The Battle of New Orleans was fought 200 years ago this year, putting an end to the War of 1812. Though countless Americans are descendants of veterans of the bloody three-year war that pitted American citizens against the British and their unlikely Native American allies, most people know very little about the conflict. What awareness they do have may be in part because of the popularity of a song recorded by a country star whose end was as bloody as the battle that brought him fame.
“The Battle of New Orleans” became the song for which Country-Rockabilly artist Johnny Horton is best remembered, though in the 1950s the handsome crooner released a string of other “saga” songs and was a popular performer at live venues. The song was named Billboard’s Number One Song for 1959 and won the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording.
Horton’s life offered all the elements of a great movie, but unlike many of his contemporaries, his story has not been told on film. Born in 1925, Horton spent his childhood between Texas and California. He attended colleges in Texas and Washington, playing basketball and studying geology but never graduating. He worked at a variety of jobs from Hollywood studio mailroom clerk to Alaskan gold miner before pursuing music.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s he performed on television and radio on the West Coast, finally landing a guest performance on Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La. That’s where he got to know Hank Williams and his wife, Billie Jean Jones, who had married Williams in the fall of 1952.
“Hank knew Johnny better than I did,” Billie Jean told writer John Prime in a 1987 interview. “Hank was actually a fan of Johnny’s and used to listen to every record Johnny would come out with. He would stop the car if we were riding along and Johnny came on the radio.”
She told Prime that Williams was convinced Horton would become “one of the biggest stars in the business.”
As the new year of 1953 began, somewhere between Knoxville and Oak Hill, W. Va., 29-year-old Hank Williams slipped into eternity in the back of a pale blue 1952 Cadillac, and the iconic singer’s young bride became a widow at age 19.
Nine months later, on Sept. 26, 1953, she married Johnny Horton.
Horton continued with his career, and his new wife settled in as a mother to their two daughters and her own from an early first marriage. To relax, Horton hunted and fished, a passion he shared with the man that Billie Jean later told reporters was perhaps the only close friend her husband ever had – Johnny Cash.
Horton’s other passion was spiritualism.
Journalist Bill Keith recalled in a 2012 article that during an interview with Billie Jean some years earlier she told him that, unlike Horton, Hank Williams had no interest in mysticism and neither did she.
“[Johnny] had this friend, Bernard, down at the post office who was a real spooky guy,” Billie Jean told Keith. “Johnny would invite him out to the house, and they would have séances. I kicked them out of the house, and Johnny built a one-room building in the back yard where they did all that stuff.”
Horton experienced premonitions and readily shared them with those close to him. One strong, recurring vision was that he would be killed by a drunk driver. Finally, it happened mid-way across a 320-foot concrete railroad overpass in the center of Milano, La., around 1:30 a.m., Nov. 5, 1960, when Horton’s Cadillac was struck head-on by a 19-year-old intoxicated college student. Horton, 35, died en route to the hospital. The driver of the other vehicle, James Evans Davis, suffered only minor injuries and was soon arrested.
“It’s ironic that Johnny was killed on a railroad overpass by a drunk driver,” Horton’s brother, Frank Horton said in a speech many years after the accident. “Johnny had a premonition, a certainty he was going to be killed by a train. He rode on a train for his last appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and he never rode another one.”
In the fatal accident, Horton’s guitar player, Tommy Tomlinson, who was 30, sustained leg injuries that later warranted amputation. Tomlinson died at age 51 of heart failure. Tillman B. Franks, Horton’s manager was riding shotgun. He was critically injured but recovered, dying in 2006 at age 86. In his autobiography “I Was There When It Happened” he expressed his disappointment at the outcome of Davis’ arrest. Franks said that Davis pleaded “no contest” to “murder without malice” and was given a two year suspended sentence, having served no time in prison. Davis married, raised a family and died at 65 in Bulverde, Texas, where, according to his 2007 obituary, he had taken leadership roles in local community affairs.
In 2013 biographer Robert Hilburn published Johnny Cash: The Life in which he stated that Cash fell in love with Billie Jean Horton after his friend’s death and even asked Billie Jean to marry him. She declined, Hilburn reported, because she was scared of drugs. Horton had not used drugs or alcohol, but with Williams, Billie Jean had already experienced their impact. After all, she was a widow for a second time at 27.
The year Horton died he had enjoyed commercial success with “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska,” the theme song for John Wayne‘s movie by the same name. However, it’s the catchy tune about the Battle of New Orleans that the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time and was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
It’s nice to think that Horton had a good premonition that more than four decades after his death, in 2001, his signature song would be ranked No. 333 of the Recording Industry Association of America‘s “Songs of the Century.”