Thursday, January 10, 2013

Galaxies, Bowling and Swamp Pop: Johnny Preston and The Cajuns in Escondido


This is so trivial a matter I'm unsure why I wrote it up . . . but I did.  And so here you have it:

A friend of mine sent me a link to one of those "remember-the-days?" websites that feature images of a younger America. This particular collection of photographs focused on gas stations across the country from the 1920s through the 1960s. You can see the site for yourself here.

One of the images captured a California gas station and what I believe to be a 1962 Ford Galaxie at the pump. (Correct me if I'm wrong about the make or model — I originally thought it was a 1960 Chevy Impala.)


Filling up next to the Escondido Bowl.

Behind the car stands a sign for a bowling alley, restaurant, and coffee shop called the Escondido Bowl. Thus, judging from this sign and the Galaxie — as well as from the other cars in the image — the photograph was taken in Escondido, California (located below Los Angeles near San Diego), in or shortly after 1962.

What really caught my eye, however, was the marquee below the Escondido Bowl signage. It read:

Johnny Preston
The Cajuns


See? "Johnny Preston" and "The Cajuns."

For those who don't know, Johnny Preston had an international number one hit single in 1959 with the song, "Running Bear," written by J. P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper, who died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly).

Johnnie Preston singing "Running Bear."
(Source: NRRArchives on YouTube.com)

In 1996 I published my first book, Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues, about the swamp pop musical genre of south Louisiana and east Texas. Swamp pop is a combination of New Orleans-style rhythm-and-blues, country-and-western, and Cajun and black Creole music. It was invented by Cajun and black Creole teenagers in the mid- to late 1950s, and its heyday stretched from 1958 to 1964, ending with the advent of the British Invasion.

Cover of my book Swamp Pop.

Among the pioneer swamp pop musicians I interviewed for the book was Johnny Preston — real name Johnny Preston Courville. As his tell-tale ethnic surname suggests, he was a Cajun, hailing from the Beaumont-Port Arthur area of east Texas (to which many south Louisiana Cajuns migrated during the early to mid-twentieth century). I assumed "The Cajuns" was the name of Johnny's band — though I'd never heard of him fronting a band by this name. 

I told my father, swamp pop musician Rod Bernard, about Johnny’s name appearing on the marquee. He replied, "Well, I toured with Johnny on the West Coast around that time. A bunch of us from around here toured with him out west."

Newspaper ad for a 1960 tour out west featuring Dad,
Johnny Preston, Jivin' Gene, Benny Barnes, and Skip Stewart.
(Source: Tucson Daily Citizen, 30 January 1960)

Dad and I suddenly had the same thought: What if he had been there, with Johnny, at the Escondido Bowl when the photograph in question had been taken? Perhaps "The Cajuns" referred to the other singers in the tour group, all but one of whom, Benny Barnes, were indeed Cajuns? The other singers were Dad, Jivin’ Gene (real name Gene Bourgeois) and Skip Stewart (Maurice Guillory); Dad’s band, The Twisters — some of whose members were Cajuns — served as the backing band for the tour group.

Left to right, Benny Barnes, Jivin' Gene,
Dad, and Johnny Preston, ca. 1960.
(Source: Author's Collection)

I checked a few online newspaper archives and found that Johnny Preston toured the West Coast, including the Escondido area, with a band called "The Cajuns" in 1964 and 1965 — a few years after he toured the West Coast with Dad and the other swamp pop artists. In other words, Dad was not with Johnny when the gas station photograph was taken.  Not that it matters. Still, it would have been a neat coincidence. In any event, the gas station photograph captures a moment in time when swamp pop music was young and often performed by its pioneers far beyond its homeland. Swamp pop still exists today, but its pioneers are slowly passing away (Johnny himself died in 2011), and the genre is largely confined to the dance halls and honky tonks of south Louisiana and East Texas.

Addendum:  In retrospect I think I wrote this as nothing more than an exercise in historical detection (which I enjoy).

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for the history! I actually stumbled upon your blog for the same reason you posted. My dad sent me the link to the photos and that same marquee caught my eye. I thought I was the only person that looked at weird stuff like that!

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  2. Wow, thanks for your note: I just uploaded the article about 45 minutes ago!

    Shane

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  3. My dad emailed me the website with these photos and I noticed the marquee too! I wanted to know who Johnny Preston and the Cajuns were, so I Googled it and came across your blog. Thanks so much for posting this! I love learning little known bits and pieces of history.

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  4. I too saw the gas station blip and saw the Escondido Marqee. I too googled and foung your story! I too remember the songs of Johnny Preston, but didnt know who he was. Like me, from TExas, interesting history! Thanks, your article was a hit.

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  5. I saw the marquee too Shane and looked it up. I'm always doing things like that too. Thanks for the blog. Very interesting information.

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  6. When I was in high school in South Bend, Indiana, I went out with a young man who told me he played the drums on White Dove. Could this be true? I am 70 years old, and always wondered if this was a tall tale!

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    1. Dear Anonymous: I interviewed Johnny Preston but never asked him who played what instrument on "Running Bear." The Dutch website BlackCat Rockabilly Europe, however, states that "'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)." (See http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/johnny_preston.htm ) I don't know if this is accurate information or not, but European rock 'n' roll music enthusiasts tent to be fanatical about details. Sincerely, Shane

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  7. Hi Shane,

    While I am not certain, I believe the photo was taken from the South-West corner at the intersection of Center City Parkway and Washington Ave. in Escondido, CA. The photo is looking North-East.

    If you look on the right side of the photo behind the teal-colored truck, you see a tall thin sign reaching above the hills. This sign says "Liquor" and is still standing today at the intersection of Escondido Ave. and Mission Ave.

    I believe the square gray building below it is the recently (as of mid-2013) vacated home of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Current aerial photos from Google/Bing maps show that DMV building with what appears to be a newer extension behind it, but I think it is the same building.

    Thanks for your interesting story above!

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    1. Thanks, EscoLocal -- your info is much appreciated, as I am very interested in how places change over time. In fact, I have some "then and now" photos of landmarks in my own town elsewhere on this site. If you have a photo of the site as it looks today, I'd be eager to post it here.

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    2. I also thought I was the only one that Googled such info. Found your post and really enjoyed historical information. I remember the music.

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  8. I'm a little late to this post but I'm going to comment anyway. By the way great blog I don't know how I missed it. Showed up while doing some research on my Acadian ancestors. See my comment on the La Pointe de Repos settlement. Looking forward to reading your books. Here's my comment on the photo.

    Great picture, any idea where it came from and when was it taken? I live in San Diego North County about 10 miles south of Escondido. There is a store (Major Market) I visit there on occasion to pick up delicious burgundy pepper Tri-tip for grilling. When I saw the photo I said that road really looks familiar. And as EscoLocal hypothesized, the photo was taken from the corner of Center City Parkway and Washington Ave looking N-NE. See map link below, set the angle to 45. The liquor sign you see in the background behind the big white building is still there on the corner of Escondido Blvd and Mission Ave. I tracked it down out of curiosity ending up at Holiday Wine Cellar and guess what, they had a sign on their window "Cheers To almost 50 Years". So they were there in business when the Ford Galaxie rinsed off some desert dust and Billy Preston played at the Escondido Bowl. If anyone knows anything about the Escondido Bowl I would be interested to hear. I have an updated photo of the intersection and the liquor sign if anyone is interested. The gas stations are long gone and so are the prices. Wish I had the Ford Galaxie though. Thanks for posting, great photo.

    https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=33.127122,-117.089168&spn=0.005216,0.006094&t=h&z=18

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