A number of popular performers have come from the Port Neches and Port Arthur area. Singer Johnny Preston was born John Preston Courville, Jr. in Port Arthur, Texas on August 18, 1939 to John Preston Courville, Sr. and Margaret Schexnayder Courville. As a youth, he sang in high school choirs and around the state. Johnny attended Port Arthur College as he began his singing career. Using the stage name Johnny Preston, he formed a vocal group called The Shades and was appearing in a local club in Port Neches at the time he was noticed by club owner J. P. Richardson, who recorded under the name “The Big Bopper.” Richardson was a singer/songwriter and had written a teenage tragedy song (a somewhat popular genre at the time) called “Running Bear” that that tells the story of two Native American youths who drown in a swollen river as they attempted to get together. The tune was recorded in a Houston studio and became a hit record for the nineteen year old Preston in 1958. By the time of its release, Richardson had been tragically killed in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa in 1959 along with the aircraft’s pilot, singer Richie Valens and fellow Texan and singer Buddy Holly.
The song “Running Bear” had been recorded in Houston at Gold Star Records, which had begun as a recording studio for radio commercials and other recording projects. In addition to recording early rock and roll artists such as Richardson, it was also where pioneer country singer George Jones made some of his early recordings, along with singers Willie Nelson, Ray Price and others.
Preston’s recording became a number one hit on Mercury Records in the United States, kicking off his recording and performing career. He appeared on “American Bandstand” and other television shows. He had several other charted hits, and though he continued to record, his popularity eventually waned, as did that of many other artists of the era. He continued to perform in rock and roll and rockabilly venues and tours throughout the years.
He remained a resident of southeast Texas practically his whole life. In his later years, he is believed to have suffered from heart ailments and died on March 4, 2011 at the age of 71, survived by his wife and family. He was a member of Park Central Church of Christ where his services were held. Following his memorial service, he was interred in Oak Bluff Memorial Park in Port Neches, Jefferson County, Texas.
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