Remembering The Singing Fisherman - Johnny Horton
From the desk of Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
|Johnny Horton left with|
buddy Johnny Cash
His voice sings into my ear, soft and southern with just a little Western twang, something like a good mellow barbecue sauce, something to savor. Although I have eclectic music tastes, loving everything from the raucous, raw energy in AC/DC’s heavy metal to classic Big Band music, the poignant screams and soft voice of Janis Joplin, the Irish folk sound of Tommy Makem, and so many more, Johnny Horton remains one of my favorites, closest to my heart.
Over the years I’ve been to his grave in Bossier City, Louisiana, visited the little towns of Rusk and Gallatin in East Texas Johnny called home, stood on the stage of the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium where the Louisiana Hayride once played every Saturday night, taken pictures of his last home, and stood on the bridge in Milano, Texas where his life ended on November 5, 1960. I’ve talked with those who knew him – people like the late Merle Kilgore and childhood friends. I got to know Merle well enough he used to call me up and say, “Honey, its Merle” even though our first and deepest common bond was Johnny Horton. Both Merle and I named a son for Johnny Horton - both of us choosing the name Johnny Gale.
One of my planned projects is to write a biography of Johnny Horton. I’ve collected multiple boxes stuffed with data, gathered and taken hundreds of pictures, music, and so much more. And I’ll write it one day because it’s a project near and dear to my heart. Johnny shared my lifelong interest in things supernatural and paranormal. Somehow, somewhere, there’s a connection, a deep one I cannot deny or break. It’s just there.
Fifty-two years ago today, before I was born, Johnny left Shreveport to play a gig in Austin, Texas with his guitar man, Tommy Tomlinson and his manager/slap bass player, Tillman Franks. They played the show even though Johnny had a premonition he’d be killed. He thought it would happen at the club and on the way down into Texas he stopped to visit his mama in Rusk and at the school in Gallatin. On that beautiful autumn day, his mood turned a little somber but the show at The Skyline went off without a hitch. No one shot Johnny as he’d feared and so when they headed back toward home, Johnny’s mood turned exuberant.
After a stop for coffee at Round Rock, they headed north. It was Saturday, November 5, 1960. Since he thought he’d cheated death after all, Johnny looked forward to the opening day of dusk season. An avid hunter and fisherman, he couldn’t wait to head out to the water at dawn for a little duck hunting but as they roared through the small town of Milano, a drunk driver, James E. Davis, couldn’t control his Ranchero. The Texas A & M student weaved all over the road and ended up hitting Johnny’s pretty 1960 white Cadillac. The impact all but destroyed the driver’s side of the car and delivered fatal injuries to Johnny Horton. He was alive at the scene but by the time the ambulance delivered him to the hospital at Cameron, Texas, he’d passed away.
Johnny left behind a widow, Billie Jean, who’d been widowed once before when Hank Williams died and two daughters, Melody and Nina. He left a large and grieving family, countless friends, and fans. The hole his death ripped into the music world remains today – and although he’s been gone for more than a half century, Johnny retains a huge fan base today. And for those who may have heard the gossip he was a racist and sang a song with a very rude word in the title, it's not true. It's been debunked and it's not true. The song in question did not even exist during Johnny's lifetime and has been attributed to "Johnny Rebel".
Nor does Johnny Horton have any illegitimate sons floating around the country. And a man who calls himself "Tommy Horton" is not really Johnny Horton's cousin, he's just a con artist who decided he would say he was and thought no one would know the difference but whoops, the world did.
Many people know Johnny’s biggest hits – Battle of New Orleans, Sink The Bismarck, Honky Tonk Man, and North to Alaska but he recorded many more songs. Some of the lesser known ones are, to me, his best. Here’s one of my favorites and I like to think in whatever afterlife there is, Johnny’s is like this –
So while England marks Guy Fawkes Day tomorrow (remember, remember the fifth of November with gunpowder, treason, and plot) and Americans prepare for the election (Johnny Horton was laid to rest on Election Day 1960), I’ll be listening to my rockabilly tunes and remembering the man sometimes called ‘The Singing Fisherman’, the late but still great John Gale ‘Johnny’ Horton.