Monday, July 27, 2020

Johnny Horton 'Son' Busted

Don't Mess With Billie Jean
Written by Robert A. Waters

On that night in 1981, The Old Hangin’ Tree Tavern was packed like never before. Virginia Iler, owner of the joint, had placed ads on KZUN, the local country music station in Spokane, Washington, promoting the appearance of country-western singer Johnny Horton’s son. While the wavy-haired stranger sang with the stage band, Mrs. Johnny Horton sat in the back of the smoky bar. The singer, sometimes off-key, wailed out the “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Springtime in Alaska,” and an original song about his memories of the country music icon who’d died in a car crash twenty years earlier.

At 48, Billie Jean Horton was not there to revel in her son’s success. She had flown up from Louisiana to confront the imposter.

Still as beautiful as she was when she met her first husband, Hank Williams, she sobbed silently as the impersonator sang. Her bodyguard, Jim Howard, later told reporters that “you can imagine how Mrs. Horton felt. It’s like resurrecting the dead to sit there and have to listen to this composition he gave from the stage of his life as he remembered it with the late, great Johnny Horton.”  Particularly so since none of it was true.

To make the surreal episode even more unreal, the imposter stopped his songfest long enough to get married. He’d met a 29-year-old woman from Coer d’Alene, Idaho, and brought in a cake and a preacher to tie the knot. To the cheers of the crowd, he solemnly kissed his bride. After the ceremony was over, the groom continued his concert while the bride sat beaming.

It had all started two weeks earlier when a stranger called Iler and said his tour bus had broken down in Spokane and he wanted to arrange a booking at her tavern. Iler invited the man, who called himself Johnny Horton, Jr., to meet with her. He quickly convinced her of his identity and she hired him. But Iler and members of the band soon became suspicious.

When Billie Jean got a phone call from Mrs. Iler, the bar-owner explained the situation and asked if Johnny Horton, Jr. was her son. Billie Jean heatedly let Iler know she’d had no male offspring with the dead singer. Having successfully sued record companies for years to receive royalties from the estates of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, Billie Jean was in no mood to let an interloper make money off her husband’s name. While she was younger, she’d known hard times, but now she was wealthy, and she decided to fly to Spokane to confront the fraudster.

As the final song mercifully faded into the suffocating smoke-filled darkness, a group of official-looking men, including the bodyguard and two Spokane County deputies, asked Horton to accompany them to a nearby office. Inside were icy-faced Billie Jean and Mrs. Iler.

Horton quickly confessed that he wasn’t Billie Jean’s son.

He had no identification, except a union card for a man with a different name. He had no tour bus, no home except for a one-night room at a cheap hotel. In fact, he was a drifter and grifter from Texas. He claimed his name was David Jonathan Horton, Jr., but even that was questionable. “I’ve been singing professionally for about nine years,” he said. “When times got bad, I drove heavy equipment.” At that, Billie Jean lit into the fraudulent wannabe singer with a volley of foul language, advising him that he may have a civil suit coming his way.

After the confrontation, investigators advised Billie Jean that no crime had been committed and the drifter was free to go.

On learning that the man she’d married was not the son of the famous singer, Horton’s bride stormed out of the tavern and disappeared, never to be seen again. The rueful groom, out of a gig and a night of wedding bliss, said, “I think she married me for the name rather than for myself.”

Billie Jean flew back to Shreveport, satisfied the imposter had been exposed. Mrs. Iler told patrons she’d learned a lesson about not taking people at face value. And Horton (or whoever he was) continued his misdeeds. “It turned out he had a prison record, and was on parole at the time,” Billie Jean told a reporter. The fraudulent singer later ended up serving time in a California prison for committing real crimes.

Click here for more about Johnny Horton.

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