Horton, Johnny (1925–1960)

By: Jill S. Seeber

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: September 25, 2015

John Gale “Johnny” Horton, singer, was born in Los Angeles, California, on April 30, 1925. He was the son of John Lolly and Ella Claudia Horton. His parents moved back and forth from Los Angeles to East Texas during his early years. Johnny graduated from high school in Gallatin, Texas, and attended junior college in Jacksonville and Kilgore. He earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University in Waco and went from there to Seattle University. After college, Horton worked in Alaska and California in the fishing industry. While in Alaska he took up songwriting. Eventually he was back in Texas. In Longview, he won a talent contest sponsored by Henderson radio station KGRI and hosted by deejay Jim Reeves. Subsequently, an encouraged Horton headed to California to enter more contests and make a name for himself.

In 1950 he began singing country music on KXLA, Pasadena, California, and then proceeded to Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree on KLAC–TV, Los Angeles. Horton was briefly married to Donna Cook, a secretary at the Selznick Studio, but the marriage soon ended in divorce. He joined the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1952 and performed under the name the Singing Fisherman. He also started touring as the Singing Fisherman and the Rowley Trio; later they were billed as Johnny Horton and the Roadrunners. On September 26, 1953, he married Billie Jean Jones.

Companies he recorded with included Mercury and Dot. But Horton’s career sputtered by the mid-1950s as country music started to give way to rockabilly. He solicited Tillman Franks to be his manager, and in early 1956 the two headed to Nashville to cut tracks for Columbia. Horton was known for his versatility, but his specialty was honky-tonk. In 1956 he had his first hit, "Honky Tonk Man," followed by “I’m a One Woman Man.” He toured with an array of big-name and up-and-coming stars such as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Roy Orbison, and Faron Young. His first Number 1 recording in the country was "When It's Springtime in Alaska," released in 1959. At that time both country and popular-music radio stations began playing his music.

He became famous for his saga songs and influenced a brief trend of popularity for these historical and patriotic numbers. He achieved recognition when some of his songs made the national charts. His more popular saga songs, including "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Sink the Bismarck," reached positions on both country and pop charts. “The Battle of New Orleans” hit Number 1 on the country charts for ten weeks and stayed at the top of the pop charts for six weeks. Despite his crossover appeal, Horton remained entrenched in the country music scene. In August 1960 he recorded his last hit, “North to Alaska,” a major country and pop hit and the title song to the movie North to Alaska starring John Wayne.

Reportedly, Horton had premonitions of his death at the hands of a drunk. On November 5, 1960, in Milano, Texas, he died in an automobile accident while traveling from a show at Austin's Skyline Club to Shreveport, Louisiana. He was involved in a head-on collision; the other driver, unhurt, was intoxicated. Horton's wife, Billie Jean, with whom he had two daughters, became a widow for the second time, as she had been married previously to Hank Williams. Horton was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Haughton, Louisiana. His song, "The Battle of New Orleans" won the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording, and in 2002 it won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He was an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music (New York: Harmony Books, 1977). John Morthland, The Best of Country Music (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984). Rockabilly Hall of Fame: Johnny Horton (http://www.rockabillyhall.com/JohnnyHorton1.html), accessed October 18, 2011. Melvin Shestack, The Country Music Encyclopedia (New York: Crowell, 1979).

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jill S. Seeber, “Horton, Johnny,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/horton-johnny.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
September 25, 2015

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: