Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Drunk Driver Kills Popular Singer 

The Last Ride of Johnny Horton 
by Robert A. Waters 

It was 1960.  Hank was long-dead and old-time country music was dying.  Elvis, a country boy from Mississippi, had inadvertently started the trend.  Suddenly, teens weren't listening to sad songs like "Fraulein" and "Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On" anymore.  A new, driving energy was taking over the airways as electric guitars and rock 'n' roll created new heroes. 

For years, Johnny Horton, a sharecropper's son and singer from East Texas, had struggled to find a niche in the country music industry.  He'd been signed by several record companies, but his star had flamed out with each unsuccessful record he made. 

Then, in 1956, Horton recorded an up-tempo song called "Honky Tonk Man."  Traditional country music lyrics about a rake who loved barflies melded with hot electric guitar licks in just the right blend, and suddenly, Horton hit the jackpot.  Later, that song and others recorded by Horton would be called "rockabilly."  Songs like "Cherokee Boogie," "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor," and "Sleepy-eyed John" fused rock and country at just the right speed.

By 1959, Horton had again changed his style.  He recorded his biggest hit, "The Battle of New Orleans."  This historically-based frolicking song soared to the top of the charts in both country music and pop music.  It was followed by smash hits such as "Sink the Bismarck," "Johnny Reb," and "North to Alaska." 

Horton had come a long way from the sharecropper life led by his mother and fatherHe'd married a Louisiana beauty, Billie Jean Jones Williams, Hank's second wife.  He'd bought a new home in Shreveport, and was at the very pinnacle of his career.  Money, once a scarce commodity around the Horton home, was now rolling in.   

But for years, Horton had told friends of a premonition he couldn't shake.  He believed he would die at the hands of a drunk driver.  Horton even practiced scenarios in which he would drive his car into a ditch to escape an oncoming driver.  He hoped to outwit death by being prepared.  A teetotaler, Horton would soon discover that even a drunken grim reaper would not be denied.    

Close to midnight, on November 4, 1960, Johnny Horton climbed into the driver's seat of his shiny-new white Cadillac sedan.  He and his band had just played a packed session at the famous Skyline Club in Austin, Texas.  Horton had been skittish about the gig, thinking he might be killed by a drunk in a barroom fight.  So, between sessions, he hung out in the dressing room, away from the crowds.   

After loading their gear into the trunk of the Caddie, Horton, bass player and manager Tillman Franks, and guitarist Gerald Tomlinson headed home to Shreveport.  Horton planned to go duck hunting with future country music star Claude "Wolverton Mountain" King later that morning 

At about one-thirty, in Milano, Texas, Horton's Cadillac "approached a bridge over a train trestle."  Coming the opposite way, 19-year-old college student James Evans Davis drove a 1958 Ford Ranchero pickup.  Davis, who had been drinking, lost control of the truck and slammed into a guard rail.  He bounced off, weaved across the road, hit the opposite guard rail, then smashed head-on into Horton's Caddie. 

Photos show the car crushed like a tin can.     

The carnage on the bridge left Horton dead, and Franks and Tomlinson severely injured.  As happens often, Davis walked away with only minor injuries. 

At Horton's funeral, his long-time friend Johnny Cash read from the Biblical book of John.  Horton was interred at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Bossier City, Louisiana. 

In March, 1961, the Dallas Morning News reported that Davis had been convicted of "murder without malice" and "given a 2-year probated sentence in a no-jury trial." 

Horton had told his friends that if he died, he would contact them from the grave.  Franks believed Horton, and later recounted an eerie story that he thought proved contact had occurred. 

Clay Coppedge, in "Letters from Central Texas," published the tale: 

"As for Horton's promise of coming back from the grave, Franks believed Horton made good on his promise.  It happened when Franks was driving to Nashville with singer David Houston.  The radio was out and the CB radio was out.  It was a quiet drive.  Then, according to Franks, the CB kicked in with the opening riffs from Horton's 'One Woman Man.' 'It sounded like a juke box, real full, much louder than a CB would be,' Franks told music writer Colin Escott. 'The whole song played, and then the CB cut out again.  I just froze.  David did too . . . I told Merle Kilgore, and he said, 'Johnny's telling you that the song's gonna be a hit all over again.''' 

It was.  In 1989, George Jones recorded the song and it hit the charts, stopping at number 5. 

Today, Johnny Horton is remembered for his rockabilly influence and the historical songs he loved.  He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.  For some reason, he's never been elected to the prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame.

Sink the Bismarck by Johnny Horton 


Faye White said...

We should rectify that,(getting Johnny Horton into the Hall Of Fame) and get him in there 50 yrs is too long of a wait for his star to shine again.
How would one go about doing that??

Unknown said...

Fascinating story, Bobby! Thanks so much for posting!