Paycheck – the album that never was

Posting those old Paycheck videos had me recalling the story I did on Paycheck’s ‘lost’ album that was recorded while he was behind bars. Thought I’d dig it up and share it here….a special shout out goes out to Billy Don Burns who graciously shared his story with me. Billy Don is a rare one in this business and he’s always been both kind and generous to me and TCB.

THE PRISON PROJECT

 It was inevitable that Johnny Paycheck would do serious time for the 1985 Ohio bar shooting incident. You just don’t wave a gun around in anger and pull the trigger without expecting to pay the consequences. Billy Don Burns, who was acting as Johnny’s manager at the time of the sentencing in 1989, picks up the story.

“It was a a cold icy February morning in 1988. I called my old friend Ken McDiffie (aka Cadillac Johnson) and asked if he wanted to go with me to pick up Johnny Paycheck in Cincinnati Ohio. I was supposed to pick him up and carry him to his sentencing in Hillsboro, Ohio.” Cadillac agreed to go and when they arrived at the airport already waiting were several news reporters and television cameras. After giving a brief statement Johnny was led by Billy to the waiting Lincoln Continental. Billy sat in the front with Johnny, and Cadillac settled himself into the backseat.

Johnny had done hard time twice before and they all knew the seriousness of this offence would most likely mean time spent behind bars. Johnny insisted that he was going to think positive and to lighten up the mood Billy Don asked him “If you do go Johnny, why don’t I come into the prison and record a live album with you and the prison audience?” Johnny liked the idea and offered his own suggestion, “Yeah, if we do it call Merle Haggard. He will help.”

When the trip arrived at the Hillsboro Courthouse two state troopers were waiting. When Johnny stepped out of the car, one moved forward to handcuff his hands behind his back. They were taken before the judge. Billy Don doesn’t recall his name, but does remember that he didn’t look like the type that was impressed with country music. Burns and Cadillac were put on the stand by Johnny’s lawyer as character references but when sentencing time arrived the verdict came down hard. Seven years at the CCI (Chillocothe Correctional Institution) in Ohio.

It wasn’t long before Billy Don made the first visit to the facility. Meeting with Warden Arthur Tate, he approached him about the idea of recording a prison album with Johnny. He was met with a brick wall response and it took about 15 return visits to finally convince the warden to go along. Then the planning stage began. Billy remembered Johnny’s suggestion.

“I had met Merle Haggard a few times but I didn’t have a phone number on him. I knew Biff Adams who had been Merle’s drummer for years.” Billy recalls. “I called Biff and told him about the album and what Johnny had said about asking Merle to be a part of it.” Biff took Billy’s number down and promised to get the message to Merle and sure enough Merle called later that day.

“He told me the only way he could do the show was if I sent a Lear jet to Kansas City where he was playing the night before the prison gig. We would have to pick him up and then fly him to Chillicothe for our gig and then fly him to Dallas, Texas where was playing after the prison show. I said ‘No problem, Merle.’ That Lear jet cost over $10,000 but it was worth it.”

Merle showed up with an entourage of three musicians: Biff on drums, Mike Leach on bass and a new guitar player that had just taken over for Roy Nichols who’d by then retired. Billy Don hired a tractor trailer that contained a small studio inside and two 24 track recording machines. The two machines were necessary so that every moment of the event would be captured on film and when all was said and done there were 14 rolls of two inch Ampax recording tape.

Neal James was hired as the director for the video portion of the event. There were a total of 4 beta cameras set to film every moment. A sound production team was brought in from Nashville. All in all there were 52 people hired to pull this production off inside of the maximum security prison. Then came a little snag to the tune of a much needed $75,000. Unable to meet the financial obligation the day prior to filming Billy Don turned to Hank Cochran at the suggestion of Jim Vest, who was set to play steel on the album. “I called Hank who I had only briefly met one time at a party at Mel Tillis’ house in Ashland City, Tn. He said he was definitely interested. I drove out to his house in Hendersonville and we made the deal. The album was going to happen.”

Merle Haggard was in top form for his portion of the performance. “I believe the version of Sing Me Back Home that we captured on tape that day inside CCI is his greatest version. I remember Merle telling the prisoners: “You know I wrote a lot of songs in the joint, and most of them wouldn’t have been worth much unless I could have sold them by the pound. But one day I wrote this one and it just how I was feeling at the time.” Then Merle began to sing…

The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom

I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest

And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell

Let my guitar playing friend do my request

Let him sing me back home….

