.
Before too long, he played major roles in the making of two of the most popular novelty hits of the early 60s, the fantastically fun hit from his group, the Hollywood Argiles, “Alley Oop,” and of course, the “Monster Mash.”
“Monster Mash,” a 1962 No. 1 hit that was inspired by the Mashed Potato dance craze of the era, was produced and recorded by Paxton, along with with Pickett, who wrote the tune. Like so many great ideas, Paxton said it was a “no-brainer.”
“‘The Monster Mash’ came about because Bobby Pickett did a great Boris Karloff impression while he was playing with ‘The Diamonds,’” Paxton told me. “The crowds just went wild, so Pickett wrote the song, I handled the publishing and then we recorded it.”
In the late 1960s, he became immersed in the Bakersfield sound and moved to Nashville in 1970. Two years later, Paxton wrote the hit song “Woman Sensuous Woman,” which became a million seller twice, once for Don Gibson in 1972, then again in 1984 for Ray Charles. The song reached the charts yet again in 1996 when country music artist Mark Chestnut recorded it. That’s three different decades of having a hit with the same song.
Not exactly a lightweight.
While I was fascinated listening to him talk about his massive success in the music business, he lit up like a Christmas tree when he started to talk about his faith. He told me after 15 year of alcoholic and drug-induced rampages, he finally had enough. In the early 1970s, he became a born-again Christian.
As awesome as the life and times of Gary S. Paxton in the music business was, it paled in comparison to his testimony. It’s one of the greatest stories I’ve ever heard, and I got the chance to attempt to capture it several years ago. (If you’re interested, you can check it out at bransontrilakesnews.com/news/article_cb298370-78a6-565d-9294-5f34f848689d.html).
“If someone was to make a book or a movie of my life, it would have to be in two parts,” Paxton said. “The first would be B.C., before I found the Lord, and part two would be A.D., after I found the Lord. There have been more incredible things that have happened to me since I got saved than happened before.”
Paxton’s gospel songs, including the massively popular “He Was There All The Time,” have been performed and recorded by thousands of artists, and brought him Grammys, Doves, BMI and ASCAP awards. In 1999, he was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
In 1996, he produced a CD with Porter Wagoner and 105 of his friends, including Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and a list too long to name. The CD came along with the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
Paxton and his family eventually relocated to Branson in 1999. During his 17 year stint in Ozark Mountain Country, he continued to record and produce at his studio, working with most every Branson entertainer he could get his hands on.
The last time I visited he and Ms. Vicki, we all walked downstairs to the studio where the walls were lined with hundreds and hundreds of what he referred to as “unfinished” songs.
“So many of those songs sound great, and could be released as is right now,” Vicki told me with a laugh. “But he has a vision, and he won’t let them out until they are perfect.”
I laughed and smiled at her, and she back at me. It was then I realized how much she loved him, a love that I’m sure will continue to last as long as she does.
Gary S. Paxton was one of the most talented, successful, and most of all, interesting cats I’ve ever had the pleasure to interview. More important than all of that, he was one of the best people I ever had the pleasure of calling “friend.”
The world of both secular and gospel music lost a great mind, and he will be missed.
I haven’t gotten word on when, or where, funeral services will be, but I promise to share any and all information as soon as I find out.