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August 16

Tragic Tale of Two Lovers in “Running Bear” Became Sonny James’ Country Hit

Running Bear was a Country hit for Sonny James.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, James enjoyed an unprecedented streak of success with his commercially released singles – most of them were covers of previous pop hits. One of his sixteen consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart was his cover version of “Running Bear.” 

The song was released in 1969 and topped the Hot Country Singles chart and spent three weeks at No. 1, making it one of James’ most popular recordings of his career.

A Tragic Tale of Two Lovers

Written by Jiles Perry Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper), “Running Bear” tells the story of two lovers: Running Bear, a “young Indian brave” and an “Indian maid” named Little White Dove. The two are much in love, but they are separated by their respective tribes who “fought with each other” and a raging river that was too wide for Running Bear to swim.

“He couldn’t reach little white dove, waiting on the other side. In the moonlight, he could see her blowing kisses’ cross the waves. Her little heart was beating faster, waiting there for her brave. Runnin’ bear loved little white dove with a love big as the sky. Runnin’ bear loved little white dove with a love that couldn’t die,” the song goes.

The two, who were longing to be together, dive into the raging river to be united amidst the obstacles and the risks. After sharing a passionate kiss, the couple in love were pulled down by the swift current and tragically drowned.

Richardson thought the song’s Romeo and Juliet theme was too serious for him to record, so he passed it on to his friend, Johnny Preston, after hearing him perform in a club. Preston recorded the song in 1958, featuring background vocals by Richardson, George Jones, and the session’s producer Bill Hall. The song went No. 1 for three weeks in 1960 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. It also reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart.

A country resurrection was made possible by Sonny James nine years later and sent the title to the summit once again. James’James’s twice-a-year appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” were also a major plus in the marketing of Sonny’s version of “Running Bear.”

When James performed “Running Bear” on Sullivan’s show in May of 1969, just about a month before the record topped out at No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart, Sullivan had his choreographer Peter Gennaro work up a routine to use in the background while James sang the song. 

The dancers wearing full Indian garb added the extra visual touches during the performance, and James thought they did a good job. He credited his exposure of “Running Bear” on that program and a couple of other network TV shows he sang the tune on, with the record’s success. “Running Bear” became one of James’ trademark hits and soon emerged as the traditional closing number in his live shows.

Enjoy Sonny James’ performance of “Running Bear” in the video below.


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