(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.”