Biography (April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960)
Johnny Horton moved to Shreveport to become a regular on the Louisiana Hayride in 1952. There he met Tillman Franks, the quintessential talent booker/manager/promoter and upright bass player. The two became fast friends, and Franks became Horton’s manager. Knowing that Sam Phillips was looking for a new artist to take Elvis’s place, since he had just sold his contract to RCA, Tillman pushed Johnny and his band during his live shows to capture the grittier, edgier sound of the Sun recordings.
Signed to Columbia Records with no advance on royalties, Horton was hurriedly scheduled for a session at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville on January 11, 1956. Tillman Franks quickly made a deal with David Houston to borrow his daddy’s car for the trip from Shreveport to Nashville, saying that he’d also try to get David a recording contract with Columbia Records.
And so, Horton, Franks and Houston, along with Franks’ songwriting friend, Howard Hausey, set out for Nashville with very little money. Arriving in Memphis with fumes in their gas tank and no money, they pulled into Elvis’s new home at Graceland and asked him if they could borrow $10. He gave them the money, and also agreed to Tillman’s request to “borrow” Elvis’s bass player, Bill Black, for the session. “Honky Tonk Man,” written by Horton, Franks and Hausey, was recorded during that session, with Grady Martin on lead guitar and Harold Bradley on the pounding Martin rhythm. It became an instant Rockabilly classic, a top-10 country hit, and launched Horton’s career. In the late ‘50s Horton scored major pop and country hits with the folksy story songs, most of which were co-written by Johnny Horton and Tillman Franks. These legendary Johnny Horton hits included “When It’s Springtime in Alaska,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Johnny Reb,” “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska,” which was the title of a John Wayne movie.
Johnny Horton was on the verge of becoming one of the top stars of the 60’s when he met with tragedy. He died on November 4, 1960 in a head-on car crash after a sold-out performance in Austin, Texas.
Following Horton’s death some of his earlier hit songs made the charts once again. Albums of his recordings were compiled and issued in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and they are still selling.