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Hoyt Axton
Hoyt Axton
October 26, 1999
Age 61
 
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HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Hoyt Axton, a folksy baritone, songwriter and actor who wrote Three Dog Night's No. 1 hit ``Joy to the World'' and songs that were performed by artists from Elvis Presley to Ringo Starr, died Tuesday. He was 61.  

Axton died at his ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, surrounded by family and friends. He moved to the area after playing a sheriff in the movie ``Disorganized Crime,'' filmed there in 1988.  

He suffered a heart attack two weeks ago and another during surgery, said Jan Woods, a longtime friend in Nashville, Tenn. He had never fully recovered from a 1996 stroke and used a wheelchair much of the time. Axton also had advanced complications from diabetes.  

Axton's mother, Mae Boren Axton, had her own spot in popular culture history as the writer of Presley's ``Heartbreak Hotel.''  

``When Mae died three years ago, she left me Hoyt,'' Ms. Woods said. ``He was probably one of the most honest, humorous kids that never grew up.''  

``There was nobody that didn't like Hoyt,'' said Fran Boyd, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music. ``Oh God, was he fun.''  

Three Dog Night's recording of his novelty ``Joy to the World'' (``Jeremiah was a bullfrog ...'') was on top of the charts for six straight weeks in 1971, making it the top hit of the year. Axton pitched the song to group members when he was their opening act in 1969-70. He also wrote ``Never Been to Spain'' for the band, a song also recorded by Presley.  

Axton's own singing hits include ``Boney Fingers'' (``Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers'') and ``When the Morning Comes.'' 

The native of Duncan, Okla., started out singing folk songs in the clubs of San Francisco in 1958 and a song he co-wrote, ``Greenback Dollar,'' was a 1963 hit for the Kingston Trio.  

He wrote hits for Starr (``No No Song'') and Steppenwolf (``The Pusher'').   Others who performed songs he wrote included Joan Baez, Waylon Jennings, John Denver and Linda Ronstadt.  

Steppenwolf's "The Pusher'' and "Snowblind Friend'' were rare forays into a more serious theme. ``The Pusher'' was a powerful, passionate song that condemned drug sellers. 

And 1975's ``No No Song'' included the lines ``No no no no, I don't sniff it no more. I'm tired of waking up on the floor.''  

But in 1997, police found slightly more than a pound of marijuana at Axton's home. Deborah Hawkins, whom Axton wed later that year, said she gave him marijuana because it relieved some of the pain, anxiety and stress he suffered after his stroke, her lawyer said.  

Axton was given a three-year deferred sentence and fined $15,000 for marijuana possession. Hawkins got a one-year deferred sentence and a $1,000 fine.  

A large man, Axton as an actor specialized in playing good ol' boys on TV and in films, including ``Gremlins'' and ``The Black Stallion.'' He sang the ``Head to the Mountains'' jingle used to advertise Busch beer in the 1980s.  

Survivors include Axton's wife and five children.  

    

VICTOR, Montana (Reuters) - Singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, who penned a string of pop hits including Three Dog Night's ''Joy to the World,'' has died at his Montana ranch at the age of 61, friends said Tuesday.  

The cause of death was not announced, but Axton, a large man who also acted in movies and on television, had a history of ill health, Nashville-based associate David McCormick said.  

Axton was literally born to songwriting. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, was a  co-author of Elvis Presley's ``Heartbreak Hotel.''  

Axton churned out his own list of hits beginning with ''Greenback Dollar,''  
recorded in 1963 by the Kingston Trio. Other chart-toppers included Ringo Starr's ``No No Song'' of 1975 as well as songs performed by Elvis Presley, John Denver and Linda Ronstadt.   

But his best-known song remains the 1971 Three Dog Night smash ``Joy To The  World,'' with its unmistakable opening line ''Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine...'' The song topped the charts for six weeks.  

Axton also acted in numerous movies and television shows, stretching from ``Bonanza'' in 1964 to ``Diff'rent Strokes'' in 1984. He is survived by his  
wife and several adult children.

 

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

                                            By MYRNA OLIVER, LA 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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All-Music Guide 
     Hoyt Axton enjoyed an amazingly diverse career as a songwriter, recording artist and movie actor. While rooted equally in the folk and country traditions, his pop smarts enabled him to land substantial hits with numerous artists; as a performer, Axton released a string of remarkably consistent albums  featuring his warm baritone and wry, earthy lyrical style.   Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, Axton was inspired to become a songwriter and performer by  his mother, who had abandoned a teaching career to become a distinguished songwriter; her best work, "Heartbreak Hotel," was immortalized by Elvis  Presley in 1956. Axton's mother taught him much about traditional music; she also made him take classical piano lessons until he made clear his preference to boogie-woogie music. He learned to play guitar while a teenager, and while attending Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship, played music informally for his buddies. By the late '50s, Axton had served a stint in the Navy, and began an interest in folk music that led him to perform on the California coffeehouse circuit. He had his first real songwriting success in  1962 with "Greenback Dollar," a song he had co-written with Ken Ramsey.  Though it didn't make much money for him, it did lead to his signing with  Horizon Records. His debut album was The Balladeer. After recording  another album for Horizon, Axton switched to Vee-Jay Records where  he made four albums, including Saturday's Child. More albums for different labels followed, but Axton didn't really hit it big until he began opening for the pop group Three Dog Night in 1969. When they recorded his song "Joy to  the World," he found himself with a gigantic international crossover hit.  Among the other artists who recorded Axton's songs were The Kingston  Trio ("Greenback Dollar"), Steppenwolf ("The Pusher," "Snowblind Friend"),  and Ringo Starr ("No No Song"), as well as Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, John Denver, and Commander Cody.  

     Between 1969 and 1971, Axton recorded three albums, including  Joy to the World. He first hit the charts in 1974 with two Top 10 tunes: "When the Morning Comes" and "Boney Fingers." He moved to MCA in 1977 where he produced one of his best albums, Snowblind Friend. He left the label to found his own Jerimiah Records in 1978. The following year, his Rusty Old Halo album produced two major hits, "Della and the Dealer" and the title track. He continued to record steadily. Axton made his acting debut in 1966, and has since appeared in many feature films and television shows, including 1979's Black Stallion. Other films included   1994's Season of Change. -- Sandra Brennan and Rick Clark, All-Music Guide

 
 
  
 
 

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