March 4, 2011 – Johnny Preston was born John Preston Courville in Port Arthur Texas on August 18th 1939. He sang in high school choral contests throughout the state of Texas and formed a rock and roll band called ‘The Shades’, who were seen performing at a local club by J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Big Bopper offered him the chance to record a teenage tragedy song he had written, “Running Bear”, which they did in Houston, Texas in 1958. It became his first and only international No.1 hit in January 1960, titled “Running Bear”.
The “Indian” sounds on the record were performed by Richardson and George Jones. The record was released after Big Bopper’s death in Buddy Holly-Ritchie Valens plane crash entering the U.S. Hot 100 in October 1959, reaching No.1 in January 1960 and remaining there for three weeks. It was a transatlantic chart-topper, reaching No.1 in the UK in March 1960.
The sales of the record exceeded one million copies, earning Johnny his first gold disc. This was followed up with “Cradle of Love”, “Feel So Fine”, and others.
On the strength of Running Bear and Cradle of Love, Preston toured Britain in 1960, heading an all-star rock and roll bill with Conway Twitty, Wee Willie Harris and Freddie Cannon. But his hit-making recording career was short-lived. A third single, Feel So Fine, made the Top 20 but his strongest follow-up, a revival of Little Willie John’s Leave My Kitten Alone, failed to make the charts.
“I slowly slipped by the wayside,” Preston reflected, adding that he had bought a ranch with the proceeds of Running Bear alone. In later life he appeared on golden oldie tours, and in 1997 sang the Indian chant for a version of Running Bear recorded by The Big Bopper Jr.
His pioneering contribution to the genre was recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He also performed at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theatre in Branson, Missouri.
In 2009, Johnny performed at the Lamar State College, in his hometown. Johnny had coronary artery bypass surgery in 2010, but died of heart failure on March 4, 2011 after years of heart related illnesses. He was 71.