The opening handful of sixties #1s have been pretty new to me, in contrast to the Cliffs, Buddies and Bobbies that closed out the fifties. But this latest record is a new level of new: a completely unknown entity. ‘Running Bear’? Nope. By Johnny Preston? Nope…
Running Bear, by Johnny Preston (his 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 17th – 31st March 1960
It is, though, a record that catches you from the get-go – perhaps desperate to ensure that, while you may not have heard it before, you won’t go forgetting it in a hurry. It opens with a drumbeat, a deep-voiced oom-ba-doom-ba, some grunts, a whoop and a holler and a, wait… a Native American war-cry?
Oh dear… Is this going to be one of those records best described as being ‘of their time’? A record to make your grandad chuckle ruefully and mutter something about ‘not being able to get away with it nowadays.’ Remember Guy Mitchell’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers’? The story of the love between an Englishman and an oriental beauty (in a fetching huly-huly skirt)? Well, this is the same kinda deal. But with Red Injuns!
On the banks, Of the river, Stood Runnin’ Bear, Young Indian brave, On the other, Side of the river, Stood his lovely, Indian maid… Runnin’ Bear pines for lil’ White Dove, who waits oh-so patiently for him across the water. But their tribes are at war, and so their love cannot be…
It’s a romance in three verses. The first sets the scene (above), the second puts Running Bear’s tortured position into clear focus. They can’t cross the raging river, and so: In the moonlight, He could see her, Throwing kisses, Cross the waves, Her little heart, Was beating faster, Waiting there, For her brave…
The third and final verse brings resolution. Bear throws caution to the wind, dives in the river and White Dove follows suit. And they swam, Out to each other, Through the swirling, Stream they came… Their hands touch, their lips meet… they’re both pulled to the bottom and drown. Yup. Didn’t say it was a happy resolution, did I?
That’s by far the best bit of the song – the brutal killing off of the main characters in a way that would shock even George R.R. Martin. I mean, if they’d made it to the other side and lived happily ever after then so what? Who’d care? This is more memorable. It’s a novelty record, for sure, but with an ending that suggests an irreverence, a knowing wink, that I don’t think we were getting a few years ago in, say, ‘How Much is That Doggie (In the Window)?’
Musically this song is pretty interesting too. It alternates between the tribal rhythms – the pow-wow-by-the-wigwam vibe – of the verses and the raucous sax-led choruses. It’s silly; it’s fun. And, to be fair, while the lyrics may sound a little dubious to modern ears (hey, at least Preston doesn’t put on any ‘me very wise man’ voices) there’s nothing explicitly racist here. It’s a simple little love song, with a darkly comic twist at the end.
Why it caught the British public’s imagination in the spring of 1960 isn’t so clear, however. It drags us completely away from the run of jingly-jangly, winsomely innocent chart toppers we’ve been having and back a good few years (it was written and recorded in 1958). Johnny Preston seems to have been a fairly run-of-the-mill American rock ‘n’ roller who scored a few hits in the late fifties / early sixties; and who became known as Johnny ‘Running Bear’ Preston for the releases that followed his biggest hit. But it makes complete sense to discover that ‘Running Bear’ was originally written and recorded by The Big Bopper – last seen dying in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly. He even contributed the oomba-doombas and the war cries to this version, meaning that this giant (and I mean that fairly literally) of rock ‘n’ roll can claim part-ownership of a UK #1 single.
A pleasant enough diversion, then, with an ending that I’ll remember – and will possibly be emotionally scarred by – for some time. And for a song that I had had no experience of whatsoever until coming to write this post, I’d say that’s a job well done!