Biography: Johnny Horton

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He may not have been born in Texas, but he certainly got here as quick as he could!  The late, great Johnny Horton is still the king of the historical ballad.


Johnny Horton: April 30th, 1925 - November 5th, 1960.


John Gale "Johnny" Horton was born to John and Claudia Horton on April 30th, 1925, in a Los Angeles hospital.  He was the youngest of five children and he spent his formative years growing up in the east Texas town of Rusk.  After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Lon Morris Junion College in Jacksonville, TX, as well as Baylor University in Waco, TX, and Seattle University in Seattle, WA.  Growing up during the Great Depression, Horton was no stranger to traveling around the country looking for work and other opportunities.  He left schooling altogether when he moved out to California to work in the mail room of Hollywood's Selznick Studio.  He didn't stay there long and before long he left for the Alaska territory to work in the fishing industry and hunt for gold.  It was during this period in Alaska that he began songwriting in earnest.


Horton made many good friends while with The Louisiana Hayride - including the King himself!


Before too long, Horton found himself back in Texas.  At the behest of his sister Marie, he entered a talent contest in Longview, TX, that was hosted by the now-legendary country star Jim Reeves.  Horton won the grand prize, an ashtray on a pedestal, and began to enter talent contests across the country.  By 1950 he met a man named Fabor Robison, a manager with KXLA-TV in Los Angeles, who got him a gig on Cliff Stone's Hometown Jamboree where he would work with future stars like Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Soon he would be hosting his own half-hour Saturday night show called The Singing Fisherman where he would sing and, well, fish.


From left to right: Tilman Franks, Johnny Horton, and Pat Grogan.


Horton's success with his television and radio appearances earned him a contract with a minor recording company called Cormac.  Ten singles were released, but by mid-1952 none had been particularly successful.  He relocated back to east Texas and put together his own band: Johnny Horton and the Roadrunners.  He got a gig as a crew member on the Louisiana Hayride, a television program that served as the launching point for the careers of numerous country stars including Hank Williams, Billy Walker, and even Elvis Presley.  Horton, Williams, and Williams's wife Billie Jean Jones became close during this time. Williams even predicted that Billie Jean and Horton would marry one day - a prediction that would become true after the tragic death of Williams on New Years Day 1953.


Recorded at the Bradley Barn Studio in Nashville, "Honky-Tonk Man" was Horton's first hit and made him a nationally recognized artist.


Wedding bells rang for Horton and Jones on September 26th, 1953.  Horton continued touring and appearing on the Louisiana Hayride, but over the next two years his career came to a complete standstill.  Completely broke, he turned to Hayride veteran Tillman Franks for help.  Franks became Horton's manager and by 1956 the two were on their way to Nashville to record.  Horton's luck had finally changed - the singles he produced at that session, "I'm a One-Woman Man" and "Honky Tonk Man", became his first hits and charted at #7 and #9 on the Billboard Country and Western Jockey Chart (now known as the Billboard Country Chart) respectively.  With some hits under his belt, Horton now was earning up to $500 a night while touring - that's over $4,000 a night in 2012 dollars!  Some of the young musicians traveling with Horton during this time included Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Faron Young, and Roy Orbison.


North to Alaska was a minor John Wayne hit.  Nonetheless, it's title track would be Horton's second most successful single on the charts.


After the success of "I'm a One-Woman Man" and "Honky Tonk Man", Horton was just getting started.  In 1957, he had two more hits: "I'm Coming Home" at #11 and "The Woman I Need" at #9.  He had another hit at #8 in 1958 called "All Grown Up", but it would be in 1959 that his career would really explode.  His "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" shot up to #1 on both the Country Charts.  Later that year, he would even outdo that with "The Battle of New Orleans" - which not only became #1 on the Country Charts, but #1 on the predecessor to today's Billboard Top 200.  Even after those two great songs, he wasn't quite done with 1959 just yet; his "Johnny Reb" would chart at #10 and his "Sal's Got a Sugar Lip" at #19.  In 1960, he would have several more hits including "Sink the Bismacrk" at #3 and "North to Alaska" at #1.  "North to Alaska" would also be featured on the popular John Wayne movie of the same name.  By now, several other artists were copying his "saga song" style that he is still remembered for.


With all of his contributions to country music, Johnny Horton may be gone - but is certainly not forgotten!


With hit after hit, 1960 saw Horton making it happen in every aspect.  He was recording, touring, promoting, and even still finding time to fish and hunt on the way to gigs.  Unfortunately, Horton would tragically lose his life abruptly on November 5th, 1960, as he was hit head on by a drunk driver while on his way from Austin to Shreveport.  The sudden nature of the accident left many things unfinished as well as his wife Billy Jean a widow for a second time.  Several of his unfinished singles were wrapped up and released the following year.  One of them, "Sleepy-Eyed John", reached #9.  Even with so much undone, Horton's legacy is quite robust: he inspired and taught many who would go on to superstardom in their own right like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.  He would also be posthumously inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame many years later.  It's been over fifty years since his passing, but there still hasn't been anyone quite like him!


Songs on KBEC 1390:

"Honky-Tonk Man" - #9

"I'm a One-Woman Man" - #7

"Johnny Reb" - #10

"North to Alaska" - #1

"Sink the Bismarck" - #3

"Sleepy-Eyed John" - #9

"The Battle of New Orleans" - #1

"When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" - #1