Today I got a Big Fat Check.* It was a check I was never expecting, and it was a life changing check. I inherited money from an 83 year old ex-navy veteran I met at the VA Hospital in Westwood, CA whom at the time was locked away in the psych ward with other veterans, mostly from World War 2, The Korean War & Viet Nam.
When I lived in LA, I did a lot of volunteering, performing at various old age and assisted living homes including the Jewish Home for the Aging, the Motion Picture and TV Hospital, and the two VA hospitals in Westwood & Sepulveda. I luckily missed the draft for the Viet Nam War, so I felt I would try to give back in the best way I can by entertaining these brave men & women who fought for our country.
A lot of the Vets I played for in Westwood had Alzheimer’s & Dementia as well as other mental issues. It was a little like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I would play songs from the 1920-1970’s for these Vets and there was this one African American guy that was always smiling and was really into the music, his name was Johnnie Horton.
Now I remembered there was a Johnny Horton who wrote and performed the classic Grammy winning hit “The Battle of New Orleans” but he spelled his first name different. I’d see Johnnie singing along with me and he seemed to know a lot of songs I knew, and he was always smiling and singing and dancing, he was like a shining star among a lot of very sad, sick & lonely people.
After a couple of weeks of playing on the Psyche Ward I asked Johnnie if he wanted to come up and sing with me. Without hesitation he got up and sang Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,’ Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come” & the Temptation classic “My Girl.” I was BLOWN AWAY at how good he was, perfect pitch, knew every word, a natural performer.
Johnnie reminded me of another elderly African American friend of mine named Biggie Prillerman, a wild & crazy cat that I used to sing with back in Ohio in the 70’s. Biggie & I even made it to a final audition on the Gong Show sometime in the 80’s.
Marilou & I would go to the VA Hospital once a week and every week Johnnie would be there, encouraging his fellow patients to sing and clap along and he & Marilou would get up and dance to a lot of my songs. Marilou was like Florence Nightingale, she was so kind to the Vet’s, helping them eat, dancing with them, they really loved her too.
One day Johnnie said to me “Man, I wrote a song you think you could follow it?” and I said sure so I said sing a couple bars and he starts singing “Paris Hilton is a Rebel just like me, Paris Hilton is a Rebel can’t you see Paris Hilton is a Rebel yes indeed that’s why we get along so happily.”
I was FLABBERGASTED! This 80+ year old African American Veteran wrote a song about how he and Paris Hilton were going to hook up, get married, have kids and live happily ever after. I thought it was the funniest thing I have ever heard in my life and I have heard some funny things before.
It was a basic 12 bar one/four/five shuffle in the key of A major, so I played along and he knew all the lyrics by heart, he wasn’t looking at any paper, he had his act down really good. So, at some point afterwards I asked Johnnie “where did you get that song?”
So he begins to tell me that after he got out of service he couldn’t find a job and ended up on Skid Row in Los Angeles, never smoked or drank alcohol before the Navy but in the Navy started smoking and turned into an alcoholic. He didn’t know what he was going to do and was living on the dangerous streets. He thought he was going to get killed out there so one day he put a can of beer in a brown paper bag, walked into a bank and told the teller it was a bomb and he wanted all their money or he would blow up the bank.
By the time he hit the front door the police were there and he was on his way to LA County Jail & Prison; 3 meals a day, warm place to sleep, and less dangerous than the mean streets of L.A’s Skid Row. While he was in prison, he used to watch a lot of TV and saw how people were making fun of Paris Hilton so he wrote the song “Paris Hilton is a Rebel.” It was like a funny Merle Haggard or Johnnie Cash kind of story/song.
Johnnie’s biggest wish in his life was to go into a real recording studio and record his song. I pulled some strings and in 2014 made it happen for him, we recorded Paris Hilton is a Rebel. I produced the track and played rhythm guitar, Randy Ray Mitchell engineered it as well as playing bass, slide guitar and various percussion. Another of one of my buddies & ex-client Jimmy Z played harmonica on the track. Jimmy has toured & recorded with Etta James, Rod Stewart, Eurythmics, Tom Petty & many more superstars.
Another friend of mine, Henry Abeger had a friend named Alison Cooper who was a videographer and was currently working on a documentary and he thought she might be interested in creating a video for Paris Hilton is a Rebel. Alison at one time was a backup singer for Supertramp. She was a highly creative woman.
We took her crew into the studio and filmed Johnnie singing and we drove out to the beach at Santa Monica to do some B roll. Johnnie was incredibly happy with the results, as we all were.
Johnnie finally got released from the VA Hospital and moved around into various assisted living houses around the South-Central L.A. area, all of them were very low end in pretty dodgy neighborhoods. Marilou & I would visit him about once a month, he wanted to keep on recording new original songs he wrote, many of the Gospel themed.
Johnnie would sing a song he had in his head and sing it into my phone. I would find the key, put some music to it, transcribe the lyrics to paper and I would send it to the studio engineer cut the basic track. We would get it all ready for him to just walk in and sing. We ended up recording 11 songs over the next seven years.
