Singer had a No 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic with 'Running Bear' in 1960, recalls Spencer Leigh
THE popularity of TV Westerns in the Fifties 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 Britain and the US.
John Preston Courville, who died on March 4, 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 said during a UK tour 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 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 three million copies. Preston followed 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.
Cradle of Love, a Top 10 record in Britain and the US, was followed by a humourous take on Shirley and Lee's Feel So Good, now called Feel So Fine and incorporating impersonations of the Bopper and Shirley. He also 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 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 on the radio if you weren't English."
Even so, Preston bought a ranch with the proceeds from Running Bear. He stopped performing for some years but the song 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 married and had two sons and two daughters.