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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Eerie Demise of
Johnny Horton

by Clay Coppedge
Despite Johnny Horton's wild-at-heart looks and voice, he was a man haunted for years by ominous premonitions of his own death. He often promised those close to him he would contact them from beyond the grave.

Like the psychic he claimed to be, Horton came eerily close to predicting the manner of his death. He believed he would be killed by a drunk. He died on Nov. 5, 1960, in an automobile accident at the Little River bridge on Highway 79.

James Evan Davis was driving a pick-up truck that smashed head-on into Horton's car. Horton was alive when ambulances arrived on the scene but died en route to hospital.

Davis, the driver of the truck, was charged with intoxication manslaughter; he was drunk at the time of the accident.

Johnny Horton's ghosts must have liked the quiet rural ambience of Milano.
On New Year's Day 1952, when Horton was trying to get his career started, he learned from a radio account that Hank Williams had died of a heart attack in the backseat of his Cadillac after playing a New Year's Eve gig at the Skyline Club in Austin. Later that same year, in 1953, Horton married Williams's widow, Billie Jean.

Horton went on to become one of the era's most successful recording artists with hits on both the country and pop charts. He made his name as a honky tonk singer with strong rockabilly tendencies but made his biggest impact on the charts with his 1959 recording of Arkansas history teacher Jimmy Driftwood's 'Battle of New Orleans.' The song went number one on both the pop and country charts and reached number 16 on the British charts despite the BBC banning the song because of the lyrics 'the bloody British.'

Horton followed that success with a string of 'saga' songs like 'North To Alaska,' 'Sink The Bismark' 'Comanche' (about General Custer's horse) and 'Johnny Reb.'

To the outside world, Horton seemed have it all: good looks, charm, a great singing voice and incredible athletic talent. Twenty-six colleges had offered him basketball scholarships after his graduation from high school. He played briefly for Lon Morris Junior College and Baylor University. During lean times in the music business, Horton could make as much as $200 a day playing pinball. His appeared to be a charmed life.

But Horton's premonitions of death grew stronger the more popular he became with country and pop audiences. He cancelled an appearance at the premiere of the movie 'North To Alaska' and tried to get out of his gig at the Skyline Club, but to no avail. He stayed in his dressing room at the Skyline, convinced a drunk would kill him if he stayed at the bar.

After the gig he kissed Billie Jean good-bye in the same place and on the same cheek where Hank had kissed her after his last gig at the Skyline.

With bass player Tillman Franks in the front seat and manager Tommy Tomlinson in the back, they set off for Shreveport, La. Tillman noted Horton was driving too fast, but that was not unusual. Horton always drove fast, as if propelling along his own prophecy. Franks was snoozing in the front seat and Tomlinson was in the backseat when Davis' pick-up bounced off either side of the bridge then plowed into Horton's car.

Franks suffered head injuries and Tomlinson suffered multiple leg fractures that eventually led to the amputation of his leg. Davis, the driver of the truck, was not injured.

As for Horton's promise of coming back from the grave, Franks believed Horton made good on his promise. It happened when Franks was driving to Nashville with singer David Houston. The radio was out and the CB radio was out. It was a quiet drive. Then, according to Franks, the CB kicked in with the opening riffs from Horton's 'One Woman Man.' 'It sounded like a juke box, real full, much louder than a CB would be,' Franks told music writer Colin Escott. 'The whole song played, and then the CB cut out again.

'I just froze. David did too . . . I told Merle Kilgore, and he said, 'Johnny's telling you that the song's gonna be a hit all over again.' I said, 'Well, it didn't do too well the first time out.''

Maybe Franks should have paid more attention to the omen. The song reached the Top Ten on the country charts when George Jones released it as a single in 1988.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 26, 2005 column

More on Johnny Horton:

"Honky Tonk Man" by Archie P. McDonald ("All Things Historical" column)


Forum:

  • Under the Milano Railroad Bridge

    On the anniversary of Johnny Horton's death
    "... It was so quiet out there that you could hear a vehicle approaching from a long way off. That's why I was so shocked when I suddenly saw emergency vehicle lights reflecting onto the ground and buildings south of the bridge, as though a trooper had pulled over on the bridge with his lights on.... more" - Mark Camp, April 5, 2015

  • Corrections:
    As a freelance writer who has collected a large amount of information about Johnny Horton over the past five years, I wanted to point out a few things within the column that are not accurate.

    The bridge at Milano is not the "Little River Bridge", it's over the railroad tracks there.

    Horton didn't claim to be a psychic but a Spiritualist in tune with the spirit world. According to Horton, it was the spirits that warned of his coming death - and the warning was correct. He feared he would die on the trip to Austin at the hands of a drunk - and did. He also had several other near misses (near fatal) experiences which convinced him that his time was short.

    Horton was a devoted family man - extended family as well as wife and children. Thanks. - Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy, July 22, 2005

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