John Gale "Johnny" Horton was an American country music and rockabilly singer most famous for his semi-folk, so-called "saga songs" which began the "historical ballad" craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
With them, he had several major successes, most notably in 1959 with the song "The Battle of New Orleans" (written by Jimmy Driftwood), which was awarded the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording.
The song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award and in 2001 ranked No. 333 of the Recording Industry Association of America's "Songs of the Century".
His first hit, a number 1 song in 1959, was "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)".
During 1960, Horton had two other successes with "North to Alaska" for John Wayne's movie, North to Alaska and "Sink the Bismarck".
Horton is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Horton was born in Los Angeles, to John Loly Horton (1889–1959) and the former Ella Claudia Robinson (1892–1966), the youngest of five siblings, and reared in Rusk in Cherokee County in east Texas.
His family often traveled to California to work as migrant fruit pickers.
After graduation from high school in Gallatin, Texas, in 1944, Horton attended the Methodist-affiliated Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas, with a basketball scholarship.
He later attended Seattle University and briefly Baylor University in Waco, although he did not graduate from any of these institutions.
Horton soon returned to California and found work in the mail room of Hollywood's Selznick Studio.
It was here that he met his future first wife, secretary Donna Cook.
Horton and his older brother, Frank, briefly pursued the study of geology at Seattle, Washington, in 1948 but both ended after a few weeks.
He went to Florida, then back to California before leaving for Alaska to look for gold.
It was during this period that he began writing songs.
He joined Frank in Seattle, went south to Los Angeles, then after Frank married, left for Texas.
After much prodding from his sister Marie, he entered a talent contest at the Reo Palm Isle club in Longview, Texas, sponsored by radio station KGRI in Henderson and hosted by station radio announcer and future country music star Jim Reeves.
Horton won first prize—an ashtray on a pedestal.
Encouraged by the contest, he returned to California, bought some Western-style clothes and entered talent contests.
Horton came to the attention of entrepreneur Fabor Robison, whose first job as manager was to give him a job with Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree on KXLA-TV in Pasadena, California.
During his early guest performances he worked with musicians such as Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The station then gave him a regular half-hour Saturday night program billed as The Singing Fisherman, during which he sang and displayed his casting skills with a fishing rod.
Around this time he also hosted the radio program Hacienda Party Time for KLAC-TV in Los Angeles.
A mixture of Horton's television performances and Robison's acquaintances earned him a couple of singles with the minor Cormac recording company.
The first single coupled "Plaid And Calico" with "Done Rovin'" and the second "Coal Smoke, Valve Oil and Steam" with "Birds and Butterflies".
After the Cormac label ceased operation, Robinson acquired the masters and started his own company named Abbott Records.
By mid-1952, ten Horton singles had been issued but none was successful.
They were, for the most part, ordinary western-style songs.
After marriage to Donna and a honeymoon in Palm Springs, he relocated to Shreveport to be near the Louisiana Hayride, on which he appeared on a regular basis.
Robison persuaded Mercury Records A&R man Walter Kilpatrick to hire Horton, who began with his songs "First Train Headin' South" b/w "(I Wished for an Angel) The Devil Sent Me You" (Mercury 6412), with good reviews by the trade newspapers.
His marriage, to Donna Cook, ended with a divorce granted in Rusk, Texas.
In September 1952, Horton acquired a full-time band, the Rowley Trio, from Nederland, Texas.
Featuring Jerry Rowley playing fiddle, his wife Evelyn playing piano and sister Vera (Dido) playing bass or guitar, they were working at KFDM in Beaumont following some gigs backing Lefty Frizzell.
While playing in Beaumont, Horton and Robison heard the Rowley Trio and were sufficiently impressed to offer them a job touring.
They started driving Horton to their engagements, but he kept stopping to fish and hunt, so they soon bought him his own car with which he met them at the various venues.
The new foursome recruited Bob Stegall but still termed themselves The Singing Fisherman and the Rowley Trio, before changing the name to Johnny Horton and the Roadrunners.
Louisiana Hayride had been playing for more than four years when Horton joined its cast, and during this time it helped many careers, including those of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and Bob Luman.
Horton was, by now, a Shreveport resident.
His marriage didn't survive the increasing touring and Donna relocated back to Los Angeles.
He was amenable to a reconciliation, but was unwilling to go back to the West Coast.
