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California and the West

Hoyt Axton, Singer, Character Actor and Hit Songwriter, Dies

October 27, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoyt Axton, the folksy country and pop singer and songwriter who penned the Kingston Trio's folk classic "Greenback Dollar," Three Dog Night's pop hit "Joy to the World" and his own humorous recording "Boney Fingers," died Tuesday at age 61.

Axton, also a familiar character actor, died at his ranch in Victor, Mont., after suffering two severe heart attacks in two weeks. A disabling stroke three years ago forced him to use a wheelchair much of the time.

The Oklahoma-born entertainer emerged into the limelight as a folk singer in the 1960s at West Hollywood's Troubadour and Huntington Beach's Golden Bear. He saw himself more as a songwriter than either a singer or an actor, but worked prolifically in all three areas for four decades. He continually toured in concert and recorded his own songs, often on his own label--dubbed Jeremiah for the bullfrog in "Joy to the World."

Yet it fell mostly to others to make the songs Axton wrote into stellar hits--the Kingston Trio with "Greenback Dollar" in 1962, Steppenwolf with "The Pusher" in 1968 and "Snowblind Friend" in 1971, and then Three Dog Night and the international success of "Joy to the World" in 1971.

Axton, who had performed as an opening act for Three Dog Night in 1969 and 1970, went on to write "Never Been to Spain," another hit for the group in 1972.

"Axton was a substantial songwriting talent who was able to inject his own fun-loving sensibilities into goofy, feel-good hits, such as 'Joy to the World,' " said Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, on Tuesday.

Chuck Negron, former member of Three Dog Night, said he was saddened by Axton's death, adding that "thanks to Hoyt's genius, 'Joy' and its memorable opening lyric, 'Jeremiah was a bullfrog . . .' are arguably a part of Americana."

Hilburn added that Axton could also write songs that "reflect with equal skill on human struggle, notably the drug-themed 'Snowblind Friend.' "

Fran Boyd, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music, said: "There was nobody that didn't like Hoyt. He was an entertainer's entertainer. It's a big loss for country music. Oh, God, was he fun."

Described over the years by various Times reviewers as "a good ol' boy," "a gravel-voiced bear of a man" and a "rumpled, life-loving, big, burly man," Axton had his own problems with cocaine, as well as alcohol and dangerously fast driving.

Many of his songs have anti-drug lyrics, including "Snowblind Friend," which relates: "He said he wanted heaven / But praying was too slow, / So he bought a one-way ticket / On the air line made of snow." Another, "The No-No Song," recorded by Ringo Starr, was humorous but also warned against drugs.

Axton's songs found their way into motion picture soundtracks as well, notably "The Pusher" in the 1969 "Easy Rider"; "You Taught Me How to Cry" in both the 1980 "Cloud Dancer" and the 1983 "Heart Like a Wheel"; and "Joy to the World" in the 1983 film "The Big Chill" and the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump."

Axton made his acting debut in 1959 in an episode of television's long-running western series "Bonanza." After that, he was much in demand as a country, Western or small-town character, often a sheriff or member of the family, as in "The Black Stallion" in 1979. He was the addled inventor Rand Peltzer in "Gremlins" in 1984, a priest in "We're No Angels" and the sheriff in "Disorganized Crime" in 1989, Huey P. Long Sr. in the 1995 television movie "Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long" and a mayor in this year's "King Cobra."

In addition to "Bonanza," Axton was a popular guest star on such television series as "McCloud," "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Murder, She Wrote."

He also was remembered for his television commercials, including touting Big Macs for McDonald's in 1970 and singing the jingle "Head to the Mountains" for Busch beer in the 1980s.

Songwriting was a natural for Axton, the son of English teacher-turned-songwriter Mae Boren Axton. She was Hank Snow's publicist and co-wrote with Thomas Durden Elvis Presley's mega-hit "Heartbreak Hotel." (She died in 1997 and Durden died Oct. 17.)

The success of that song had a profound impact on Axton, who once told an interviewer that he "started out to write prose; I wanted to be Jack London." After Presley made his mother and Durden famous, Axton decided he might find success by writing music.

From his mother, Axton learned to sing ballads as a child. He also studied classical piano and experimented with boogie and rock 'n' roll, learning to play guitar in his teens.

Football was far more important than music initially, when Axton won a scholarship and became a football star at Oklahoma State University. But after dropping out of college and serving in the Navy, he started singing folk songs in coffeehouses and clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Hilburn, who first reviewed Axton at the Troubadour 30 years ago, said he ". . . was limited as a singer, which is why his songs were more successful on record when covered by other artists. But he was especially winning on stage, where his easygoing, informal manner added a warm edge to the natural appeal of his songs."

The thrice-divorced Axton is survived by his wife, Deborah, and five adult children.

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