by Brad Dison
In the early morning hours of Saturday, November 5, 1960, 19-year-old Texas A&M student James E. Davis was driving his pickup truck on Hwy 79 near Milano, Texas. The student had spent most of that Friday night drinking, which carried over into the wee hours of Saturday morning. Davis drove his truck at a high rate of speed. The alcohol had dulled his senses. His vision was blurred. His reaction time had slowed. He was too drunk to drive.
Three friends, Tillman Franks, Gerald “Tommy” Tomlinson, and John LaGale were driving from Austin, Texas, to Shreveport, Louisiana, on Highway 79 in a Cadillac sedan. The trip should have taken about six hours to complete. LaGale was driving and conversing with front seat passenger Tillman Franks. Gerald Tomlinson, was lying down in the back seat, attempting to sleep.
Between 1:35 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., sources vary on the exact time, James Davis drove his pickup truck at high rate of speed as he approached the railroad overpass in Milano. The trio in the Cadillac sedan approached the railroad overpass from the opposite direction.
As the trio in the Cadillac reached the overpass, Davis, his vision blurred from the effects of alcohol, slammed the passenger side of the truck into the bridgehead at approximately 90 miles per hour. In a split second, the truck ricocheted off of the bridgehead and back onto Hwy 79.
LaGale had no time to react. The truck and Cadillac met in a head-on collision with enormous force. Tomlinson flew from the back seat of the Cadillac into the back of the front seat. Franks crashed into the Cadillac’s metal dash. LaGale struck the steering wheel and dash. Davis hit the steering wheel of his pickup truck.
The force of the head-on collision crumpled the driver’s sides of the Cadillac and pickup truck. Both drivers were pinned in their vehicles.
After freeing the drivers from the vehicles, paramedics transported the four men to a hospital in Cameron, Texas. LaGale received numerous injuries and died in the ambulance as it sped to the hospital. The drunk driver received multiple abrasions and a fractured ankle. Franks had multiple abrasions and bruised ribs. Tomlinson received multiple abrasions, along with multiple fractures and blood vessel damage to his left leg. Over a period of eighteen months, Tomlinson had numerous operations, but doctors were forced to amputate his left leg.
Two days after the crash, family and friends gathered at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Haughton to pay their last respects to LaGale. Despite his injuries and against the advice of his doctors, Franks was determined to attend LaGale’s funeral. Finally, the doctors relented and transported Franks to LaGale’s funeral on a hospital stretcher.
James E. Davis, the driver of the pickup truck, received a suspended sentence for drunk driving. Two years later, he was killed in another drunk driving accident.
The three friends in the Cadillac were more than buddies, they were a rockabilly band. Gerald “Tommy” Tomlinson was a guitar picker who worked with artists such as Jim Reeves, Claude King, Marty Robbins, David Houston, and many more.
Tillman Franks had multiple roles in the band. He played the upright bass, wrote or cowrote several hit songs, and was also the manager for the band. In a career which spanned more than three decades, Franks managed and aided in the careers of such acts as Hank Williams Sr., Faron Young, Elvis Presley, and several others.
John LaGale was the star singer of the band. He recorded several hit songs including “Sink the Bismarck,” “North to Alaska,” “Springtime in Alaska,” and “Honky Tonk Man.” His best-known song was the 1959 single “The Battle of New Orleans.” His full name was John LaGale Horton…Johnny Horton.
1. The Courier-Gazette (McKinney, Texas), November 5, 1960, p.1.
2. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), November 6, 1960, p.1.
3. The Shreveport Journal, July 12, 1976, p.25.
4. Rockabilly Hall of Fame. “Tommy Tomlinson.” Accessed July 6, 2021. rockabillyhall.com/tommytomlinson.html.
5. Hillbilly-Music Dawt Com. “Tommy Tomlinson.” Accessed July 6, 2021. http://www.hillbilly-music.com/artists/story/index.php?id=11263.
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