Ask almost anyone and they know the refrain to the song “Battle of New Orleans”. Most even know that Johnny Horton had an incredible hit with the song and some may recall that it was THE song during the summer of 1959. Only a few will know that Johnny Horton died the following year at the age of thirty-five or that he had many other hits to his credit.
His music has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past decade as “new” versions of rockabilly surface. Covers of his hits have charted performed by BR549, Dwight Yoakum, and many others.
The man behind the music, however, is the real story. Born in Los Angeles on April 30, 1925, Horton was the sole member of his family who was not born in Texas.
Although at the time of his birth, his father (John Horton) was working in construction, his family would follow the crops from California back to Texas for most of his childhood.
When they were at home in the Lone Star state, the Hortons lived in East Texas. Residents of the cities of Rusk, Jacksonville, Gallatin, and Maydelle may remember the family well.
Horton graduated from Gallatin High School in 1944 but was ineligble to serve in World War II because of a perforated ear drum. He attended Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, TX on a basketball scholarship but he left during his first year.
He packed his bags and headed to the sunny California of his birth where he spent several years in many jobs. He worked as an extra in the Gary Cooper film “Distant Drums” and in studio mail rooms. With brother Frank he migrated to Seattle and then alone into Alaska. Although he attended three different colleges, Horton never stayed long enough to earn a degree.
He wed Donna Cook of Los Angeles before returning to Texas with his bride. Soon after his return, his sister dared him to perform in a contest at the Reo Palm Isle Club and he won. In a short time, he and his wife moved to Shreveport where he began appearing on the Louisiana Hayride. His wife returned to her native California and they were divorced.
Horton later married Billie Jean Jones, Hank William’s young widow. For the remainder of his life, he lived in the Shreveport area and even after fame found him with his first chart hit “Honkytonk Man” in 1956, he remained part of the Louisiana Hayride. Other hits followed but “Battle of New Orleans” in 1959 remains his largest hit single.
Horton died on November 5, 1960 in a car accident on a bridge in the small town of Milano, Texas. He was en route home from his final performance at The Skyline Club in Austin. Hit head on, Horton died in the accident and his companions, manager Tillman Franks and guitar player “Tommy” Thomlison were both injured.
He was buried in Bossier City where a guitar floral tribute still marks his grave.
Much of his work was released posthumously and his music continues to draw new fans today.
He was often billed as “the singing fisherman” because he would rather fish than sing. En route on tour to performances he was known to often stop and fish awhile if he saw a likely pond, river, or stream. Johnny Horton’s music lives today as much because of his dynamic personality as his vocal talents.