Early this month on November 5, Johnny Horton died 52 years ago. I thought it would be an opportunity to post one of my favorite Horton songs along with some information on this fascinating artist. I have a lot of Johnny Horton favorites, including "Coal Smoke and Valve Oil Steam," "I'm Coming Home," "Mr. Moonlight," and others but "Sal's Got a Sugarlip" is definitely one of them. When I saw it on ebay I bought it right away.
"The Singing Fisherman" was born April 30, 1925, in Los Angeles, California. His family moved around a lot always in search of work and later, Horton would call East Texas his home, although he spent his first years in LA. His mother taught him to play the guitar but he first wanted to become a preacher. Horton later changed his mind and decided to try his luck as a musician. Friends and relatives were surprised when Horton told them he wanted to become a singer since he had no stage experiences and sang seldom. He bought himself some western costumes and started entering talent contests.
By 1949, he was working in Alaska in the oil industry but returned to Texas the following year. His popularity grew and Horace Logan, emcee of KWKH's Louisiana Hayride, soon heard about the young Horton and hired him to appear on the Hayride. He also signed Horton to Fabor Robison's Cormack Records. In a joint session with Sammy Masters and accompanied by Johnny Reeves and his Homesteaders, Horton cut his first songs in a small studio in Santa Anna, California. The first singles appeared in 1951 but Cormack folded soon after, so Horton was transferred to Robison's new label Abbott. More singles appeared until 1953 but none of them was able to reach the C&W charts.
|Billboard March 2, 1957|
The honky-tonkin' rockabilly sound with Horton's vocals and Martin's deep bass guitar playing produced another three hits in the following time: "I'm a One Woman Man" (#7, 1956), "I'm Coming Home" (#11, 1956), and "She Knows Why" (#9, 1957). But as soon as the hits came, they disappeared again. The next singles went nowhere. A last hit with the rockabilly sound was achieved with "All Grown Up" in 1958.
Franks and Horton were looking for another sound, one that was unique and fitting. "When It's Spring Time in Alaska" proved to be the hit they were looking for. Horton had found "his" new sound: historic songs and ballads mixing Country and Folk music. "The Battle of New Orleans," written by Arkansas born Jimmy Driftwood, wasn't a favorite with both but they recorded it nevertheless, which proved to be the right decision. It became a #1 hit and Horton's best selling single as well as his theme song. During the next years, more hits followed, including "Johnny Reb" (#10), "Sink the Bismarck" (#6), "North to Alaska" (#1) and also today's selection "Sal's Got a Sugarlip" (#19).
"Sal's Got a Sugarlip" was also written by Jimmy Driftwood, who had proven to be a gifted songwriter and talented with historic themes. The song was recorded on July 6, 1959, in the Bradley Film and Recording Studio in Nashville with Horton on vocals, Grady Martin on lead guitar, Hank Garland on guitar, Tommy Tomlinson on guitar, Joseph Zinkan on bass, an unknown banjo picker, and Buddy Harman on drums. Horton had previously laid down a first version on July 1 but it remained unreleased. On that July 1 session, also the flip "Johnny Reb" was recorded (penned by Merle Kilgore).
Released as Columbia 4-41437 on July 20, 1959, Billboard reviewed the single in its July 27 issue as one of their "spotlight winners of the week:"
Horton can follow his big "Battle of New Orleans" with either of these potent entries. Top tune is similar in sound to his current smash. The lyrics are clever. "Johnny Reb" is a bright, march type, Civil War ditty. Both can score.As Billboard foretold, both songs scored and reached the C&W as well as the Pop charts. "Johnny Reb" hit #10 on the C&W charts and #54 on the Hot 100, while "Sal's Got a Sugarlip" reached #19 on the C&W charts and also went on to the moderate #81 spot in the Pop field.
It seemed Horton finally succeeded in the national music scene, but being always interested in esoteric and mystic topics, he was getting premonitions of his early death. He shared this interest in spiritualism with his friend Johnny Cash. Wether these were serious or not, he was right. On November 6, 1960, Horton, Tillman Franks, and Tommy Tomlinson came from a concert in Austin, Texas, when a drunk driver sliced apart their car. While Franks and Tomlinson survived, Horton died on the way to the hospital near Milano, Texas.
|Billboard November 14, 1960|