Johnny Preston, successful pop singer of the early 1960s, was born John Preston Courville on August 18, 1939, in Port Arthur, Texas. His family was of Cajun and German descent. He sang in his high school choir and after graduation attended Port Arthur College. During this time, Preston established a band called the Shades, and they played at clubs and dances in the Beaumont area. Local disc jockey and recording artist J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson saw Preston and his group playing at the Twilight Club in Port Neches, Texas. Impressed by Preston’s performance, Richardson (whose hit “Chantilly Lace” was soon to break wide open) offered the nineteen-year-old singer a song that he had written called “Running Bear.”
In mid-1958 Richardson and his manager Bill Hall brought Preston (without his band) to Gold Star Studios in Houston. Engineered by Bill Quinn, the session featured Hal Harris on guitar and Link Davis on saxophone behind Preston’s vocals. The song “Running Bear,” a twist on the teenage tragedy subgenre of pop, described the doomed love of Running Bear, a Native American brave, and his love named Little White Dove. The tune contained “Indian chanting” in the background; the backing vocals were supplied by the Big Bopper, manager Bill Hall, George Jones, and Sleepy LaBeef.
Through Richardson’s association with record producer Pappy Daily, Daily arranged to have “Running Bear” released on Mercury Records. The release was delayed for several months in 1959 because of the plane crash that took Richardson’s life along with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
Released in the latter half of 1959, “Running Bear” shot to Number 1 in late December 1959 and later reached the top of the charts in the United Kingdom. Sales eventually topped one million copies and secured for Preston a gold record. His follow-up “Cradle of Love” hit Number 7 in the United States and Number 2 in the U.K.
Preston’s newfound fame earned him appearances on American Bandstand, The Buddy Deane Show, and The Milt Grant Show. He also participated in package tours in England; in 1960, with Freddy Cannon and Conway Twitty, he embarked on his first concert tour in England. Preston released other recordings to more modest success during the early 1960s, including “Feel So Fine,” “I’m Starting to Go Steady,” and “Leave My Kitten Alone.” He parted ways with Mercury by 1962 but subsequently released songs on Imperial, ABC, and TCF Hall.
By the late 1960s Preston’s days in music were over. He stayed in the Port Arthur area throughout most of his life. His music career was revived to some extent with rock-and-roll nostalgia tours in the United States and England throughout the 1990s. He also performed with the Lamar State College–Port Arthur Touring Band in 2009 and 2010. The singer suffered heart troubles late in life and died on March 4, 2011. He was survived by his wife Sharon, two sons, and two daughters. Preston is honored in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and in the Museum of the Gulf Coast’s Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur.