The real Johnny Lytle: Good vibes, bad business

Fortune eluded famous Springfield musician called ‘the greatest vibes player in the world’

When Johnny Lytle came home from playing Redd Foxx’s club in Los Angeles sometime in the 1970s, it wasn’t surprising that he returned without money.

Nor was it surprising that, in lieu of money, he’d actually accepted five of Foxx’s suits as payment.

No, the surprising part?

“I didn’t know he and Redd Foxx were the same size,” recalled Barbara Lytle, his wife.

In all seriousness, “They were really nice suits,” Barbara Lytle said. “But it don’t buy no bread.”

The late jazz vibraphonist — a Springfield native who lived here all of his life, even as he became world famous — lived to make music, not money.

Barbara Lytle, who turns 77 in December, was OK with that.

She worked as a secretary at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for 36 years so “Dilly” could do what he loved — recording in New York, touring Europe and playing just about anywhere with a stage or enough open floor space for his vibes and a good organ.

“He would play because he just loved playing,” Barbara Lytle said. “We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. I was happy with it.”

But almost 14 years after Lytle died suddenly — and, dare it be said, poetically, just weeks after a hard-fought solo appearance with his hometown symphony orchestra — his family has been left with really nothing more than a city street named in his honor.

And even the reasons for that are becoming just as easily forgotten as why streets were named after cats like Leffel and Burnett.

“Nobody really hears Dad’s music,” said Michelle Hagans, Lytle’s daughter. “That’s the biggest disappointment for me, that nobody really hears it.”

The man

To many, Johnny Lytle will always be Springfield’s single-greatest musical product, a man hailed by Lionel Hampton himself as “the greatest vibes player in the world.”

To others, he’s now just some guy whose name is on a street sign. Thankfully, they at least had the foresight to stick a treble clef on his; if only there was room for a hydraulic turbine on Leffel’s sign.

A Johnny Lytle Foundation, created after his 1995 death with the idea of giving out scholarships to local kids, never got the funding it needed to even get off the ground.

And so Johnny Lytle remains a role model for what — and what not — to do with a national recording career.

“He trusted people,” Barbara Lytle said. “That was his problem.”

He didn’t have a lawyer, she said, and insisted instead on handling his own business.

“My husband never had anything in writing,” Barbara Lytle said. “He wasn’t a man who took care of his business. If you’d tell him he had to cut a record, he’d be there. But he wasn’t a man of business, and that’s what hurt him.”

After leaving in 2006 the house she and Johnny called home on what’s now Johnny Lytle Avenue because she could no longer get up and down the stairs, Barbara Lytle has lived in three rentals in as many years.

Living with Michelle and her husband, Samuel Hagans, their three children, their eldest child’s child and a rambunctious boxer dog, to boot, this is what Johnny Lytle left behind.

Both Hagans are out of work.

They’ll probably be leaving for a fourth place soon, according to Samuel, because the roof leaks.

What money the family does receive from Johnny Lytle’s music — typically just an annual check from BMI for $400 or $500 from radio play in such faraway places as Finland and Greece — Barbara Lytle uses to pay bills.

The family has never seen any royalties from album sales.

That is, from what few of his are still in print.

Of more than 30 albums, just a half-dozen are available legitimately, including “The Village Caller,” a 1963 session produced by the legendary Orrin Keepnews that boasted the snappy, soulful title cut — the jazz answer to Booker T’s “Green Onions.”

Someone at BMI, which licenses music for broadcast, once told the family they’d need to hire a music attorney to sniff out album royalties, Michelle Hagans said.

“Mom should be entitled to that,” she said.

But the actual hiring of an attorney is the problem.

“It costs $2,000 just to talk to him,” Barbara Lytle said.

A call to the Concord Music Group — parent company of Lytle’s Milestone, Riverside and Jazzland labels — seeking comment about royalties wasn’t returned.

The music

It all seems like a bum deal for the family of a guy who once ranked in Playboy’s famed jazz poll and whose albums always picked up four stars (or more) in the pages of Down Beat.

But Johnny Lytle made music during a different time.

“Back in them days,” Barbara Lytle said, “bands didn’t get paid what they get paid now.”

For what Lytle often made for live dates, “people nowadays wouldn’t even accept that,” said Barbara Lytle, who married Johnny in 1952.

Had she not worked herself all those years, she said, things at home would’ve been tight.

“Johnny didn’t have what you’d call a good business head,” she said. “As long as the band got paid, he was happy.”

Money aside, though, what really bothers Barbara Lytle is how quickly people forgot about her husband’s music.

“People in their 20s, they don’t know anything about my husband,” she said. “Jazz is popular, but young kids don’t listen to jazz.”

It’s a complaint echoed by Springfield drummer John Dessinger, who frequently backed Lytle locally.

“Jazz as a whole in this country is appreciated by a minority,” Dessinger, now 82, said. “There’s nothing on TV nowadays that promotes jazz.”

So what are the kids missing?

“When I saw him play with his own group, he put on a very exciting show,” said Ian Polster, a longtime Springfield Symphony Orchestra trombonist who often invited Lytle to speak to his jazz class at Wittenberg University. “He had a way of going from one tune to the other without stopping. It was very exciting. Under the applause, he was very quietly getting ready, then bam.”

It was hell on the band.

“He killed a drummer physically,” Dessinger recalled. “He was in great shape, of course, from being a boxer. He was a driving player. He was a challenge, but you felt pretty good you were able to meet that challenge. He brought out the best in me.”

There’s little doubt that Lytle went out on a high note — his last concert, on Nov. 18, 1995, was on the Kuss Auditorium stage with the SSO.

“He’d wanted to play with the symphony for so long,” Polster said, “but they just wouldn’t listen to him. He scared the crap out of people, and the symphony was conservative.

“You could almost tell it was his last hurrah.”

In truth, nobody knew the 63-year-old Lytle needed a liver transplant. He’d be dead by Dec. 15.

But he climbed on stage that night, not for the love of money, but of music.

“He had been sick that whole year,” Michelle Hagans said. “And he played for two hours. He put on a two-hour concert, then two hours signing autographs.

“Music gave him a shot in the arm.”

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