John Gale Horton (April 30, 1925 ? November 5, 1960), known professionally as Johnny Horton, was an American country music singer who was most famous for his semi-folk, so-called "saga songs" which launched the "historical ballad" craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s. With them, he had several major crossover hits, most notably in 1959 with "The Battle of New Orleans" which won the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. The song won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award and in 2001 was named number 333 of the Songs of the Century. In 1960, Horton had two other crossover hits with "North to Alaska," in John Wayne's hit film, North to Alaska; and "Sink the Bismarck". Horton was also a rockabilly singer, and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Horton was born in Los Angeles, but raised in the town of Rusk in East Texas. His family trekked back and forth from California often as migrant fruit pickers but always returned to the Rusk/Gallatin area in Texas. After graduation from Gallatin High School in 1944, he attended the Methodist-affiliated Lon Morris College (then called Lon Morris Junior College) in Jacksonville, Texas on a basketball scholarship. Although he did not graduate from college, he later attended Seattle University.
Thereafter, he worked in California and Alaska. He returned to Texas and won a talent contest hosted by then-radio announcer Jim Reeves at the Reo Palm Isle club in Longview, the seat of Gregg County, and soon starred in the popular Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. He remained a Hayride member until his death.
Horton was married twice. His first marriage was to Donna Cook, which ended in a divorce granted in Rusk. In September 1953, he married Billie Jean Jones. Jones was the widow of country music star Hank Williams, to whom she had been married for the two and a half months prior to his death. With Billie Jean, Johnny had two daughters, Yanina (Nina) and Melody. Billie Jean's daughter, Jerry, was also part of the family.
Johnny Horton bench at Hillcrest Cemetery in Haughton, Louisiana
The Johnny Horton grave marker
Another Horton grave inscription
On November 5, 1960, Horton was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver on Highway 79 at Milano, Texas while returning home from a performance at the Skyline Club in Austin. When Johnny Cash, who was a good friend of Horton's, learned about the accident he said, " locked myself in one of the hotel's barrooms, and cried." Cash also dedicated his rendition of "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" to Horton on his album Personal File: "Johnny Horton was a good old friend of mine."
An unfounded rumor was that Horton was on his way to Dallas to meet actor Ward Bond on the night of the crash about a role on the NBC-TV series Wagon Train. Bond was attending a football game and died of a heart attack in Dallas hours after Horton died. A "Horton" did appear on Wagon Train ? actor Robert Horton.
Horton is buried in the Hillcrest Cemetery in Haughton east of Bossier City in northwestern Louisiana. He loved fishing as much, if not more, than singing and was once billed as "The Singing Fisherman." His favorite fishing holes were in the Piney Woods of East Texas and northern Louisiana.
Horton was posthumously inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana.