Southern Journal –
By Glynn Wilson –
The last time I saw Johnny Wyker it was 1986 and Eddie Hinton was still alive, living in an apartment above the Wyker family hardware store in Decatur, Alabama. At that time Wyker was living in a sailboat on the Tennessee River until a few days before I left town after a stint as a reporter for The Decatur Daily.
I don’t remember why he did it, maybe because of the price of a boat slip or because he was tired of the waves, but Wyker had the boat towed out of the water and parked on a trailer in Point Mallard Park Campground. I went by to see him on the way out of town, and like a lot of rock musicians in those days, he had a groupie in his bed and a head high on pills. When I knocked and yelled and told him I was leaving town, he woke up long enough to look out the window of the boat, smile really big, and wave goodbye.
That’s how I imagined him Monday, saying goodbye to the world, when the news reached me on Facebook that Wyker died Sunday, most likely of congestive heart failure. He was 68.
Susan Wyker Jones told me his daughter, Ella Wyker Martin, went by to see him Sunday at his house on Prospect Drive in Decatur and found him on the bathroom floor. He had been treated in a Florence hospital in recent months with fluid around his heart.
I never got Wyker to sit down and tell me his entire story, so I don’t know it all. But I do have a vivid memory of walking into the hardware store to see Wyker and hearing the Dire Straits hit song Money for Nothing playing up loud on one of the stereos for sale. It was sort of his theme song at the time, since he was trying to sell refrigerators and TVs too. When he saw me come in, he sang along.
“We gotta install microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries. We gotta move these refrigerators, we gotta move these color TV’s.”
I also know he was one of those unbelievable creative characters on the Southern music scene whose eccentricity, while perhaps making him a beloved character to many and fueling his creative side, also caused him serious problems in his career. We were all children of the ’60s then, Baby Boomers influenced by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson who loved to party.
He had been liking some of my Facebook posts of late, so I know he was following me and liking my creative experiment in Web journalism.
Wyker is seen as one of those one hit wonders who blew an Elektra Records showcase in 1972 when his star was on the rise because he got high in the bathroom before his set and threw up on the stage in front of record company executives. His one big hit, Motorcycle Mama, which reached as high as number 12 on the Billboard charts, was recorded with the band Sailcat. The album made it to number 38, and got the band on the show “American Bandstand” and at Carnegie Hall, according to the Wikipedia page.
Wyker was also a member of The Rubber Band with John Townsend and Court Pickett from Tuscaloosa. They recorded the original version of “Let Love Come Between Us” that later became a hit for James and Bobby Purify, and Wyker went on to play with many of the great Southern rock musicians in Muscle Shoals like Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn and Delany Bramlett.
In recent years, he was working on a benefit project and internet radio show called The Mighty Field of Vision, dedicated to raising funds for musicians fallen on hard times. The name was inspired by a project Wyker started with blues singer and guitar player Eddie Hinton in the mid-1980s, who was involved in a camper trailer fire out behind Wyker’s hardware store in downtown Decatur and later died in 1995. Hinton played lead guitar for the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section from 1967 to 1971, but his eccentricities, drug use and alcohol abuse caused him problems and he was replaced by Wayne Perkins of Birmingham.
As for Wyker, “He was the most creative and inspirational person I ever met,” Dick Cooper, curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and a former reporter for the Florence Times Daily, told the local newspaper. “He could make you believe anything. He made me believe I could make a life for myself in the music business, and convinced me to quit the Times Daily. I told him, ‘I know nothing about the music business.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, nobody else does, either.’ And he was right.”
Wyker grew up in Decatur, Cooper says, but he was born in Florence and spent much of his youth at his grandparents’ houses on Shoal Creek. He describes Wyker as one of the pioneers of Muscle Shoals music, hanging out at SPAR Music above the City Drug Store in Florence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. SPAR, which was started by Tom Stafford and James Joiner, was the epicenter of the local music business, nurturing Rick Hall, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Arthur Alexander and others.
Ron Ballew, who owns Widget Studio, said he had never heard of Wyker when he showed up in 1971 with an early version of “Motorcycle Mama.”
“Somebody up the street told him to come see me, that I took songs I believed in,” Ballew said. “When I heard him play it on acoustic guitar, I took the whole deal.”
Ballew said a collection of rock musicians from Tuscaloosa arrived with Wyker the next day, and recorded started that night, he said. Among the players was keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who later toured with the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers Band.
Ella Wyker Martin told the Decatur Daily she will never forget the late-August day in 1972 when her brother, John D. Wyker III, appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
“Johnny had an album released by Elektra Records, and Billboard magazine was going to release its status on the charts the same day,” Martin said. “We had a radio playing in one room and the television going in another, and we went from room to room.”
Martin said her brother and the members of his band, Sailcat, came on and played two songs, “Motorcycle Mama” and “Walking Together Backwards.”
“Dick Clark interviewed Johnny between the songs,” Martin said. “One of his questions was ‘Johnny, what got you started writing music in Alabama?’ Johnny replied, ‘Well, there’s not much else to do.’ ”
“I’ve gotten calls from all over the country and from outside the United States,” Martin said. “Johnny never met a stranger, and he just touched so many lives. People all over the world knew him because of his music. He always had a new vision. He was always working on the next project.”
Roselawn Funeral Home will announce arrangements for a memorial service when the details become available.
Meanwhile, a musician and friend of Wyker’s from Decatur, Jonathan Baggs, said there’s only one way for him to figure Wyker’s “much too soon” departure.
“He must have had a jam session to get to in heaven,” Baggs said. “One thing about Johnny, if he wanted to play, he was going to play.”
© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.