Born John Preston Courville, 18 August 1939, Port Arthur, Texas
Johnny Preston's family background was a mixture of Cajun French, German and Anglo American. After finishing high school he went on to Lamar State College in Beaumont where he formed his first band The Shades, which became popular in southern Texas. "R&B was about all we played", Preston told Colin Escott. "No country and no teenybopper music at all. My vocal style in those days reflected a little bit of Jackie Wilson, Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton. I guess they were my favorites." J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and his manager, Bill Hall, heard the Shades in a nightclub and invited them to record. Richardson wrote a song called "Running Bear" especially for Johnny. Though it was a cute novelty, it was a far cry from the material Preston was singing with the Shades. Johnny agreed to record it though, because he thought he could book the band for more money if they had a record out. "Running Bear" was recorded in late 1958 at the Gold Star Studio in Houston. The backing was provided by the Gold Star house band (Link Davis on tenor sax, Hal Harris on guitar, Doc Lewis on piano, Buck Henson on bass and Bill Kimbrough on drums). The Big Bopper can be heard in the background with Bill Hall and George Jones, taking care of the accompanying Indian chants.
Release of the single had to be postponed after Richardson died in the plane crash of February 3, 1959, until his will was probated. "Running Bear" came out on Mercury 71474 in July 1959 and entered the Billboard charts on October 12. After five weeks in the lower regions it dropped off the charts, but it re-entered the Hot 100 on November 23, after which it amazingly went all the way to # 1, making it the first song to exit the charts, then re-enter and getting to number one. "Running Bear" remained in the Top 40 for 14 weeks and also hit the top spot in the UK. Preston split with the Shades and started working package tours as a solo act. All Johnny's post-Running Bear sessions for Mercury would be held in Nashville, using the city's top session men (Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Bob Moore, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Buddy Harman, occasionally others). The follow-up was a song written by Jack Fautheree and Wayne Gray called "Cradle Of Love", which also went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic (# 7 US, # 2 UK). With two big hits to his credit, Johnny made his first of many visits to England in April-May 1960 on a package show with Conway Twitty and Freddy Cannon.
Preston recorded extensively during 1960 and in the spring his first LP was rushed out ("Running Bear", Mercury MG 20592). It was a strange mixture, featuring some of the old Shades repertoire such as "Earth Angel", "What Am I Living For" and "Hearts Of Stone", as well as some standards like "Pretend", "You'll Never Walk Alone", "Danny Boy" and "Madre De Dios". Johnny had little or no say in the material that was recorded, which was chosen by his manager/producer Bill Hall and arranger Cliff Parman. For this third single, Preston went back to a number he had performed with the Shades, "Feel So Fine", which had originally been recorded by Shirley and Lee in 1956 as "Feel So Good". Peaking at # 14, it was his last big hit. His fourth single and one of his best, "Charming Billy", failed to register in the US, but was a minor hit in the UK and Holland. A cover of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" went to # 73 in 1961 and that same year, "Free Me" (# 97), was his last chart entry.
After his Mercury contract ran out, Preston went on to record for Imperial (1963), Hallway (1964-65), ABC (1968) and Kapp (1968, three tracks for a Bob Wills LP). He tried very hard to escape the tag of "novelty artist" (his two biggest hits have a fairly high novelty quotient), but in an attempt to broaden his appeal, he possibly tried to cover too many bases, making him hard to classify.
Johnny still lives in Texas and is still performing, both on the US nostalgia circuit and on regular European tours. Johnny Preston had a clear, distinctive voice that could adopt easily to a variety of styles. It may be true, as Kevin Coffey writes, that Bill Hall and Mercury were "pushing him to the middle of the road", but the A-sides of his Mercury singles contained for the most part enjoyable rock n roll, always with top-notch accompaniment from the Nashville A-team. My personal favourites are "Cradle Of Love", "Charming Billy", "Leave My Kitten Alone" and the LP track "The Angels Gave You To Me" (originally recorded by Gene and Eunice).
- More info: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/JohnnyPreston.html
- The first Bear Family CD overview (Running Bear, BCD 15473, from 1989) is back in print. "Charming Billy : The Stereo Recordings" (Bear Family BCD 16234) came out in 1998 and has 34 tracks, but not "Running Bear" and "Cradle Of Love". A complete overview of the Mercury recordings on Castle ("Johnny Preston : The Anthology", 2002) is no longer available.
- Session discography (by Frank Frantik) : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/search/label/Preston%20Johnny
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