To hear his friends tell it, the 300-lb. Hoyt Axton had a generosity as big as his girth. “He used to throw $20 bills out the car window and say, ‘That will make someone happy,’ ” recalls Donna Axton, 51, who played piano in his band and was the third of four wives, with whom he had four children. (He also had a son out of wedlock.) Axton, who died at 61 of heart failure on Oct. 26 at the Montana ranch he shared with wife Deborah Hawkins, 46, was happiest making music. A 1995 stroke had left him partially paralyzed, but, says Deborah, “he never gave up hope of getting well and walking again.” In his prime the Oklahoma-born country-rock singer-composer “was a big, powerful guy who roared his songs onstage,” says Steppenwolf lead singer John Kay, for whose band Axton wrote the drug-themed songs “Snowblind Friend” and “The Pusher.” Axton was himself a habitual pot smoker and last year paid a $15,000 fine after pleading guilty to marijuana possession.
Pot and speed, for which Deborah says he went through rehab in 1991, weren’t his only vices. There was also his compulsive eating. “He loved food,” says singer Cory Wells of Three Dog Night, which recorded such early-’70s Axton signatures as “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain.” Yet even following his stroke, Axton continued to indulge his appetite. “That was Hoyt,” says Kay. “He did things his way.”
Axton’s sure-minded convictions usually paid off. Son of songwriter and publicist Mae Boren Axton, who cowrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” and John Axton, a high school football coach, Hoyt attended Oklahoma State on a football scholarship. He dropped out in 1958, joined the Navy, then began performing in West Coast coffeehouses. In 1975 he penned Ringo Starr’s antidrug hit “The No No Song.” Axton also prospered as a TV and film actor (1984’s Gremlins). Still, “he was writing songs to the end,” says Donna Axton, who remained friendly with Hoyt after their 1990 divorce. “I really miss playing onstage with him. He’d say, ‘Let’s go and make some magic’ And he always did.”