This number 1 is one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?
Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville on 18 August 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.
Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears.
The story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go.
You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.
Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.
The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. Preston was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure on 4 March, 2011, aged 71.
I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.
Written by: JP Richardson
Producer: Bill Hall
Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)
Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March
26 March: The Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner.
28 March: Tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.