I hope you remember J. P. Richardson. You may remember him as The Big Bopper and if you don’t recall that name, then hopefully you remember the song “Chantilly Lace.” Richardson would probably not be remembered today except for the fact that he was one of the three big name (then) stars who died in the terrible plane crash of 1959. It was called “The Night the Music Died” (immortalized in the song “American Pie) and besides The Big Bopper, Richie Valens and the great Buddy Holly were killed that night.
J.P. Richardson worked at radio station KTRM in Beaumont, Texas and recorded songs on the side. One of the lads who worked with him was Johnny Preston. Richardson wrote the song “Running Bear” and since it really wasn’t the style that he liked to sing, he offered it to Johnny. Soon after that a representative from Mercury Records came through town and listened to both of them audition and eventually signed both Richardson and Johnny Preston to a recording contract.
Johnny Preston was born Johnny Preston Courville in Port Arthur, Texas in 1939. He was of Cajun descent. He sang in high school and even formed a band he called The Shades. They were moderately successful in southern Texas in the late Fifties. Then he met Richardson and got the song which would kick off his career. “Running Bear” was not actually released until after the death of Richardson, so he was not there to see Johnny’s success.
“Running Bear” was the second of three consecutive number one songs in which the main character in the song dies. The cowboy died in “El Paso” which we talked about in the last article and coming next is “Teen Angel” in which the girlfriend of the singer is dead. There were several other “death” songs in the early Sixties. Remember “Leader of the Pack?”
Johnny Preston only had two more hits, “Cradle of Love” and “Feel So Fine” (A retitling of the Shirley and Lee song “Feels so Good.”) in 1960. He never hit the Top 40 again. In 2010, he had heart bypass surgery and died of heart failure on March 4, 2011. He was 71 years old.
“Running Bear” debuted on the pop chart on Oct 22, 1959 and then fell off the chart completely. It resurfaced on November 23rd and went from there all the way to number one on January 13, 1960 where it stayed for three weeks. It was the first song in chart history to do that, debut, fall off and the recover to hit number one.