Johnny Horton

Although he is better remembered for historical saga songs such as The Battle Of New Orleans, Johnny Reb, Sink The Bismarck and North To Alaska, Johnny Horton was one of the best and most popular honky-tonk singers of the late 1950s. He managed to infuse honky-tonk with an urgent rockabilly underpinning. His career may have been cut short by a fatal car crash in 1960, but his music has continued to reverberate throughout the next five decades. Echoes of Horton’s music can still be heard in today’s honky-tonk and country-rock music. In recent years the vibrant rockin’ country music of Horton has been revived by various artists. Honky Tonk Man became Dwight Yoakam’s first hit, Marty Stuart revived The Wild One and George Jones did an outstanding revival of One Woman Man. With The Battle Of New Orleans, a Jimmie Driftwood song based on the old fiddle tune known as The 8th Of January, Johnny Horton produced one of the biggest-selling records of 1959. A cover version by skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, with slightly altered lyrics, became a massive hit in Britain.

Born on April 30, 1925 in Los Angeles, Horton was raised in Tyler, Texas, the son of sharecropping parents. During his childhood, his family continually moved between California and Texas, in an attempt to find work. He was taught how to play guitar by his Mother. Following graduation from high school in 1944 he attended a Methodist seminary with the intent of joining a ministry. Then came college stints in Jacksonsville and Kilgore, Texas. Unsure of what profession to follow, he eventually gained a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, Waco, Texas and then Seattle, University, Washington. He then moved up to Alaska before completing his degree and worked in the fishing industry. In 1950, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued in fishing. A budding singer and songwriter, he was persuaded to enter a talent contest which he won. Performing as the ‘Singing Fisherman’ he appeared on a Pasadena radio station and also guested on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree.

He moved back to Texas in 1951, where he played various talent contests, small bars and made local radio appearances. Fabor Robison became his manager and secured a recording contract with Cormac Records. The label folded, and as a result Robison formed his own Abbott Records, specifically to record Horton. Success proved to be elusive, so Horton moved on to record for Dot and Mercury. Landing a regular spot on the famed Louisiana Hayride, he moved to Shreveport, where he married Hank Williams’ widow, singer Billie Jean. Though popular on the Hayride, his record sales were still non-existent. In 1955, Tillman Franks, a bass-player on the Hayride, became his manager and best friend. They travelled together all over Texas playing small clubs and Franks successfully negotiated a record deal with Columbia the following year. His first release, the rockabilly-flavoured Honky Tonk Man, took him into the country top ten in the summer of 1956. The next couple of years saw Johnny Horton a regular in the top ten with I’m A One-Woman Man, I’m Coming Home and All Grown Up. In 1959 he made that all-important crossover to mass acceptance with the self-penned When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below), his first country chart-topper.

Real or fictionalised snippets of American history were all the rage at the tail-end of rock’n’roll, and Horton was right there at the forefront with his next single, The Battle Of New Orleans. It not only spent ten weeks at the top of the country charts, but also topped the pop charts and went on to sell more than two million copies. Having discovered a winning formula, Horton concentrated solely on folk-based story songs and scored with the double-sided Johnny Reb and Sal’s Got A Sugar Lip, Sink The Bismarck (inspired by the movie which was based on the sinking of the German battleship in World War II), and North To Alaska from the John Wayne movie of the same name. At the time, Horton told close friends that he was going to die violently and fairly soon. Sadly, his premonition came true. On November 5, 1960, while driving home to Shreveport after a concert in Austin, Texas, a drunk driver hit his car head on. The singer died on the way to the hospital and whilst he other passengers in his car had severe injuries, they all survived.

His records continued to sell throughout the 1960s. He had posthumous hits with North To Alaska (released the week of his death), Sleepy-Eyed John, a new version of Honky-Tonk Man, and a reissue of All Grown Up. There were numerous album collections and compilations and fellow singer and close friend, Claude King, recorded a tribute album, I REMEMBER JOHNNY HORTON, in 1969. In 1983 a biography, Your Singing Fisherman, was published. Johnny Horton left behind a recorded legacy that has proved to be quite influential. Even such non-hits as The Wild One and Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor, were masterpieces which even burn today with an energy that 50 years cannot erode. He was one of a select handful of country performers from the 1950s who successfully appealed equally to die-hard country music fans and rock’n’rollers.

Recommended Listening

Honky Tonk Man (Columbia 1957)
The Spectacular Johnny Horton (Columbia 1960)
Johnny Horton 1956-1960 (Bear Family box set 1991)
Honky Tonk Man: The Essential Johnny Horton 1956-1960 (Columbia Legacy 1996)
The Early Years (Bear Family box set 1999)
Take Me Like I Am (Bear Family 2010)