In August, Louisiana Hayride welcomed back Hank Williams, then only twenty-eight years old, but banished from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry for what some considered his drunkenness and unreliability.
On October 19, Williams married Billie Jean Jones, the daughter of a local policeman, in front of a paying audience at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.
On one occasion during the time Billie Jean and Hank were married, Horton talked to the couple backstage, and at that meeting, Hank predicted that Billie Jean would one day marry Horton.
He remained a Hayride member until his death.
Hank Williams died on New Year's Day 1953.
He died in the back seat of a Cadillac traveling to a show in Canton, Ohio.
Horton and the Rowleys were driving home from an engagement when they heard the news by radio.
They were in Milano, Texas and it was there after a show at the Skyline Club in Austin (the same venue as Williams' last show) that Horton was killed seven years later in a car accident.
Marriage to Billie Jean
Horton and Billie Jean married on September 26, 1953.
They lived on Horton's performance money, his newly established writing contract with American Music of Los Angeles and the settlement that Billie Jean had received from the Williams estate.
Horton and Robison had by now parted company, after a disagreement partially about Horton's frustration at the amount of time Robison was spending with Jim Reeves.
Stegall had left, to be replaced by Richard and Betty Lou Spears, but soon the Rowleys left.
Horton started using pick-up bands together with Billie Jean's brothers, Alton and Sonny Jones.
His career had stalled and he became so disillusioned that he got a job working in a fishing tackle shop, playing only weekends for Hayride.
Even this ceased in November 1954.
His last session for Mercury on September 23 did not generate a single album, and the two-year hiatus had been a strange period with songs ranging from answer songs like "Back to My Back Street" and "Train With a Rhumba Beat".
The best seller was "All for the Love of a Girl" (Mercury 70227) which sold about 35,000 to 45,000 copies.
With Billie Jean, Horton had two daughters, Yanina (Nina) and Melody.
Billie Jean's daughter, Jeri Lynn, was also legally adopted by Johnny.
During this time, country music was changing due to the influence of the new rock music. With the example of Elvis Presley, rockabilly was becoming more common both on records and on country music bills, with Louisiana Hayride one of the most progressive in this respect.
It was during that program that Horton first saw Presley and apparently he immediately liked the singer and the style.
Horton then asked Hayride stalwart Tillman Franks of Shreveport for some advice.
Five years older than Horton, Franks had played bass for Webb Pierce, managed the Carlisles and Jimmy & Johnny, worked as a booking agent, a car salesman in Houston and served on the police force.
He, too, was unemployed.
"I hadn't worked in four or five weeks when Johnny Horton come to the door.
He was broke too.
He and Billie Jean had spent the money they got after Hank died, and she'd told him to get his ass out and make some more.
He said, 'If I can get Tillman Franks to manage me, I'll get to number one.'
He came to my house on Summer Street and I told him that I just didn't like the way he sang.
He said, 'No problem. I'll sing any way you want me to.'
And he was serious!"
Horton and Tillman Franks had met in Mississippi, when Horton had toured with the Carlisles.
By mid-1955, Franks had assumed control of the management, and after the end of the Mercury contract, his first job was to find a new company.
After communicating with Webb Pierce, who in turn talked to Jim Denny at Cedarwood and Troy Martin at Golden West Melodies, a one-year contract with Columbia was forthcoming.
Cedarwood and Golden West Melodies would both get publishing on two songs per session as part of the deal.
With no advance and a session due in Nasvhille, Tennessee, the duo had to borrow the car owned by the father of David Houston for the journey, with the promise that they would try to get Houston a contract while they were in Nashville.
First big hit
On the way to the session, Horton and Franks stopped in Memphis to see Elvis Presley and left with ten dollars (they were too poor to buy gasoline) and the loan of Bill Black on slap bass.
Franks had reservations about his own playing and he wanted the sound to be special.
On January 11, 1956, Horton entered the Bradley Film and Recording Studios in Nashville, with Bill Black and two of the industry's major talents, Grady Martin and producer Owen Bradley's brother, Harold.
The first song played was the mid-tempo rockabilly "I'm a One Woman Man", composed by Horton and Franks. Howard Crockett (Hausey) had played "Honky Tonk Man" to Horton and Franks and after a quick rewriting of the tune, they split the credits three ways.
