Born John Gale Horton, 30 April 1925, East Los Angeles, California Died 5 November 1960, Milano, Texas
Country / rockabilly singer, songwriter, guitarist.
Johnny Horton had a magical voice that always sounded good-natured, a reflection of his amiable personality. He had no deep-seated commitment to music, though. It was just one of the things he tried. Fishing, hunting and even dabbling in spiritualism were more important to him. He was born into a family of migrant farm workers who shuttled between East Texas and southern California. Horton would later call Tyler, Texas his hometown, even though he had only spent a few formative years there as a child. He flirted with several lines of work (including the fishing industry in Alaska) before he won a talent contest in Texas in 1950 and decided to try singing for a living. After moving to California, Johnny was signed to a management contract by Fabor Robison, who placed him with the small Cormac label in Santa Ana, and got him a regular spot on the popular Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana. When Cormac folded after Horton's second single, Robison started the Abbott label with the main purpose of recording Horton. The first ten singles on Abbott (1951-52) all featured Johnny Horton. Robison was unhappy with 4-Star's distribution of Abbott and he decided to move Horton to a major label, Mercury Records. Under the guidance of A&R man Dee Kilpatrick, Horton recorded for three years in a variety of styles. The results were pleasant, but quite undistinctive, lacking an individual style. From the very beginning, Horton saw something special in Elvis Presley and even predicted that he would become the biggest singing star ever. But Dee Kilpatrick detested rockabilly and felt that it had no place in country music. Nevertheless, some of the up-tempo Mercury sides can be called proto-rockabilly.
On the basis of his Abbott and Mercury recordings, Johnny Horton would be no more than a footnote in the history of country music. Fortunately, he found a new manager, Tillman Franks, who gave focus to his talent, and even supplied much of the ambition that Horton lacked. Franks extricated Johnny from his Mercury deal and secured a contract with Columbia. On January 11, 1956 (one day after Elvis Presley recorded "Heartbreak Hotel"), he went into Bradley Studio in Nashville for his first Columbia session. Of the four tracks that were committed to tape, "Honky Tonk Man" was the key song. It was brought to Horton by its writer, Howard Hausey, who later recorded under the name of Howard Crockett. Hausey gave one-third of the song to Horton if he would cut it, and another third to Franks. With this session, "Johnny Horton had elevated himself to greatness", as Colin Escott puts it so neatly. The results were a quantum leap beyond anything Horton had done before. The sound is vibrant and surprisingly full for a four-piece. Bill Black, who was in Nashville for the second day of Presley's first RCA session, played bass, but it was most of all Grady Martin's outrageous guitar playing that gave the music its electricity. Martin would continue to play a major role in Horton's Columbia recordings, as lead guitarist and arranger. "Honky Tonk Man" peaked at # 9 on the country charts and the next three singles also charted : "I'm A One-Woman Man" (# 7), "I'm Coming Home" (# 11) and "The Woman I Need" (# 9). Then things went cold. Between May 1957 and September 1958, nothing hit. Horton cut wonderful rockabilly (my favourite is "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor"), but its hour had come and gone. His last hit as a wanna-be rock & roller came in the autumn of 1958 with "All Grown Up" (# 8). By the time Johnny re-entered the studio in November 1958, the ersatz folk music boom that broke in the wake of "Tom Dooley" was starting to have an impact on country music. Tillman Franks had the right piece of material for the time : "When It's Springtime In Alaska" had a pseudo-folky feel and gave Horton his first number one on the country charts (April 1959). It marked the beginning of the third distinct phase in his career : after his hillbilly and rockabilly years, Horton cast off his cowboy hat and became the king of the saga songs. It turned out to be by far the most profitable direction. "The Battle Of New Orleans" not only gave him his first pop hit : it topped the pop charts for six weeks and the country charts for ten weeks. On top of that, it won two Grammys : for Song of the year and Best Country & Western recording. The song had first been recorded by Jimmie Driftwood, whose 4-minute version had come out on an RCA album in 1957.
Further history lessons, like "Johnny Reb", "Sink the Bismarck" (# 3, 1960) and "Johnny Freedom" also crossed over to the pop charts. The final hit in this series, "North To Alaska" (title song of a John Wayne movie), was still climbing the charts when Horton's life came to a sudden end on November 5, 1960. While returning from a gig at the Skyline Club in Austin (the same club where Hank Williams made his final appearance before his death), Horton's car was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Horton was still alive when he was pulled from the wreckage, but he died on the way to hospital in Cameron. With him in the car were Tillman Franks and guitarist Tommy Tomlinson, who were badly injured, but survived.
A firm believer in spiritualism, Horton had strong premonitions that he would die prematurely. His wife, Billie Jean Jones, became a country star's widow for the second time in eight years, as she had previously been married to Hank Williams.
Many albums have been issued after Horton's death, some with previously unissued material, and they have continued to sell well over the decades.
More information :
Some CD releases :
Sessionography / discography (by Frank Frantik) :
Apart from an out-of-print book (Michael LeVine, Johnny Horton : Your Singing Fisherman, New York : Vantage Press, 1982), there is no book-length biography of Johnny Horton.
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott (several sources), Deke Dickerson.
Dik January 2012
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