Johnny Horton

When It's Springtime In AlaskaThe Spectacular Johnny Horton
The Battle Of New OrleansThe Spectacular Johnny Horton
Whispering PinesThe Spectacular Johnny Horton
Lost HighwayThe Spectacular Johnny Horton
Joe's Been A-Gittin' ThereThe Spectacular Johnny Horton
Johnny RebJohnny Horton Makes History
Sink The BismarckJohnny Horton Makes History
Jim BridgerJohnny Horton Makes History
North To AlaskaGreatest Hits
Sleepy-Eyed JohnHonk Tony Man



Johnny Horton photo


Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Stories, both true and untrue, which have surrounded Johnny Horton in the years after his untimely death, have somewhat overshadowed his short yet very prolific career. There are of course the odd coincidences with Hank Williams. They both played their last live show at the same Texas club. And they were both married to the same woman at the time of their deaths. Something that Williams more or less predicted when, at his wedding to Billie Jean Jones, he told Horton he bet someday Horton would also marry her.

A bit odd.

Then there were the claims of racism in the years after his death, with a couple albums full of racist songs that were suppose to be secret recordings of Horton under the name Johnny Rebel. Eventually it was proved they were not and were actually recorded years after Horton’s 1960 death.

Some still take issue with his handful of songs sang from the perspective of a Confederate soldier. Which isn’t exactly a shocking topic for a guy who was raised in East Texas to sing about less than 100 years after the Civil War ended. Support for the Confederate government is a fairly touchy subject in the U.S., mostly as the Confederacy existed to defend slavery and was in open rebellion against the United States from 1861 to 1865.

Johnny Horton kicked around the bottom rung of country music from 1950-1955, appearing on any number of radio shows in California and eventually in Louisiana. One, the Louisiana Hayride radio show, was a launching pad for Elvis, Hank Williams and Webb Pierce among others. Horton however didn’t really get so much launched as stalled at the Hayride and actually quit performing and recording with the exception of weekends on the Hayride at one point. He decided to start working in a fish tackle shop and give up the whole country singer idea, fortunately it didn’t take. He was a pretty well known fisherman though, at one point starring as The Singing Fisherman on KXLA-TV in Pasadena around 1953. During the half hour show he sang and showed his casting skills with a fishing rod.

At some point he actually traveled to Alaska to pan for gold, which sort of makes his songs about Alaska a bit more legitimate than other songs in that oh so popular late 1950s genre.

His marriage to Billie Jean and signing on with Tillman Franks as a manager changed the course of his career. In early 1956 Franks took Horton to Nashville to record some sides, and if people are to be believed in a different style than he had previously used, as suggested by Franks. On the way they stopped in Memphis and saw their mutual friend Elvis, borrowed some money and bassist Bill Black. While Franks had worked professionally as a bassist for years he had a sound in his head and he felt his skill level just wasn’t up to the challenge; it’s good to know your limitations. He wanted a top tier slap bassist, so he borrowed one from Elvis.

Over the next four years Horton recorded a number of sides and two albums. He scored eleven top ten singles, and another two that broke the top twenty, on the country charts. He also charted with a number 11 and 26 single on a posthumous album released two years after his death. It was a very busy and productive four years during which he recorded roughly 130 songs, a few which are engrained into American culture, although oddly enough I don’t know that the artist is. And while the historical song was a major craze in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s, his for the most part are the only ones that have really stuck with us.

As I said, he only released two full length albums during his life. So it isn’t a surprise five songs come from 1959’s The Spectacular Johnny Horton. Between 1956 and 1958 Horton had five songs peak between number seven and number eleven on the country charts. The Spectacular Johnny Horton took him from being a star to a superstar.

The first number one single from the album was When’s It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below). The song itself has a bit of a pun to it, as while the songs talks about the cold, it’s also about making the tactical error of asking Big Ed’s wife to a dance and ending up six feet below. Horton’s singles before this were pretty traditional love songs that really had little to set them apart. It was here his reputation as a story telling singer began to take form. Franks is listed as the songwriter but there seems to be a lot of controversy around that. Probably Franks indulged in the time honored tradition of slapping his name on an older song. Horton and Franks supposedly did that with a number of songs brought to them.

And then Horton hit a gold mine. The Battle Of New Orleans is a song that most everyone has heard a line or two from, and was his first song to break into the mainstream charts peaking as a number one single not just on the U.S. Country but Mainstream charts. For whatever reason it had become a staple at some North American sporting events. Close to sixty years after its release many Americans who have no idea who Johnny Horton is know the song, or at least some of the lyrics.

