The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Johnny Preston – “Running Bear”

HIT #1: January 18, 1960

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

Here’s the first thing you will notice about Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”: Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear” is racist as a motherfucker. Now: Johnny Preston probably didn’t think “Running Bear” was a racist song. It’s entirely possible that nobody in 1960 thought the song was racist. After all, “Running Bear” doesn’t treat its two Native American characters as subhuman stereotypes, exactly. Instead, it tells a story of doomed love, of two kids from warring tribes who die in their attempt to find each other. But rather than the sort of melodrama you usually hear in this era’s stories of doomed love, “Running Bear” tells their story with fake tribal war chants. So: racist.

The two people doing those fake tribal war chants in the background of “Running Bear” are country icon George Jones and Jiles Perry Richardson, the Big Bopper, the outsized rockabilly personality who died in the same 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Richardson wrote “Running Bear” and gave it to Johnny Preston, a 20-year-old Texan rockabilly singer who’d never scored a hit before.

As a rockabilly song, “Running Bear” checks all the marks. It’s got a big, honking beat and a squawking saxophone solo, and Preston casually drawls out his story of a “young Indian brave” with a certain suave Southern assurance. But in “Running Bear,” he’s selling a story that should be Shakespearean in its heartbreak. Instead, when Running Bear and Little White Dove drown together in a river, Preston sings that “they’ll always be together in that happy hunting ground” like it’s a cute ending. It’s pretty fucked up!

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Steve Martin dancing to “Running Bear” in the movie A Simple Twist Of Fate: