It Was I

Back in the good ol' days when you had your own record company, and came across a completed song with money-making potential, but the guys who recorded it were nowhere to be found...what did you do? In Brent Records owner Bob Shad's case, he opted for the easiest solution, named the unidentified act after his wife's pet poodles Skip and Flip...and voilà! A hit! Confident the singers would contact him eventually, his instincts were right. One, then the other, showed up saying "What gives?" after which the accidental hitmakers known as Skip and Flip rode a yearlong whirlwind as teen idols.

The unmarried birth parents of Larry Wayne Stevens gave their baby to an orphanage shortly after his birth in 1939 and he was quickly adopted by a local Coffeyville, Kansas couple who changed his name to Gary Paxton. Living in Tucson, Arizona during his teens he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and formed a band he called The Rockabillys. While attending the University of Arizona a few years later he assembled The Pledges with Gallipolis, Ohio native Clyde Battin. The band (with rhythm guitarist Bobby Verbosh, saxophonist Dick Gabriel, drummer Reed Clements and Clyde covering guitar and bass) cut a single for Phoenix label Rev in the summer of 1958; "Betty Jean" (named after Gary's teen bride) was as rocking as anything at the time and used the well-worn gimmick of calling out female names from recent hits ("Peggy Sue," "Long Tall Sally"). Shortly afterwards Battin and Paxton recorded ('Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nah...') "It Was I," which ended up on the shelf.

After an early '59 Rev single ("Why Not Confess," credited to Gary and Clyde), the Paxton-penned demo of "It Was I" was pitched to Long Island group The Bell Notes, hot at the time with "I've Had It" on Time, another label owned by Bob Shad. When that didn't pan out, Clyde went to work as a DJ for Tucson's KMOP radio while Gary headed to Tacoma, Washington to play various instruments in Buck Owens' band just prior to the Buckaroo's breakout as a major Capitol Records country star. When Gary heard "It Was I" on the radio, he did some checking and found it had been released on the Brent label under what he didn't yet realize were dog names! Gary (about to be rechristened "Flip") contacted Brent Records, only to find that Clyde ("Skip" by process of elimination) was already on board. Bob Shad cleaned them up and sent them off to Philadelphia at the request of American Bandstand influencer Dick Clark. Through TV appearances, touring and lots of airplay, the single climbed quickly, peaking at number eleven in August of '59.

"Fancy Nancy" ('...she's got it all!') had a minor follow-up run in the fall. By that time Gary had been putting in as much time as possible in the studio, producing, arranging and singing. Three singles came out as a result, the first on the Shad label by the duo under the name Chuck and Chuckles, the bizarre "Bury the Hatchet" ('...right in your head!'), another on Lute by Gary Paxton ("You're Ruinin' My Gladness") and a film-style instrumental that wasn't in a movie, "Tami's Dance" by Clyde Gary and his Orch. on Shad. Then the unexpected happened: another Skip and Flip single caught on. "Cherry Pie," a teen-injected version of Marvin and Johnny's 1954 "oldie but goodie," matched their earlier hit with a number eleven peak in June 1960. Doing an R&B remake got them booked as the only white act on tours with Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, The Coasters and others.

When "Cherry Pie" ran its course, Clyde and Gary went their separate ways, though Bob Shad released four more Skip and Flip singles of previous recordings (including the original Pledges track "Betty Jean" under the Skip and Flip name) on Brent and Time labels through early '62. Paxton made good on a promise he'd made to himself: he headed to Hollywood to seek out greater fame and fortune. He and record hustler Kim Fowley formed an alliance, getting lucky on the first try with a version of a song Dallas Frazier had written a few years earlier about the famous comic strip character "Alley-Oop." A crazy, beatnik novelty with a studio chorus behind Gary's lead vocal ('like, hipsville'), the single on Lute Records, credited to Hollywood Argyles, hit the number one spot in July and inspired several covers, most notably an R&B version by The Dyna-Sores and another by Los Angeles-based group Dante and the Evergreens, whose version was bigger than theirs in New York and several other cities.

Clyde 'Skip' Battin, Gary 'Flip' Paxton

Gary continued doing his thing in the studio, arranging "Honest I Do," a summer '60 hit for The Innocents (who did double duty as Kathy Young's backing group). Less successful efforts include "I've Got Love," a ballad by Don Wyatt on Gary's Alpax label, and another Frazier-penned song, "Sugar Babe" by The Mavricks, crediting Gary (Alley-Oop) Paxton Productions produced by Nick Venet (who later got a cushy gig at Capitol Records). In the spring of '61, Gary did the arranging on Paul Revere and the Raiders' early Gardena label top 40 instrumental "Like, Long Hair." Fowley promoted many of these discs until breaking off the partnership with Paxton in the summer of 1961.

Occasional Hollywood Argyles releases appeared, some on Gary's own labels like Paxley, the imprint for "We Belong Together," an R&B single by The Pageants featuring Gary S. Paxton. In the fall of 1962, he scored the biggest success of his career, the novelty "Monster Mash" by Bobby (Boris) Pickett on yet another variable label name, Garpax; the single hit number one in October and continues to sell (and appear on the charts) each year, without a doubt the most popular Halloween/horror/novelty song of all time. He produced several more monster discs for Pickett and did a variation on the subject, "Spookie Movies," under his own name for Liberty the following year. Two 45s of sustained interest came in the mid-'60s: he cowrote "The Scavenger," a fall '64 vocal disc by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, and wrote and arranged "The Lurch," another horror-themed novelty by Addams Family star Ted Cassidy as Lurch ("with the music of Gary Paxton").

As for Clyde, he stayed in the business doing studio session work and kept the name Skip Battin for the rest of his career (in another nod to his "big break" in music, he named his son Brent after the record label that had gotten his career rolling). In 1970 he began a three-year stint as the bassist for The Byrds, following that for a couple of years with New Riders of the Purple Sage, then a year or so as a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers. A reunion of Skip and Flip never took place.

Paxton lived in Bakersfield for a couple of years, then moved to Nashville to work with Dallas Frazier. "Skinny Dippin'" was released by King Records in 1972 by The Sanfords featuring Gary S. Paxton; there was also "It's Hard to Be a Rock and Roll Star When You're Bald and Fat" by The White Tornado Alias Gary S. Paxton on RCA Victor the following year. Besides the novelties, he composed several successful songs including "Woman (Sensuous Woman)," a number one country hit for Don Gibson in '72. Eventually the lyrics of his songs took on religious meanings, resulting in significant spiritual recordings by Gibson, Roy Clark, Melba Montgomery, The Blackwood Brothers and others. All sorts of oddball music was released in the coming years on his ever-changing labels Garpax, Gar-Pax and just plain Pax. An album he put out on NewPax Records, The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton, many of the set's tracks getting their point across in humorous or unusual ways, won him a Grammy award in 1976 in the category Best Inspirational Performance.

- Michael Jack Kirby


It Was I