Homer Joy, the songwriter whose everyman tale of pride and defiance in the face of shame and rejection gave Bakersfield a memorable theme song, died Tuesday evening at a Las Vegas hospital from complications associated with a 2006 heart transplant. He was 67.
Joy's "Streets of Bakersfield," recorded by Buck Owens in 1972, was initially just a little-noticed album cut. But in 1988, Owens, invited to perform on the Country Music Association's nationally televised awards program, chose the previously obscure track for a duet with Dwight Yoakam, and, enlivened with the Tex-Mex spice of "Pancho" Zavaleta's accordion, the song became a sensation, garnering heavy radio airplay.
In a previously unpublished 2005 interview with The Californian, Joy said the success of "Streets of Bakersfield" far surpassed all expectations.
"I still do really well on the song," he said. "It was on Dwight's 'Buenas Noches (from a Lonely Room)' album. Then they put it on his 'Just Lookin' for a Hit' album. Then Buck used it on the 'Six Pack' video. Then Dwight's live album. Then Buck on a greatest hits album. Then another Buck greatest hits album. In fact, three greatest hits albums. They collectively and individually have cut the song nine times.
"And every time they do, we get that little surge of royalties that doesn't hurt my feelings at all."
He recorded the song himself with Don Rich and the Buckaroos at Capitol Records, but his version, Joy admitted, "did OK, not terrific."
'Good family, father, Christian'
Joy, who was dropped from a hospital waiting list for a second heart transplant late last year, had complained of pain at his Las Vegas home Tuesday, said Thomas Rockwell, who operates Trout's in Oildale and was a longtime friend of Joy's.
His wife, Suzan Joy, rushed him to the hospital, where he was declared dead.
Suzan and Homer married 15 years ago; he brought eight children from his first marriage into the union, she five from her first.
"I think we had the Brady Bunch," she said. "My fear was that he wouldn't love my children like I love them, but he took them all in. He loved them, and they're feeling this loss as much right now as his own eight are."
When Suzan Joy's son-in-law died and the family's house sustained major fire damage in 2007, she and Homer adopted Suzan's three young grandchildren.
"Homer keeps on saying they look like him, and they do," she said.
Joy's focus as a songwriter and performer, especially later in his career, was country gospel. That was a matter of great pride to him, Suzan Joy said.
"He was never out chasing the mighty tour dollar," Rockwell said. "He was a good family man and father, a good Christian."
Joy remained close to Buck Owens over the years, as both men acknowledged. Joy wrote the song "An Old Outlaw Comes Home" especially for Owens.
"Every time I listen to that, it makes the hair on my leg stand up," Owens said in a 2005 interview.
'I just sat down ... and wrote that song in about 10 minutes'
Joy worked for Owens' music publishing company from 1970 to 1976. It was early in their professional association that Joy penned the song that would become his biggest money-earner -- and, in 1988, Owens' reintroduction to America. The longtime hitmaker behind "Tiger by the Tail" and "Act Naturally" (and "Hee Haw" co-host) had retreated from the spotlight following the death of guitarist and harmony vocalist Rich in 1974.
Joy was flown down to Bakersfield from his home near Spokane, Wash., one day in 1972 by an Owens associate who wanted Joy to cut an album of Hank Williams songs.
Joy wasn't too keen on the idea. It was a paycheck, sure, but he was more interested in writing and recording his own material. Finally, he agreed to cut the songs at Owens' recording studio on North Chester Avenue in Oildale if he'd also get to borrow the Buckaroos and the Oildale studio to record a few of his own songs.
But after Joy laid down the Williams tracks, the circumstances changed. The Buckaroos were no longer available, Joy recalled, because Owens and the band had to leave soon for Japan or some other exotic locale. Joy's recording session would have to wait.
"I was mad," Joy said in a 2006 interview. "And I just started walking toward the motel I was staying at there in Oildale. I'd just bought a brand new pair of boots that weren't broken in yet so my feet were hurting, and that made me even more mad.
"I just sat down in that motel room and wrote that song in about 10 minutes. I didn't want to be Hank Sr. I wanted to be me. 'You don't know me but you don't like me.' You know?"
Joy went back the next day and pleaded his case to the executive. "I ain't leaving till I get in that studio," Joy said.
The executive asked Joy what song he intended to perform "and I sang 'Streets of Bakersfield,' sort of as a protest," Joy recalled.
"He said, 'Wait a minute,' and he went and got Buck. Buck listened to me sing it again. Then he said, 'Call the Buckaroos, we're going to do a session this morning.'"
On Nov. 6, 1972, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos recorded "Streets of Bakersfield." On May 14, 1973, it was released as part of Owens' album "Ain't It Amazing Gracie."
"It was just an album cut," Owens said. "That's all it was ever planned for."
Jim Shaw, the bandleader for the Buckaroos, had high praise in 2006 for the song that became Owens' signature tune.
"That song became, to many people, an anthem for Bakersfield," he said. "It became an important song and an important part of Buck's legacy."
Reconnecting with Buck
Joy was grateful to have rekindled his friendship with Owens before the legend's death in March 2006, Joy said in that 2006 interview.
"I probably corresponded with Buck more in the last six months of his life than I did in the previous 30 years," he recalled. "He was praying for me, and I was praying for him."
Today a framed sheet of paper on which the lyrics to "Streets of Bakersfield" were scrawled holds a place of honor among the many artifacts on display at the Owens' dinner theater and museum, the Crystal Palace.
Joy is survived by his second wife, Suzan Joy, their 13 grown children, the three preteen grandchildren they adopted, and an estimated 33 additional grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I couldn't give you the actual count," Suzan Joy said. "I'm still meeting relatives."
Buck Owens Productions announced Wednesday that a Homer Joy Festival of Life will be held Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Crystal Palace. Performers and show time have yet to be determined. Funeral and burial arrangements were incomplete.
-- Californian Lifestyles Editor Jennifer Self contributed to this report.