J.P. Richardson composed "Running Bear," a story of star-crossed lovers that could easily be listed under several headings: historic fiction, western romance, an early entry in the implausibly popular procession of "teen tragedy" hits. It can be thought of as a novelty song of a serious nature, adapting William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to a Native American setting, a grim antithesis to the '...wiggle and a-walk and a giggle and-a talk' impertinence of "Chantilly Lace," Richardson's 1958 hit for Mercury Records using his stage name The Big Bopper. With the western frontier at its peak as the subject of movies, TV shows and musical offerings, he figured it couldn't miss, though this particular story seemed a bit too morose for the bombastic public image he'd created. So the search was on for a fresh new singer who would better match the subject matter. At first, Johnny Preston didn't see himself as that guy.
Preston was obsessed with rhythm and blues, opposing the more common rock and roll and country leanings of his Texas-born contemporaries. Raised in Port Arthur, he entered Lamar State College of Technology in nearby Beaumont after high school graduation in 1957, forming an R&B-based band, The Shades, that performed nights and weekends at local watering holes. Beaumont resident Richardson caught the act and offered them a chance to make a record; his melodic narrative of young brave Running Bear, whose feelings for Little White Dove amounted to '...a love big as the sky,' held little appeal for the 19-year-old Preston, but when opportunity knocks...well, you know the drill! He recorded the song at the Gold Star studio in Houston under producer Bill Hall in late '58. The record featured strong sax work from prolific Texas musician Link Davis and background Indian chanting supplied by Richardson, Hall and George Jones, who was signed to Mercury at the time.
Fate altered the course of many more than just three music careers on February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash after a show in Clear Lake, Iowa. Can't blame the Mercury brass for feeling a little skittish about promoting "Running Bear" with its heartbreaking ending ('As their hands touched and their lips met, the raging river pulled them down...now they'll always be together, in their happy hunting ground') and the single was put on the shelf. Preston and the Shades resumed playing out-of-the-way Lone Star clubs. The recording was finally released late in the summer of '59; getting off to a slow start, it hit the national charts in October, faltered for several weeks, fell off, then reappeared and really started rolling. The record company sent Johnny on the road in Native American buckskin attire and competitions were held for the best-dressed female Little White Dove, a promotional ploy that had the singer reeling. But it all worked! In January 1960, "Running Bear" hit number one, bookended by chart-toppers "El Paso" (the hero dies at the end) by Marty Robbins and "Teen Angel" (fatal car crash) by Mark Dinning. Such a morbid way to start a new decade!
Henceforth bllled as a solo act, Preston toured with a new band (though a couple of Shades remained) and immediately scored another hit. "Cradle of Love," a Wayne Gray-Jack Fautheree concoction with nursery-rhymish lyrics ('Well rock-a-bye baby in the tree top...'), offered a rocking take on the evidence surrounding Jack Be Nimble, the cat and the fiddle, the cow that jumped over the moon and Jack and Jill, and hit the top ten in May '60. Starting with this single, most of Johnny's output was recorded at Owen Bradley's Nashville studio (Bradley's Barn), which was well known for achieving superior sonic results. With two hits under his belt, Preston began picking material that was closer to his interests; "Feel So Good," the 1955 Shirley and Lee jam, was altered slightly to "Feel So Fine" with Johnny shifting into "Shirley" mode and singing a high falsetto midway. It became his third top seller that summer, a Billboard top 20 hit and Cash Box top ten.
Other singles took a variety of approaches but were less successful; "Charming Billy" updated the traditional 1820s folk song "Billy Boy" and "New Baby for Christmas" (penned by George Jones and Lester Blackwell) possessed the sap quotient usually adequate to sell a lot more records than this one managed. Johnny kept doing R&B tunes whenever possible; he remade Little Willie John's two-year-old "Leave My Kitten Alone" in early 1961, finding himself in a chart battle with the original, which had been rereleased by King Records. Another Little Willie song, "Let Them Talk," had less luck despite a lack of competition from the original. Autry Inman's fast-paced "Kissin' Tree" was flipped and "Free Me," a love-and-misery song written by Jimmy Breedlove and his wife Lynn, made the charts briefly in December.
After his Mercury contract was up, Johnny recorded one single for Imperial ("This Little Bitty Tear (It's Gonna Dry)"), an early '63 release. For the next few years he appeared excusively on Bill Hall's labels, Hall-Way, Hall and TCF Hall, with songs like "All Around the World" (another Willie John remake) and "You Can Make it if You Try" (Gene Allison's hit from '58), often sounding eerily similar to the original singers. Then there was that unfortunate, desperate cry for approval: "Running Bear '65." "I'm Only Human" was a one-off 45 for ABC in 1968; the same year, he joined the great Bob Wills for a country album on Kapp, Time Changes Everything, which featured another version of "Running Bear" with Johnny's lead vocal.
All in all, the chart-topping, million-selling "Running Bear" has perhaps left a larger footprint than Johnny Preston the artist. From 1967 to 1971, Sonny James put together an unprecedented string of 16 consecutive number one country hits, many of them remakes of "oldies" classics by The Chordettes, Roy Orbison, Ivory Joe Hunter, Brook Benton, Jimmy Reed and others. "Running Bear" was one of those, hitting its chart-cresting peak in June 1969. And it didn't stop there; jokester Jim Nesbitt reconfigured J.P. Richardson's song as "Runnin' Bare," a top 20 country hit in the spring of 1970, replacing the mind's-eye image of ill-fated lovers on opposite river banks with that of some scrawny guy stumbling down the sidewalk in his birthday suit!