Johnny Horton Biography

30 April 1925, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 5 November 1960, Milano, Texas, USA. Horton was raised in Tyler, Texas, where his sharecropping family settled in search of work. He learned the guitar from his mother and, owing to his athletic prowess, won scholarships at Baylor University and later the University of Seattle. For a time he worked in the fishing industry but began his singing career on KXLA Pasadena in 1950, quickly acquiring the nickname of ‘The Singing Fisherman’. He recorded for Cormac in 1951 and then became the first artist on Fabor Robinson’s Abbott label. In 1952 he moved to Mercury Records but was soon in conflict with the company about the choice of songs. He married Hank Williams’ widow, Billie Jean, in September 1953, who encouraged him to better himself. With Tillman Franks as his manager, Horton moved to Columbia Records, and their co-written ‘Honky Tonk Man’ marked his debut in the US country charts. Horton recorded ‘Honky Tonk Man’ the day after Elvis Presley recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and Presley’s bass player, Bill Black, was on the session. The song was successfully revived by Dwight Yoakam in 1986, while George Jones revived another song recorded that day, ‘I’m A One Woman Man’, in 1989. Other fine examples of Horton’s rockabilly talents are ‘All Grown Up’ and the hard-hitting ‘Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor’.

In 1959, Horton switched direction and concentrated on story songs, often with an historical basis, and had his first US country number 1 with a Tillman Franks song, ‘When It’s Springtime In Alaska’. This was followed by his version of Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘The Battle Of New Orleans’, which became a number 1 pop and country hit in the USA. Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Battle Of New Orleans’ made number 2 in the UK, but Horton’s number 16 was respectable, especially in view of the fact that his version was banned by the BBC for referring to ‘the bloody British’. Horton’s next record was another historical song, ‘Johnny Reb’, backed with the up-tempo novelty, ‘Sal’s Got A Sugar Lip’. Told simply to cover Horton’s latest record, Donegan mistakenly covered ‘Sal’s Got A Sugar Lip’ - and still managed to have a hit! Horton’s ‘Sink The Bismarck’, inspired by the film, made number 3 in the US charts, while he sang the title song of the John Wayne film North To Alaska and took it to number 4 in the USA and number 23 in the UK. It also topped the US country charts for five weeks.

On 5 November 1960, Horton died on the way to hospital after a head-on collision with a pick-up truck near Milano, Texas. Tillman Franks received head and chest injuries that required hospital treatment and guitarist Tommy Tomlinson suffered a very serious leg injury which, because of his diabetes, failed to heal and a few months later the leg was amputated. He later played guitar for a time with Claude King but never really recovered from the crash (the driver of the other vehicle, James Evans Davis, aged 19, was discovered to be intoxicated and received a two year suspended sentence). Billie Jean (who later stated that before he left for the last time, Horton kissed her on exactly the same place on the same cheek that Hank Williams had kissed her when he set off for his final trip) became a country star’s widow for the second time in 10 years. Horton, who has been described as the last major star of The Louisiana Hayride, is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery, Bossier City, Louisiana. Much of his up-tempo material did not appeal to the traditionalists but somebody once wrote that ‘he was ten years older than most of the rockabillies but with his cowboy hat hiding a receding hairline, he more or less looked the part’. However, his ‘saga’ songs have certainly guaranteed that he is not forgotten.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.