Whispering Pines, Lost Highway and Joe’s Been A-Gittin’ There were not hits, nor do I believe they were even released as singles. But I do think they fill out a great album and do a good job of supporting the two number one singles.

Whispering Pines is out of the “My Baby Left Me” genre of songs. Sad, but quite beautiful, it became one of those songs that became a huge favorite among his fan base.

Lost Highway was a remake of the Hank Williams hit, and one of the few not written by Williams that are associated with him. Horton was criticized a bit for recording a more sugary version of the song than Williams, but in retrospect it’s a strong version.

Joe’s Been A-Gittin’ There is a bit more upbeat than the previous two songs and one of the songs that have caused some folks to attack him over the years. It’s a simple song about a Colonel in the United States Army courting a Southern Belle while all the while she is planning on marrying a Rebel soldier. In the song she took everything he had and all the townspeople were laughing at him. Hardly a song supporting racism, more supporting southern culture than anything else.

Horton’s follow up album capitalized on his reputation as a singer of historical ballads by naming itself Johnny Horton Makes History.

Johhny Reb from the album was the song that eventually kicked off the later claims of racism. Another song from the Confederate soldier perspective, the real problem is after Horton’s death a number of songs showed up under the name Johnny Rebel that somehow got associated with Horton. They weren’t Horton, nor did he have any connection to them. It’s a pretty melancholy song about a soldier who sees the worst of war. It sticks with you a bit.

Sink The Bismarck is another song that has entrenched itself in the U.S. Culture, with Horton not entirely being attached to it. The song itself is a rousing tune about the British Fleet hunting down and sinking the Bismarck. It’s all kind of fun.

In Jim Bridger, Horton’s historic story telling took a turn into the Old West, or at least the Mountain Men part of it. By this time Horton was singing songs about everything from the naval commander John Paul Jones to Custer’s horse at Little Big Horn. This is my favorite of those songs that didn’t reach number one.

North To Alaska was released off of Johnny Horton’s 1960’s Greatest Hits album, but it is more associated with the John Wayne comedy western from the same year. Like Sink The Bismarck and The Battle Of New Orleans it’s sort of noodled its way into the American psyche, but people have forgotten who sang it.

Sleepy-Eyed John is the first of a handful of posthumous singles that were released, and charted, from 1961 to 1963. It’s a lot more up tempo than most of his songs and a nice change of pace for him.

Johnny Horton’s career was cut short by a car accident, or who knows what the early 1960s would have brought for him. Would his career had receded like Jimmy Dean’s or would his rockabilly style have found a place along with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash and Horton were close friends, in fact the night of Horton’s death Cash didn’t accept a collect call from him. A choice he mentioned a few times as one of the great regrets of his life. After locking himself in a room to cry, according to him, he charted a plane to fly to the funeral and read from the Bible at Horton’s service.

One of those what if’s. What we do know is he left us four years of music deeply entrenched into American memory, even if he isn’t.


Johnny Horton (1925–1960)

Johnny Horton discography

Johnny Horton biography (iTunes)

This is Calvin’s 31st Toppermost. His third book “Modern Images of Akron” was recently released by Arcadia Publishing. In it Calvin spends a good deal of pages covering the history of music in Akron with images and commentary on the Black Keys, Devo and Pretenders among others. He has also recently signed on to be the Archivist and Contributing Author for the proposed Akron Sound Museum, which will celebrate the history of Akron Music from the early 1960s to present. In the meantime he is working on his 4th book before starting a fifth on the history of Akron Music.

TopperPost #527


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 5, 2016

    Calvin, thanks for this excellent list on a much neglected artist. Probably would have to have ‘Honky Tonk Man’ in my top ten, though…

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jun 5, 2016

    Nice feature Calvin and very informative as far as I’m concerned. I remember the hits but have to confess I didn’t dig too much deeper. I’ve forwarded it to the biggest Johnny Horton fan I know so you could receive further comment soon.

  3. David Hagan
    Jun 5, 2016

    This would have got a 10/10 from me had ‘I’m Coming Home’ been included. My favourite Rockabilly song of all time yet Johnny wasn’t renowned for Rockabilly… I once busked this song at least 20 times in Newcastle City Centre 1980-ish with a then unsigned Martin Stephenson (of Daintees fame) an absolute gem!

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