The Revenge of Chief Bloody Bear Tooth

(Pictured: the Raiders, whose 1971 hit “Indian Reservation” has an interesting backstory.)

In this cursed year of 2016, which has cost us so many people we love and led to so much misery besides, you may have failed to notice the death of singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk in September. He was 82, and he died having written or co-written a number of songs in the late 50s and early 60s that were once quite familiar, and may still be familiar to the sort of geek who hangs out in these parts: the garage-rocker “Tobacco Road,” first recorded by the Nashville Teens; “Waterloo,” a big country hit for Stonewall Jackson; “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” recorded by the Casinos and later by Eddy Arnold; “Abilene” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” both hits for country-pop singer George Hamilton IV; the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes”; “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” made famous by Eddie Cochran; “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” recorded by Sue Thompson; and the country smash “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” a #1 country hit for Ernest Ashworth, with pop covers by Johnny Tillotson and others.

(Digression: listening to some of these songs while writing this post, I found it remarkable how many of them I remember hearing on Mother and Dad’s radio before I had one of my own. You couldn’t turn on country radio in the late 60s without hearing something by John D. Loudermilk, apparently.)

Loudermilk hit the Hot 100 four times himself: his version of “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” released under the name Johnny Dee, hit #38 in 1957, and “Language of Love” reached #32 in 1961. He also hit the country chart twice between 1963 and 1965. Loudermilk’s most famous song, however, is “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).” He recorded it himself in 1960, and Englishman Don Fardon hit #20 on the Hot 100 with his version in 1968. In the summer of 1971, “Indian Reservation” became a #1 hit for the Raiders in a version that sounds a lot like Fardon’s.

“Indian Reservation” plays a part in one of the most infamous moments in the history of American Top 40. Casey Kasem considered Loudermilk’s story of how the song was written to be the most incredible tale he ever presented. Loudermilk told AT40 that after his car got stuck in a mountain snowdrift during a blizzard, he was kidnapped by a group of Cherokee Indians, including one who called himself Chief Bloody Bear Tooth. They held him hostage, performing Indian rituals and torturing him. When they found out he was a songwriter, they asked him to write a song about the struggles faced by American Indians. He refused, and the torture got worse. Finally, figuring it was his only chance at survival, Loudermilk consented to write the song, and his captors let him go after four days. After a few years, when the song became a big hit, the Cherokees’ message finally got out.

Casey told the story on a 1971 edition of the program and repeated it in November 1975 (on an edition of AT40 recently rebroadcast around the country), emphasizing again how it was the most unbelievable tale AT40 had ever told.

Unbelievable is right. The story was a complete fabrication, a trick played by Loudermilk on his AT40 interviewer. This much is true: he was asked by a Cherokee tribal leader to write a song about the Indians’ plight, but it didn’t require any torture to get him to consent. Years later, Loudermilk learned that his great-great grandparents were Cherokee, and that they had been marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears.

John D. Loudermilk didn’t really try to hide the fact that he made the whole thing up. According to his New York Times obituary, the liner notes of his 1971 album Volume 1: Elloree include the words, “P.S. My regards to Bloody Bear Tooth.”

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4 responses

  1. The first version was called “Pale-Faced Indian” and was cut in 1959 by Marvin Rainwater. The story behind the Raiders version is almost as interesting. They were basically just Mark Lindsay and Terry Melcher at that time, playing around in the studio. Paul could smell a hit and took to the road on his motorcycle “selling” the record in person, dropping by radio stations wherever he could see their tower ala Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Of course that story could also not be true.

  2. One of the prizes my siblings and I won at a carnival at our grade school in early 1960 was a promo 45 of the Marvin Rainwater original Porky cited above. There were several other promos in the batch we’d won, but “The Pale Faced Indian” fascinated me to no end, partly because the yellow label pictured a cartoon Leo the Lion plugging another MGM promo 45 that similarly showed Leo plugging another… ad infinitum. Cool!

    The bigger story was in the wording arced across the top of the label: SPECIAL DISC JOCKEY RECORD. Wow!! Those other 45s we’d won – mostly on white labels – were suddenly just run-of-the-mill promo copies. But not “The Pale Faced Indian.” It was SPECIAL! And a DISC JOCKEY RECORD!! It must have been made out of some really, really good plastic, or it had to sound a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot better than if we’d bought the PLAIN OL’ COMMERCIAL RECORD in a store, right? I mean, why else would it have been so SPECIAL?

    And then I put the 45 on the platter of the Sears Groove Mangler that passed for the kids’ record player and placed its tone arm onto the rotating plastic circle. Watching that SPECIAL DISC JOCKEY RECORD spinning around was pure magic. This was, beyond a doubt, the ultimate sense of empowerment for an eight-year-old kid who’d already caught the record bug. And thus was the seed sown. I still have that SPECIAL DISC JOCKEY RECORD. It got some company at subsequent carnival, in the form of “Sales Talk” by The Banners. Leo was back, hawking that SPECIAL DISC JOCKEY RECORD, too.

    I didn’t particularly like the song at the time, so “The Pale Faced Indian” didn’t stay in regular rotation for long. Between the altered title and very different arrangement, it took me awhile to realize that the new Don Fardon song I’d begun hearing on the radio sounded vaguely familiar. True, it may have been new, but it wasn’t SPECIAL.

    The Raiders’ cover brings to mind having to deal with a very nervous general manager, who was convinced that Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and the entire American Indian Movement would set up a protest outside the station if we played the record. Mind you, this was at a classic hits station in 1988.

  3. […] and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” with which Casey tells the bogus story of its creation), and four full minutes of Leon Haywood’s “I Wanta Do Something Freaky to You,” […]

  4. I was recently surprised by another pre-Raiders version, recorded as part of a medley on the 1967 LP by the Lewis & Clarke Expedition.

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