Billy Don recalls the moment. “It was so intense, so real. And then Merle played the ride on his telecaster. It was a simple ride, but with such feeling, it touched me. It was like Merle’s knees buckled at some point. I remember it put chill bumps on me. It so great – I will never forget that moment.” The day also brought another memorable Merle moment as he performed a new song he’d written exclusively for the prison album on the way to CCI – a tune titled: I’m Learning From Inside These Walls”. The song went over well and is most likely the only known recording of the tune.

Music wasn’t the only eventful thing to happen that day at CCI. Between Merle and Johnny’s set was an attempted escape. The show was stalled as the facility went into lockdown. Everyone was told to stay put – and that included everyone involved with the production. “Two inmates were missing.” Billy Don recalls the moment “It took over an hour but they finally found these guys laying on top of a building. I never learned exactly what their plan was.”

CCI was home to some of the country’s most notorious criminals and now in the midst of them was Johnny Paycheck, a celebrity. Although he wasn’t given special treatment he was well known among the inmate community and was ‘the man’. “He was a superstar who had something in common with them. He had messed up and was doing time just like them at CCI.”

“Johnny introduced me to a gentleman incarcerated with him that I will always remember,” Billy continues “His name was Elmo Lincoln. Johnny had introduced me to him as Tippy, his best friend. Elmo was somewhat of a celebrity himself. I believe he was 67 years old and he had been down, as they call it there, for over fifty years. He told me his story once when we sat down for an hour or so. I believe it was a grocery store robbery. Elmo told me his brother was killed that day, and also a cop. Elmo was wounded. He said he was on the floorboard of the car using his hand to accelerate the automobile. He crashed the car and was captured. Elmo sang and wrote songs. Johnny wanted him to sing a couple on the prison show. I worked it out with Warden Tate. Johnny recorded two of Elmo’s songs that day.”

While it was a given for Johnny Paycheck to close his shows with “Take This Job” the two shows recorded at CCI ended with a tune Billy Don had written after returning home from a visit with Johnny called “Chillocothe”

Chillicothe, you got a hold on me

There’s a lot of other places I’d rather be

Your razor wire and yard dogs

Keep me from being free

Chillicothe you got a hold on me

As Johnny sang the song the music was drowned out by the roar of the appreciate prison audience.

When the crew and equipment arrived back in Nashville they had a piece of country music history on 15 rolls of recording tape. They also had video tape that captured the entire two shows. They had Johnny singing Elmo’s tunes, two of Billy Don’s (including Chillicothe) Take This Job and Shove It, I’m The Only Hell My Mama Raised, Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got among other familiar Paycheck hits. “We recorded a song Hank (Cochran) and Jim Vest wrote ‘Will I Be Free When I’m Free.’ Johnny  wanted to record Jailhouse Rock so we did that one. Merle recorded seven or eight songs on each show.” There was also a Johnny and Merle duet on a Whitely Shafer tune “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight”

Billy Don continued to work on the project after he got back home even adding in Tanya Tucker’s vocals with Johnny’s on Jailhouse Rock. That was the last the Billy Don got to work on the project. After working on rough mixes on a few songs Hank Cochran decided to shelve the  project.

“I know that this was one of the greatest events ever captured in recording history. I don’t even know why it was me that was chosen to capture it, but it was me. It seemed like everyone in the industry was offended I did the project. It was like “who is this guy? Hell, he don’t deserve a project of this magnitude.”

Whatever the industry politics and personal histories — there’s a piece of a vital part of country music history out there gathering dust somewhere on a shelf. Sad. And now with the passing of Johnny Paycheck the story gets to be all that much sadder to know that he never saw the project he was so excited about see the light of day.

Laurie Joulie Take Country Back August 2003

4 Responses to “Paycheck – the album that never was”

  1. Thanks for that great historicaL perspecitive on the sessions – I am currently watching some of the footage, and it’s sensational – great playing and performances.

  2. Chilly Willy Says:

    Freedom’s sweet, but I was there for this concert, many years ago and like You said Chillocothe YOU can go straight ta Hell. Never been back, never will be.
    Peace to All, Chilly Willy

    And may God keep Tippy Tipton close to His heart.

  3. Nice site – Here’s wishing you a very happy and prosperous new year !

  4. Nice site – Wishing you a very happy and prosperous new year !

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