Johnnie was also a professional pan handler. He would be bumming money on the streets of Lynwood at McDonald’s, Denny’s and various other spots. Marilou & I were amazed at how sharp is mind was, he knew all the names of the cooks, waitresses and managers and everybody really liked him a lot, he was such a positive and friendly and funny guy.
Oxnard to Lynwood was 60 miles and a nightmare to drive, especially home. Mariou and I would bring him supplies, Fixodent, toothbrushes & toothpaste, soap, cookies & candy, clothes, hats, sunglasses, food & he loved his Kangen Water. We always took him out to lunch, he loved soul food at M & M’s Soul Food Kitchen in South Central Los Angeles. Some of his favorites were, smothered chicken, ham hocks, short ribs, mac & cheese, collard greens, candied yams, cornbread & lemonade. He also loved chitlins (hog intestines). I always gave him $20 in cash when I saw him.
After we recorded the first 6 songs, I put together a CD he could sell out on the streets for $10. We felt so bad he was living like this, always dirty, begging for money, it was sad.
The last song we recorded was called “Heavenly Father” in August of 2019. By that time, he was in a wheelchair and I had to pick him up and put him in and out of my car to go to the studio. He was visibly weaker than he had ever been. A few weeks after that we were going to do another new song, “Give Me Strength” but his usual once a week calls were not coming in. We were getting worried and called Vista Veranda Assisted Living to see what was up. They didn’t know where he was, so I called the VA and they also didn’t know where he was.
I finally got a call from a doctor at Saint John’s Hospital in Santa Monica that he had cancer and he did not have much longer to live. Johnnie had no relatives and listed me with the VA and everywhere he stayed that I was his next of kin. Anytime he fell or had a problem I was always the first call.
When we found out where he was, we rushed over to see him, and he didn’t look good. I brought my guitar over and I would play for him, sometimes he would be a little more awake than other times, I would play the songs we sang together. The nurses and doctors loved it and at times he seemed to respond.
Johnnie’s conservator/lawyer called me and advised me that I should probably put a Will together. I said, “are you kidding, what could he possibly have that I would want?” The lawyer volunteered to put one together and have him sign it in the hospital, which he did.
I surly didn’t think he had anything, he was living in a pretty low class assisted living home in the hood, never had any money, panhandled out on the streets and was always dirty.
After a few more visits in the hospital with Johnnie, he passed away on October 10th, 2019. I arranged for the cremation and all the necessary paperwork and closed the chapter on that period of our life, I thought.
A few days passed and I got a call from his conservator/lawyer that I needed to come in and fill out some forms, Johnnie left me some money. I was really amazed that he had anything by the way he lived, I was wrong.
My mom taught me a long time ago about giving back, donating time to the less fortunate. When we were kids, she would help the mentally challenged in a facility in Columbus, Ohio where we lived. She also helped at the schools my two sons went to when they were young. I’ve been donating my singing and playing abilities for a long time and I’ve never asked for anything or thought about making any money doing these kinds of things. It is what I do, and I have always believed in the Golden Rule that our parents taught us and KARMA.
When the lawyer finally told me how much he left me, I almost fainted. The lawyer also warned me we don’t know what’s out there, family & friends contest these things all the time. I was not expecting anything anyway so I was just going to go with the flow and as Marilou always says “If God wants it to happen, it will happen.”
A month goes by and I get a court document from the lawyer saying the State of California is taking a big chunk out of the check for medical and other assorted bills they paid for him over the years.
A couple more months go by and they have a final court date set for June 10th, 2020. Sometime in April I get a call from a woman who says “Gary, you don’t know me but I was a very close friend of Johnnie Horton, I heard he passed away and I am in possession of a signed Will that he put together a few years ago.”
Here it goes, first it was the government and now somebody else is going to contest it, he might have pledged his $ to somebody else, so she sends me a copy of the Will. I was pleasantly surprised to find out he left 50% to me, 25% to Marilou & 25% to another friend of his. When I sent the copy to the lawyer, he said the latest one he signed superseded the previous one.
With the upcoming final court date on June 10th, I was getting a little excited, but of course on June 6th the Superior Court of Los Angeles SHUT DOWN due to the Covid-19 Virus. Again, Marilou said as she always does “If God wants it to happen, it will happen.”
The new date was set for September 10th and the lawyer said meet him at his office at 2:30 in Long Beach. At 2:30 we picked up a BIG FAT CHECK.*
In retrospect, if I had known that he had that kind of money I would have made sure the end of his life would have been a lot easier than it was. It was an unexpected Godsend for me, I am a working musician that’s been out of work now since April with no gig’s in sight and taking care of my girlfriend on her 5th bout of stage four cancer.
Whether it is KARMA or Divine Intervention, I don’t know. I was waiting to ask Marilou to marry me when I could afford it and finally I can.
*BIG FAT CHECK is a relative amount. To some people it is nothing, to others it is everything. RIP Johnnie Horton 7/7/35-10/10/19