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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Skyline Club

by Clay Coppedge

There's a drug store where the Skyline Club used to be on North Lamar Boulevard in Austin. Back when the Skyline Club was the place to hear music legends live and on stage, that part of North Lamar was known as the Dallas Highway. You could see the Austin skyline from there, which consisted at that time of little more than the University of Texas Tower and the state capitol.

The Skyline was a honky tonk, a classic roadhouse. Not everybody played there, but Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Johnny Horton, Ernest Tubb and dozens of other members of various Halls of Fame did. For two of them, the Skyline was their last gig.

Hank Williams played the Skyline Club on December 19, 1952. His song "Jambalaya" was riding high on the charts, but his personal life was unraveling. Debilitated by back pain, strung out on painkillers, speed and downers in addition to being a full-blown alcoholic, Hank had a hard time getting work because he didn't always show up for gigs, or he was in no shape to play when he did find the stage.

But, according to most accounts, Hank was in rare form at the Skyline that night. Some even described him as sober. Williams had married his second wife, Billie Jean Jones, earlier that year, but she wasn't with him in Austin that night. The details of the last gig at the Skyline have been cussed and discussed many times in the intervening years, and accounts still vary. We do know that two weeks later, on New Year's Day, 1953, Hank Williams died in the backseat of a Cadillac, en route to a New Year's Eve gig in Canton, Ohio. He was 29 years old.

On New Year's Day, 1953, a young singer named Johnny Horton heard on the radio that Hank Williams had died in the back of that Cadillac. Later that year Horton married Hank's widow, Billie Jean, and recorded a string of hits, including the number one "Battle of New Orleans" in 1959.

Now we flash forward eight years to November, 4, 1960. We're back at the Skyline Club in Austin for a Johnny Horton performance. Horton, 35, wasn't battling drugs and booze, but it's fair to say he had his own demons. For years, Horton had believed he would die at an early age. He even believed he knew how it would happen - he would die at the hands of a drunk. He told the people closest to him that he would get in touch with them from beyond the grave, and at least a couple of people think he did.

Horton had tried to get out of his gig at the Skyline but couldn't so he stuck to his dressing room when he wasn't playing because he was convinced a drunk would try to kill him if he hung out at the bar. After his performance, Horton, bass player Tillman Franks and manager Tommy Tomlinson left the Skyline for a gig in Shreveport, Louisiana. Horton was driving. Franks later remembered that Horton was driving fast, but that wasn't unusual.

In Milano, a pick-up truck driven by James Evan Davis bounced off the side of a railroad bridge and into Horton's car. Franks and Tomlinson both suffered major injuries - Tomlinson eventually had to have a leg amputated - but survived. Horton was alive at the scene, but he died en route to the hospital.

The driver of the truck, who was not hurt in the crash, was charged with intoxication manslaughter.

A drunk had killed Johnny Horton after all.

As for Horton's promise of getting in touch after his death, Franks believed it happened one night when he was driving to Nashville with singer David Houston. It was a quiet drive because both the car radio and the CB were on the fritz. Then the CB kicked to life with the opening riffs of Horton's early hit "One Woman Man."

Franks recounted to writer Colin Escott that the song sounded like it came from a juke box and not from a CB radio at all. The song played all the way through, and then the CB went silent again.

Franks told songwriter Merle Kilgore about the experience, and Kilgore said Johnny was trying to tell him that the song was a going to be a big hit all over again. And it was. George Jones had a Top Ten hit with it in 1988.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 16, 2017 column

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