Johnny Horton - Biography

By J Poet

Johnny Horton’s star blazed brightly and brilliantly and although he only cut three proper albums during his life, they’ve had a lasting effect on country music. His ability to fuse Honky Tonk, rockabilly and pop foreshadowed country music’s mainstream crossover decades before anyone dreamed of making country music big business. His low key charisma, down home charm and big, booming vocal style - heavily influenced by his pal Hank Williams – produced records that still sound fresh and timely almost 50 years after his untimely demise.


Horton was born in L.A. in 1925, but his parents were itinerant blue-collar workers from Tyler, Texas. His parents moved between Texas and California for most of his boyhood, but Horton managed to graduate from high school and get a basketball scholarship to Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas. He soon dropped out and joined his brother Frank on the road looking for work, moving from Texas to California and then on to Alaska, where he began writing songs. In 1948 he entered and won a talent contest sponsored by KGRI, a radio station in Henderson, TX. The MC was Jim Reeves. After winning the talent show, Horton bought a bunch of cowboy clothes and went back to Hollywood to make it big. He landed a regular spot on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jubilee on KXLA-TV in Pasadena and worked his way up to his own half hour show, The Singing Fisherman.


In 1950, Horton’s manager Fabor Robinson got him a real cutting singles for Cormac records, which soon folded. Robinson started Abbot Records and continued recording Horton, but nothing hit. In ’52, Horton got another regular gig, this time on the Louisiana Hayride, and Robinson arranged a deal with Mercury Records, but again nothing happened. In 1952 Louisiana Hayride signed Hank Williams, how had been booted off the Grand Ol’ Opry for being drunk and disorderly. The two became pals. Between Hayride engagements Horton toured relentlessly with his band The Roadrunners.


Hank Williams died on New Year’s Eve 52-53 and Horton married his widow Billie Jean. Horton had a songwriting contract with American Music and his gig money and Billie Jean got some money from the Williams estate, but he was getting tired of the road and got a day job at a fishing tackle shop, only playing the weekend Hayride gig. When Horton saw Elvis Presley on the hayride he was impressed by the energy of the new music. Newly inspired, Horton convinced long time country music vet Tillman Franks to be his manager and he landed Horton a deal with Columbia Records in 1955. On the drive to Nashville, the duo stopped by Elvis’s house to borrow gas money and bass player Bill Black. With Don Law producing and a small combo of including Black on bass and super picker Grady Martin on lead guitar they cut four honky tonk/rockabilly hybrids - “I’m a One Woman Man,” “Honky Tonk Man”, “I’m Ready if You’re Willin’’ and “I Got a Hole in My Pirogue.”


“Honky Tonk Man” was released and shot up the country charts and Horton started making $500 a night. Horton failed to hit again until 1958’s “All Grown Up” which climbed to #8 on the country charts, but it was his next single than changed his life. Folk music was starting to take off and Horton’s “When it’s Springtime in Alaska (Its 40 Below)”, with it folky banjo and strong storyline hit #1 and stayed on the charts 23 weeks. Columbia wanted a folky follow up and they chose Jimmy Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans”. When Horton played the song on the road, even before the single was released, the crowds stopped dancing and gathered around the stage to listen. On release the single hit #1 on the pop and country charts and Horton was invited to play American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. The song was a worldwide hit and was followed by “Sink the Bismark” another song about a military battle that also hit Top 10 on the pop charts. The album that followed, The Spectacular Johnny Horton (1960, Columbia, 2000 Columbia Legacy) collected the best of his Columbia sessions and is strong from beginning to end.


With his historical songs doing well as singles, Columbia rushed him back to the studio for Johnny Horton Makes History (1960, Columbia) a great folk/pop/country hybrid. To keep the momentum going, Horton agreed to write the title tune to a new John Wayne movie North to Alaska. The tune was another pop and country smash. All looked rosy, but Horton told friends he was going to die soon at the hands of a drunk. On November 4th, in Skyline, Texas a drunken truck driver slammed his rig into Horton’s car and killed him. After his death Columbia released various greatest hits compilations, one great posthumous album Honky Tonk Man (1963, Columbia), and a collection of his most rocking songs- including “Sleepy Eyed John”, “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” and the title track.

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