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.
Horton's ghosts must have liked the quiet rural ambience of Milano.
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
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
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
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.
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
Tonk Man" by Archie P. McDonald ("All Things Historical"
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
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
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