It was the second song cut that day.
By midnight, Don Law and Franks had completed two more songs, "I'm Ready if You're Willing" and "I Got a Hole in My Pirogue".
Horton and Franks wanted "Honky Tonk Man" as the lead-off single, but Don Law disliked the song.
It was only after the intervention of Jim Denny that Law relented and issued "Honky Tonk Man" on the flip side of "I'm Ready if You're Willing".
Live shows were arranged to advertise the single with the band featuring Tillman Franks on bass and Tommy Tomlinson on guitar.
A native of Hampton, Arkansas, Tomlinson had relocated with his family in 1940 to Minden, Louisiana, east of Shreveport.
The single was reviewed by the March 10 issue of Billboard, which said of "Honky Tonk Man", "The wine women and song attractions exert a powerful hold on the singer, he admits.
The funky sound and pounding beat in the backing suggest the kind of atmosphere he describes.
A very good jukebox record." Of the B-side, it read "Horton sings out this cheerful material with amiable personality.
This ever more popular stylist ought to expand his circle of fans with this one."
By May the record had scored No. 9 on the C&W Jockey chart, as well as No. 14 on the Best Seller chart.
Franks assumed control of the Hayride bookings, organizing performances in the South.
Horton was contracted for his Monday night performances on KLTV-TV in Tyler, Texas, which restricted how far away he could tour.
He wanted to end the contract, so on one of the shows, when it was time to read a commercial for Hol-Sum Bread, a product of Cotton Brothers Bakery in Alexandria, Louisiana, he announced "Friends, we are proud to be here, and proud to be sponsored by Hol-Sum Bread.
Tillman Franks my manager eats Hol-Sum Bread, and I eat it too.
What I like about Hol-Sum Bread is that it's never touched by hand.
That's right, they mix it with their feet".
After the show, the station owner called him and said she'd be happier if he stopped working for the station.
Now he was free to travel, and he started earning as much as $500 a night.
On May 23 they went back to Music City for a second session.
Grady Martin again led the proceedings with Ray Edenton replacing Harold Bradley and Floyd "Lightnin'" Chance standing in on double bass.
They began at 7 p.m. with "Take Me Like I Am" before doing the Horton-Hausey composition, "Sugar-Coated Baby".
It was one of those mid-tempo tracks at which Horton was to excel, with playful vocals and Martin's bass string guitaring.
Claude King's "I Don't Like I Did" was another such song.
The fourth cut was Autry Inman's ode to women, "Hooray For That Little Difference".
The next single (Columbia 21538) had "I Don't Like I Did" on the B-side but the header was "I'm a One Woman Man" from the January session.
Billboard enthused that "One Woman" was a "Smart and polished job," adding that Horton was "singing with a light, airy touch.
Guitar work is just as convincing, adding up to listenable, commercial stuff".
By August, Columbia and Franks ran an advertisement in Billboard claiming their "Sensational New Artist goes on a spree with his newest two-sided hit".
The accompanying photo did nothing for the image of a rocker, showing him looking middle-aged with a cowboy hat to hide his receding hair.
The campaign continued with a tour of western Texas starting in El Paso with Johnny Cash, Faron Young and Roy Orbison.
Booked by Bob Neal Stars Inc. of Memphis, the group moved to Ontario, Canada for six dates commencing on the 18th, culminating in Detroit.
Billboard's first issue in September noted that
'Somewhat like his last hit - 'Honky Tonk Man' - this release (I'm A One Woman Man) started off rather quietly, but has gradually become a powerful chart contender.
This week it made an appearance on the Houston territorial chart and was selling well in Nashville, Dallas, Durham and Birmingham'
Within a week or so he was rewarded with a second country hit, this time maximizing at No. 7 on the Jockey chart and No. 9 on both the Best Seller and Jukebox charts.
On October 14, after shows throughout Florida, Horton played in Memphis again for Bob Neal, this time with Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Sonny James, Roy Orbison and the Teen-Kings and Charlene Arthur.
They continued around Tennessee until October 23, before continuing to New Mexico and West Texas.
It must have been a confident crowd that arrived at Bradley's Barn on November 12.
Only two songs were produced, the unissued "Over Loving You" and the rockabilly "I'm Coming Home", composed by Horton and Franks.
