HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Hoyt Axton, the folksy singer, songwriter and movie actor who penned Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" and other pop and country hits, many of them showcasing his singular sense of humor, died early today. He was 61.
Axton suffered a severe heart attack two weeks ago and was struck by another while undergoing surgery in Missoula, said Jan Woods, a longtime friend in Nashville. He had never fully recovered from a 1996 stroke, using a wheelchair much of the time.
Axton died peacefully at his ranch home in Victor, surrounded by family and friends. He moved to Montana's Bitterroot Valley after playing a sheriff in the movie "Disorganized Crime," filmed there in 1988.
"There was nobody that didn't like Hoyt," said Fran Boyd, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music. "He was an entertainer's entertainer. It's a big loss for country music. Oh God, was he fun."
Axton wrote hits for Ringo Starr ("No Song"), Steppenwolf ("The Pusher") and an array of others. Performers who sang other songs he wrote included Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Waylon Jennings, John Denver and Linda Ronstadt.
Axton's own singing hits include "Boney Fingers" ("Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers, boney fingers") and "When the Morning Comes."
Steppenwolf's songs "The Pusher" and "Snowblind Friend," were rare forays into a more serious theme. John Kay, the lead singer of Steppenwolf, recorded "The Pusher" after seeing Axton perform it at a club in Los Angeles. It was a powerful, passionate song that condemned drug sellers.
Three Dog Night's recording of his novelty "Joy to the World" ("Jeremiah was a bullfrog...") was No. 1 on the charts for six straight weeks in 1971, making it the top hit of the year. Axton had pitched the song to group members when he was their opening act in 1969-70. He also wrote "Never Been to Spain" for the band, a song that was also recorded by Presley.
A large man, Axton as an actor specialized in playing good ol' boys on television and in film. He appeared in many movies and television shows, including "Gremlins" and "The Black Stallion." He sang the "Head to the Mountains" jingle used to advertise Busch beer in the 1980s.
Born in Duncan, Okla., he began singing folk songs in the clubs of San Francisco in 1958. A song he co-wrote, "Greenback Dollar," was a 1963 hit for The Kingston Trio.
Axton's mother, Mae Boren Axton, had her own spot in popular culture history as the songwriter of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel."
"When Mae died three years ago, she left me Hoyt," said Woods, a longtime friend of the singer's mother. "He was probably one of the most honest, humorous kids that never grew up."
"He just loved music," Woods said. "I don't think he could pick a favorite song."
In February 1997, police found 500 grams of marijuana, slightly more than a pound, at the Victor home of Axton and his wife, Deborah Hawkins. She said she gave her husband marijuana because it relieved some of the pain, anxiety and stress he suffered after his stroke, her lawyer said.
Last year, Axton was given a three-year deferred sentence and fined $15,000 for marijuana possession. Hawkins had pleaded guilty to possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia, getting a one-year deferred sentence and a $1,000 fine.
Survivors include Axton's wife and five adult sons and daughters.