Johnny Horton

John Gale Horton was a country and western singer. He was the son of John Loly Horton (1890-1959) and Ella Claudia Robinson Horton (1892-1966) in Los Angeles, California. He was raised in East Texas. In the 1930 census, Johnny was the youngest of five children (three sons and two daughters) and his father John listed his occupation as farmer, probably a sharecropper. In the census form, Johnny is called “Gayle.” By 1940, the family was living in Cherokee County, Texas, Johnny’s father’s occupation was listed as farmer and by that time, the family consisted of the parents, Johnny’s older sister and himself. His name was spelled “Gale” in this census form.

Horton graduated from Gallatin, Texas high school. Various accounts say that Horton was offered a number of basketball scholarships and that he briefly played for Lon Morris Junior College in nearby Jacksonville and Baylor University in Waco before relocating to the northwest United States. He is said to have then worked in the fishing industry from California to Alaska for a while before returning to Texas. Horton had begun writing songs and participating in local musical events by then and began his musical performing career about 1950.

Like some other singers of the day, Horton began to make appearances on the program “Louisiana Hayride,” which began as a popular country music radio program and later developed into a television program. It enjoyed considerable success in the 1940s and 1950s. Based in Shreveport, Louisiana, it was said to have helped launch the careers of many artists who went on to have long tenures in country and western and also rock and roll music.

Around that time, Horton was married the first time in 1952, to Doris Dona Cook, although this relationship is believed to have ended shortly. He then married to Billie Jean Jones (the widow of Hank Williams) with whom he was married when he died.

Image credit: discogs.com

Horton recorded songs in the traditional country and western style, and some of his most popular tunes were in a patriotic/historical genre that was also popular during his career. Horton’s greatest hits included the following: “North to Alaska,” “Johnny Reb,” “When It’s Spring Time in Alaska,” “Honky-Tonk Man,” “Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismark,” “Johnny Freedom” and many others. Some will remind readers of movie titles. The most direct tie in with a film is his 1960 recording of “North To Alaska,” used as the title music for the 1960 film directed by Henry Hathaway, based on a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin and Claude Binyon. Horton’s vocals are heard in the film and the melody of the song is also played in a scene in a saloon in a honky-tonk style on a bar room piano. Horton wrote some of his recorded songs and is sometimes credited for having written “North to Alaska”, but this song is usually attributed to someone named Mike Phillips. However, the identity of this Mike Phillips is somewhat obscure, Another 1960 song,”Sink the Bismark,” was written by Horton and Franks but is not connected to the 1960 British film of the same name.

Horton is also associated with the music and life of singer Hank Williams, Sr. His life has some interesting and yet also eerie parallels with Williams’ including, among others, that they were both were country singers, they were both married to the same woman at the times of their death and both died in Cadillac automobiles after having just performed at a place known as the Skyline Club in Austin.

No longer in existence, the Skyline Club was a well known venue for country music. It was located at the intersection of what is now called North Lamar and Braker in north Austin. Horton had just finished a show there on November 4, 1960. Rather than remain in the area one more night, Horton (35), his manager Tillman Franks (41) and musician Gerald D. Tomlinson (30) had loaded up Horton’s 1960 Cadillac and were heading back to their homes Shreveport. When they approached Milano about 1:30 AM on the morning of November 5, 1960 they began to cross a railroad overpass. Approaching in the opposite direction was another driver (19) who lost control of his 1958 Ford Ranchero pickup. Reports say that the driver of the Ford struck one or more of the guard rails before colliding head on with the oncoming Cadillac driven by Horton. The other driver was not injured, but both Franks and Tomlinson were treated in a nearby medical center. These three survived, but Horton was badly injured and died in route to the nearest hospital. The driver of the Ford was accused of operating his vehicle while being under the influence of alcohol. He is reported to have pleaded guilty to what is now called intoxication manslaughter, for which he received a two year probated sentence.

Horton is said to have previously spoken of having premonitions of his death involving someone who was drunk. Horton was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Haughton, Louisiana. In the year of his death, his song, “The Battle of New Orleans” won a Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording, and in 2002 it was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He has been named as member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and is an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

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