"I'm Coming Home" was released with "I Got A Hole In My Pirogue" on the flip side (Columbia 40813).
Released as the same time as the Johnny Burnette Trio's "Lonesome Train" (Coral 61758) and Rosco Gordon's "Cheese and Crackers" (Sun 257), Billboard predicted that "the singer, has material in I'm Coming Home that could give him his biggest record to date".
Horton's vocal against this twangy backing makes a terrific impression.
"Pirogue" is a rockabilly type novelty song of great appeal.
It's hard to see how this can miss becoming a gold mine".
On February 9, Billboard noted that "not only Southern markets are doing good business with this, but Northern cities report that both country and pop customers are going for this in a big way".
It was again a success on the country charts (No. 11 Jockey, No. 15 Best Seller) but it failed to score the popular music charts.
Horton, "The Singing Fisherman" had favorite fishing holes in the Piney Woods of East Texas and in northern Louisiana.
He and outdoors writer Grits Gresham of Shreveport and later Natchitoches, Louisiana (the "Famous Fisherman" on Miller Lite 1978 commercial, and co host with Curt Gowdy of ABC's The American Sportsman television series), enjoyed sharing a bass boat and fishing stories. Horton was also passionate about the writings of the spiritualist Edgar Cayce.
Tommy Tomlinson (c. 1930-1982), Horton's guitar player from Minden, Louisiana, flew in from Nashville, where he was producing a duet album with Jerry Kennedy (Tom and Jerry).
Horton used the morning to make arrangements to go duck hunting with Claude King of Shreveport once King had returned from Austin and he also telephoned Johnny Cash for a chat.
Cash declined to accept the call, an omission he regretted for the rest of his life.
Against his wife's wishes, Franks arose from his sickbed, and they began traveling to Austin.
When they got to the Skyline club, Horton stayed in his dressing room, saying that a drunk would kill him if he went near the bar.
After the show, they started the 220-mile journey back to Shreveport.
Tomlinson was in the back, observing that Horton was driving too fast - Franks was asleep in the front.
About 2 a.m., near Milano, Texas, Horton was crossing a bridge when a truck came at them, hitting both sides of the bridge before plunging into Horton's Cadillac.
Horton had in the past avoided head-on collisions by driving into ditches, but on the narrow bridge he had no such opportunity.
He was still breathing when he was pulled from the car but died en route to the hospital.
The 19-year-old truck driver, James Davis, a student at Texas A&M University in College Station en route to his family residence in Brady in Central Texas, was intoxicated.
Franks suffered head injuries, and young Tomlinson had multiple leg fractures, which nine months later required amputation of his left leg.
Davis only suffered a broken ankle with other cuts and bruises.
Tillman Franks' younger brother, William D. "Billy" Franks, a Church of God minister in Shreveport, preached Horton's funeral on November 8, 1960, the day John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in the race for U.S. President to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Billie Jean Horton hence became a widow for the second time at the age of twenty-eight.
Johnny Cash read Chapter 20 from the Book of John, having flown in on a chartered airplane for Horton's services.
Fifty-three years later in 2013, Billy Franks officiated at the funeral in Shreveport of Horton's friend, Claude King.
Columbia released various singles and a greatest successes album and on October 5, 1964, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three overdubbed "Rock Island Line" and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'" to Horton's demos.
Other such sessions were held throughout the sixties for album release.
"Sleepy-Eyed John" scored the country charts in April 1961, scoring No. 9 and a year later "Honky Tonk Man" was reissued, scoring No. 11.
In February 1963 he made his last appearance in the charts (to date) with "All Grown Up", which reached No. 26.
Horton is interred, with a cemetery bench in his honor, at the Hillcrest Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Haughton, east of Bossier City in northwestern Louisiana.
Horton will be remembered for his major contribution to both country and rockabilly music.
When Johnny Cash, a good friend of Horton's, learned about the accident he said, "[I] locked myself in one of the hotel's barrooms and cried."
Cash also dedicated his rendition of "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" to Horton on his album Personal File: "Johnny Horton was a good old friend of mine."
Horton was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and posthumously inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana.
Some racist songs have sometimes been incorrectly associated with Horton.
These songs are by a singer calling himself "Johnny Rebel," who did not begin recording until after Horton's death.
The mistake is apparently because Horton recorded the historical song "Johnny Reb."