Johnny Preston: Singer who had a No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic with the 1960 'death disc' 'Running Bear'

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The Independent Online

The popularity of TV westerns in the 1950s led to several related records such as the Coasters' "Along Came Jones" and the Olympics' "Western Movies". In addition, there was a vogue for death discs such as Marty Wilde's "Endless Sleep", Ricky Valance's "Tell Laura I Love Her" and the Everly Brothers' "Ebony Eyes". Early in 1960, the two genres combined for Johnny Preston's "Running Bear", the story of the doomed romance of two Red Indians (as they were then known) from rival tribes. The story of Running Bear and Little White Dove, complete with war whoops, was a No 1 record in both Britain and America.

John Preston Courville was born into a Cajun French and German family in Port Arthur, Texas in 1939. He sang in church choirs, and while at the Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont he formed a rhythm and blues band, the Shades. They worked most nights and a local radio disc jockey, JP Richardson, known as the Big Bopper was taken with Preston's voice.

The Big Bopper had a hit with "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, and although he had written "Running Bear", its outcome was too sombre for his persona. He asked Preston to sing it. Preston told me during a UK tour with Jack Scott and Charlie Gracie in 1989, "I told him that I didn't do music like this at all and he said, 'The song is commercial, I know you'll have a hit record', and so I reluctantly recorded it."

"Running Bear" was produced at the Gold Star Studio in Houston by Bill Hall, who was also managing the Bopper and the country singer, George Jones. All of three of them chanted "ooka-chunka" throughout the atmospheric recording, which was helped by Link Davis on saxophone. The B-side of the single, recorded on the same day, was a plaintive ballad, "My Heart Knows", written by Preston and Richardson.

The Big Bopper was killed along with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash in February 1959, and because of issues relating to his estate the release of "Running Bear" was held back. When it was released, Preston appeared in Indian costume; there were contests for Little White Doves in various cities and the lucky winners would have their picture taken with him. Judging by those photographs, Preston was decidedly uncomfortable with the task.

Released on Mercury Records (the same label as the Big Bopper), "Running Bear" sold 3m copies. Prestonfollowed it with a nursery rhyme song with a rock'n'roll beat, "Cradle Of Love", written by two of Tex Ritter's musicians, Wayne Gray and Jack Fautheree. At the same session in Nashville,he recorded another Richardson composition about American Indians, "Chief Heartbreak". A few months later, he recorded Richardson's Christmas composition, "I Want A Rock And Roll Guitar".

"Cradle Of Love", a Top 10 record in Britain and America, was followed by a humorous take on Shirley and Lee's "Feel So Good", now called "Feel So Fine" and incorporating impersonations of the Bopper and Shirley. This was more typical of Preston's work with the Shades and he revived Little Willie John's aggressive rhythm and blues hit, "Leave My Kitten Alone". Paul McCartney has acknowledged that the Beatles started performing "Leave My Kitten Alone" after hearing Preston's version.

Preston toured the UK in 1960 on a rock'n'roll package show with Freddy Cannon, Conway Twitty and Wee Willie Harris, but then after a succession of poor selling records, he said, "I slowly slipped by the wayside". Part of the problem was the British invasion: "They wouldn't put you in the radio if you weren't English." The Liverpool group the Fourmost included "Running Bear" in their stage act but did not record it at the time.

Not to worry: Preston bought a ranch with the proceeds from "Running Bear". He stopped performing for some years but "Running Bear" became a US country hit for Sonny James in 1969. Preston has revived "Running Bear" from time to time, recording a western swing version with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and supplying the war whoops when Richardson's son, the Big Bopper Jr, recorded the song in 1997.

John Preston Courville (Johnny Preston), singer: born Port Arthur, Texas 18 August 1939; married (two sons, two daughters); died 4 March 2011.