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Johnny Horton ~ I’m A One Woman Man

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Johnny Horton: The Eerie Demise of Johnny Horton
Of all the singers who broadened the country music landscape in the ’50s, Johnny Horton is probably the least known. Johnny, who made his name as a honky-tonk singer with strong rockabilly tendencies, skyrocketed to fame in 1959, with his recording of The Battle of New Orleans. Horton began his career working on the Home Town Jamboree in El Monte, California. By the mid-’50s, he was a regular on The Louisiana Hayride originating on station KWKH, Shreveport, Louisiana. Johnny came eerily close to predicting the manner of his death. He believed he would be killed by a drunk in a bar. His premonitions come to pass when he died from a fatal car crash in 1960. His career may have been cut short, but his music reverberated for decades.

Johnny Horton was born in Los Angeles in 1925, the son of sharecropping parents. His mother taught him how to play guitar at an early age. After Horton graduated from high school in 1944, he began traveling across the country, eventually moving to Alaska in 1949. While there, he began writing songs in earnest. The following year, Horton moved to east Texas, where he entered a talent contest hosted by Jim Reeves, who was then an unknown vocalist. He won the contest, which motivated him to pursue a musical career. By early 1951, Horton was in California working on the televised Town Home Jamboree in El Monte, California, where he performed under the name “the Singing Fisherman.” At the end of 1951, Horton relocated from California to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he became a regular on the Louisiana Hayride. During 1952, Hank Williams rejoined the cast of the Hayride and became a sort of mentor for Horton. After Williams died on New Year’s Day of 1953, Horton became close with his widow, Billie Jean and the couple married.

Even though Horton had stints with Cormac (1951), Abbott (1951-52) and Mercury (1952-54), his recording career was going nowhere. Things turned around during the latter half of 1955, when he hired Tillman Franks as his manager. Franks and Webb Pierce helped Horton secure a recording contract with the more upscale Columbia Records in 1956. The change in record labels breathed life into Horton’s career. At his first Columbia session, he cut I’m a One Woman Man and Honky-Tonk Man, his first singles for the label, got him into the top-ten. After this, he settled into a string of minor hits that ran until 1963. In 1959, he hit the top of the charts with When It’s Spring Time in Alaska followed by The Battle of New Orleans and Horton was well on his way to becoming a star.

By the time North to Alaska was riding the airwaves in 1960, Johnny was getting strong premonitions of an early and violent death. Speaking to Merle Kilgore, he said that the spirits had told him he was going die within a week. Horton said an intoxicated man would kill him. He thought it would be a drunk in a bar at one of the gigs he was going to play in Texas. To the outside world, Horton seemed have it all: good looks, charm, a great singing voice and incredible athletic talent. His appeared to be a charmed life. But Horton’s premonitions of death grew stronger the more popular he became with country and pop audiences. He cancelled an appearance at the premiere of the movie ‘North to Alaska’ and tried to get out of his gig at the Skyline Club, but to no avail. Johnny was booked into the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas on November 4, 1960. He stayed in his dressing room at the Skyline, convinced a drunk would kill him if he went back to the bar. After two sets, he started the 220 mile drive back to Shreveport, Louisiana. He was headed to a lake in Southern Louisiana for the start of the duck hunting season.

With bass player Tommy Tomlinson in the back seat and manager Tillman Franks in the front, they set off for Shreveport. Tillman noted Horton was driving too fast, but that was not unusual. Horton always drove fast, as if propelling along his own prophecy. As they approached the Little River Bridge on Highway 79, near Cameron, Texas, James Evan Davis was driving a pick-up truck that smashed head-on into Horton’s car. Davis’ pick-up bounced off both sides of the bridge before plowing into Horton’s vehicle. Both Franks and Tomlinson were taken to a hospital in Cameron. Horton was alive when ambulances arrived on the scene but died en route to the hospital. Franks suffered head injuries and Tomlinson suffered multiple leg fractures that eventually led to the amputation of his leg. Davis, who was not injured, was charged with intoxication and manslaughter.

Although Johnny Horton died early in his career, he left behind a recorded legacy that proved to be very influential. Artists like George Jones, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam have successfully covered his songs and echoes of Horton’s music can still be heard in the amateur and professional music realm.

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