Johnny Horton - A Honky Tonk Man
Johnny Horton was born into poverty in Los Angeles, California on April 30th, 1925. His parents John Lolly and Ella Horton were migrant sharecroppers. Although not born in Texas, Johnny started his music career in East Texas, when at the age of 11 his mother taught him to play the guitar, while his dad taught him to shoot a hunting rifle.
During his teenage years Johnny would continue to improve his guitar playing skills while attending high school in Gallatin, Texas. In 1944 Johnny briefly entered the seminary, but left to attend Junior College in Jacksonville and Kilgore before earning a basketball scholarship to Baylor University in Waco. It was the only sport his parents could afford equipment for, as they were too impoverished to buy him a "baseball mitt or a football bat".
After college in 1949 Johnny began traveling around the country eventually finding work as a fisherman in Alaska. While there he began drinking lots of whiskey and writing songs, dreaming of being a successful musician with groupies and a big Cadillac.
After spending a year as a fisherman Horton moved back to East Texas where he entered a talent contest hosted by Jim Reeves. Reeves at the time was unknown, but was impressed with Horton who won the talent contest. Horton began appearing in numerous contests all over Texas, most of which he would win.
One day a possibly insane wannabe music manager named Fabor Robinson, who many considered incompetent, announced that Johnny Horton was the greatest artist in America, and he would make him famous. Nobody thought much of that, although Fabor did get Horton a deal with Corman Records - which folded two days later. Robinson then founded his own label to record Horton called Abbot Records. None of the records he released did any good.
In 1951 Fabor lied and fabricated enough to get Johnny a gig hosting a radio show for KXLA in Pasadena and appearing on KLAC-TV is Los Angeles, back when radio was much bigger than TV. Horton became locally popular as "the Singing Fisherman". The following year Robinson secured Horton a deal with Mercury records. Near the end of the year Horton moved from California to Shreveport, Louisiana to become a regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. During this time, Horton went through a series of personal problems. First, shortly after relocating to LA his wife left him, after allegedly catching him boning a Hollywood starlet. Then, his nutty manager signed Jim Reeves and decided to tell Horton to go "fuck himself".
When 1952 rolled around things began to change for Horton. Hank Williams Sr. had joined the cast of the Lousiana Hayride and became a mentor to the 27 year-old. Hank Sr. died on that New Years Eve. Horton was soon "consoling" Hank's attractive widow, Billie Jean.
In September 1953 they married. Horton's career began to stall during this era. He had regular work on the Louisiana Hayride, but Rock-N-Roll was coming into it's own and Horton's records weren't selling for Mercury.
The needed change occurred in 1955 when he hired Tillman Franks as his manager, and quit Mercury Records. Franks managed to secure a deal with Columbia which made sure Horton's family would never do without food. At the first recording session he recorded "Honky Tonk Man". The single was a sensation, becoming a classic within just a few years.
A quick succession of hits followed in 1956, such as "I'm a One-Woman Man", "I'm Coming Home", and "The Woman I Need" - all of which were top ten hits. After years of hard work Horton finally had a break, but it was short lived. For the next two years Horton failed to achieve any hits until he bounced back with "All Grown Up", which made the top ten. The real comeback was his next release, a number one hit called "Springtime In Alaska" in 1959.
The song that followed would be become his trademark, "The Battle Of New Orleans", a song written by a schoolteacher to show his students how history could be entertaining. The Horton version added humor to the song, which had only been released in 1958. The song was so popular that it became a hit on the country and pop charts. The recording of historical tunes by Horton also caused a rise in a number of imitators who started recording historical and patriotic ballads.
Similar songs followed from Horton too: "Johnny Reb", "Sink The Bismark", and "North to Alaska", which all became top ten hits. Around the time he recorded "North to Alaska" he began talking of dreams warning him of his death by a drunken driver.
On November 4th, 1960 in Milano, Texas those fears were realized. He was on his way to Shreveport when a drunk driver hit his car. He was dead at the scene. In an ironic twist of fate, Horton died married to the same woman that Hank Sr. had been married to, both played their final show at the Skyline Club in Austin, and both had died out on the highway, heading to perform a show in the American heartland.
Johnny Horton died early, but his effect on country, folk, and rockabilly won't be forgotten. If he had lived, Johnny would have been even more successful than he was. His songs remain popular with an entirely new generation in Texas and around the world. (J. Charles Miller)