The dictionary defines Renaissance Man as ‘a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas‘, but it might be easier to just show a picture of Hoyt Axton. For four decades the multi-talented performer was a genre-crossing composer and singer as well as a busy TV and movie actor, and he did it all very, very well.
Axton grew up in Oklahoma with music very much a part of his life — his mother co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” and young Hoyt studied classical piano and guitar. But as he approached adulthood he actually leaned more toward athletics, attending college with the help of a football scholarship. Unfortunately that didn’t work out too well, and after some time in the Navy the young man again took up music, relocating to San Francisco and immersing himself in the folk-music world of the early 1960s.
Hoyt worked hard and began making a few appearances as a singer, but his first solid success came as a songwriter. His own early performances of “Greenback Dollar” didn’t really get a lot of attention, but when he sold the song to the well-established Kingston Trio, it became a top-ten hit for the group and kick-started his career too.
He was able to record his first album as a singer and also found another outlet for his talent — as an actor. He had a natural warmth and charisma, and his Oklahoma twang made him a natural for Westerns. He began making guest appearances on Bonanza and other TV shows, followed by spots in movies. It was the beginning of a successful parallel career, one that found him eventually playing all kinds of roles and co-starring in many movies, but it was his music that was still the core of his performing life.
Through the late 1960s and early 1970s he continued to be disappointed in his own record sales, but as a songwriter he was much in demand. The death of a friend from a drug overdose inspired him to write “The Pusher,” which achieved hit status for Steppenwolf. Hoyt’s own struggles with addiction helped shape some of his other songs through the years, including “Snowblind Friend,” and a decade later, “The No No Song,” which struck gold for Ringo Starr. One of his biggest breaks as a composer occurred when he was the opening act for Three Dog Night and they heard his “Joy To The World.” It soon became the group’s first number-one, and they later successfully recorded his “Never Been To Spain.”
Eventually Hoyt’s own singing efforts began to pay dividends, allowing him to hit the charts with several songs, among them 1974’s “Boney Fingers,” and 1979’s “Della and the Dealer.” His record sales were up and down over the last two decades of his life, but he continued recording and acting too. Unfortunately, a 1995 stroke began a period of ill health and he died in 1999 at age 61, leaving behind a rich legacy of unforgettable music.