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Johnny Preston

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Biography

Early rock & roll singer Johnny Preston, most remembered for his 1960 number one hit "Running Bear," was born John Preston Courville in Port Arthur, Texas on August 18, 1939, of Cajun and German descent. After graduating from high school, during which he sang in high-school choral contests throughout the state, he attended Lamar State College in Beaumont, Texas, where he formed his first band, the Shades, in 1957 and began playing local club dances. It was at one of these club dances in 1958 that he was spotted by J.P. Richardson, better known by his stage name the Big Bopper. Richardson had written a song called "Running Bear," a sort of goofy American Indian version of Romeo and Juliet, and he took Preston into Gold Star Studios in Houston to record it. Bill Hall was the producer on the session, with Link Davis sitting in on saxophone and Hall, Richardson, and a young George Jones handling the vocal background chants that gave the song its rhythmic structure. Richardson took the finished track to Shelby Singleton at Mercury Records. Richardson was already signed to Mercury, and had delivered, as the Big Bopper, a big hit with "Chantilly Lace" earlier in 1958, so a deal was soon in place and Preston became a Mercury artist. "Running Bear" was released as a single shortly after Richardson perished in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in October of 1959. By January of 1960, "Running Bear" was the number one single in the U.S., and by March it was topping the U.K. charts as well, going on to sell over a million copies worldwide. A follow-up single, "Cradle of Love," a sort of nursery rhyme novelty song, also went Top Ten in both the U.S. and U.K., while "I'm Starting to Go Steady" and its flip side, a revival of Shirley & Lee's "Feel So Fine," both went Top 20 later in 1960, but "Leave My Kitten Alone," a song later immortalized by John Lennon, only climbed as high as number 73 on the Billboard charts as 1960 drew to a close. Preston went on to record for other labels, including Imperial Records, TCF Hall, ABC Records, Kapp, and Hallway, but he never hit the charts again. Preston performed in nostalgia package tours, played the circuit, and ended up in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but his recording days were behind him. Plagued by heart problems, he died on March 4, 2011 in Beaumont, Texas. ~ Steve Leggett
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