In The Number Ones, I review every #1 single in the history of Billboard Hot 100, starting at the top of the chart in 1958 and working all the way back to the present.
One night in the late 1950s, country and rockabilly songwriter John D. Loudermilk was driving from Nashville to Durham, and his car got stuck in a snowdrift. Loudermilk thought he would slip into the backseat, sleep through the night, and start again the next morning. But in the middle of the night, a group of angry Cherokee tribesmen pulled Loudermilk out of his car. They beat Loudermilk and tortured him, piercing his skin with needles and holding him captive for days. They were also going to kill Loudermilk, but then Loudermilk told their leader, Chief Bloody Bear Tooth, that he was a songwriter. Loudermilk offered to write a song that would tell the world about the plight of the Cherokee tribe. So Chief Bloody Bear Tooth agreed to let Loudermilk live, and Loudermilk wrote the song he promised to write.
At least that’s the story Casey Kasem told in a 1971 episode of American Top 40, when Paul Revere & The Raiders’ version of the Loudermilk song took the world by storm. It was a complete lie. None of this was true. Years later, Loudermilk — the man who wrote “Tobacco Road” and “Ebony Eyes,” and a cousin of troubled country legends the Louvin Brothers — admitted he made up the whole story. Loudermilk claimed that Kasem called him at 3 a.m. one night, needing a story to tell about the song. So Loudermilk made up this ridiculous and racist story, and Kasem, completely credulous, repeated everything on the air.
This story should tell you a few things, and one of those things is this: “Indian Reservation (The Lament Of The Cherokee Indian Reservation)” is not a heartfelt political screed about the Native American Genocide. It’s a pop music gimmick, written by a hit-seeking fabulist. The first version of “Indian Reservation” was released in 1959. Loudermilk gave its song to Marvin Rainwater, a country singer who was a quarter Cherokee and who wore Indian-themed costumes on stage. Rainwater’s version of “Indian Reservation”, then titled “The Pale Faced Indian”, was full of false stereotypes and hi ho songs. It was not a success.
In 1968, British singer Don Fardon, a former member of mod band The Sorrows, covered “The Pale Faced Indian”, changing its title to “Indian Reservation”. Fardon’s version is a tense blues simmer, and it eliminates some of the more glaring stereotypes of the original. And Fardon turned the song into a hit, taking it to No. 20 on the US charts. Three years later, Paul Revere & The Raiders – arguably the best band ever named after colonial-era North American colonizers – have taken over “Indian Reservation” and taken it to the top. .
The Raiders had a fun history. Paul Revere Dick (really, that was his name) was a young restaurant owner outside of Boise, and he met Mark Lindsay while picking up hamburger buns at the bakery where Lindsay worked. They started a band, with Lindsay singing and Revere playing keyboards, in 1958, the year before the first version of “Indian Reservation” was released. In 1961 they had a regional hit with a little instrumental titled “Like, Long Hair”. They had to take time off when Revere was drafted. (He was a conscientious objector, so he worked as a cook.) But when Revere ended his service in 1962, the Raiders moved to Portland, where they joined a thriving garage rock scene that included bands like the Sonics. and the Kingsmen.
Both the Raiders and the Kingsmen recorded their versions of the garage-rock standard “Louie Louie” around the same time, but the kingsman version was the one who knocked. (It peaked at No. 2, and that’s a 10.) The Raiders didn’t let that get them down, and they ended up being the rare garage band to survive the ’60s. Thanks to their name, the Raiders had a gimmick: they wore tricorn hats and frilly shirts. And they had a platform, essentially serving as the house band on the Dick Clark-produced variety show where is the action. They showed up on Batman Once. They worked it.
But while all of that was going on, the Raiders were churning out incredibly nasty garage rock. “Exactly like me11 hit from 1965, is a legitimate minor garage classic, a quivering frustrated growl nailed to a smashing organ riff and a delightfully primitive guitar solo. And for a few years they put out a series of hits that kinda sounded like “Just Like Me.” They have never been cool. How could they be dressed like that? But many of these songs have held up better than the work of their most respected colleagues.
It didn’t last. A fancy band, even a good fancy band, couldn’t keep making hits indefinitely. There was also an inner drama. Half the band quit in 1967, pissed off that Mark Lindsay had taken over the band and session musicians were replacing them on the records. Lindsay ventured out on her own and made a few solo records. (His 1969 single “Arizona” peaked at No. 10; it’s a 6.) The Raiders, in an effort to sound less childish, dropped the “Paul Revere” from their name. It did not work. Their singles were still in the charts, but they had effectively been banned from the top 10, and it should have been pretty clear that their run was over.
But then came the “Indian reservation”. Jack Gold, the British director of many films I’ve never seen, suggested that Lindsay record a version of “Indian Reservation”. (Lindsay is an eighth Cherokee.) None of the Raiders play on the recorded version of “Indian Reservation”. Lindsay sings on it, but the musicians are all members of the Wrecking Crew. Lindsay, the song’s producer, decided to release it as Raiders, even though it was effectively a solo single. Revere, who actually had nothing to do with the song, knew he had a hit on his hands, so he promoted it. Revere hopped on a motorcycle and drove around the country, hitting several radio stations a day, giving on-air interviews and having them play the song. It worked.
Musically, “Indian Reservation” works almost like a last gasp of garage rock. You can hear the band’s roots in the edgy, intense riff, imported from Don Fardon’s version of the song, and Lindsay’s growl. But in the shivering strings, one can also hear the distant, rumbling echo of Philly soul and disco that was soon to arrive. It’s an incredibly strange song that spans an era, a slight overlap of different sounds that exist in the popular imagination as stark opposites.
But of course, you can’t hear “Indian Reservation” on a purely musical level. John D. Loudermilk didn’t write “Indian Reservation” as a protest song, but that’s how Lindsay sings it. He seethes throughout the song, exuding a barely contained fury. He sings something real, of course. In the 19th century, Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee people and residents of a number of other tribes from their homes in the American Southeast and into reservations in Oklahoma. Thousands of people died on the trail of tears, and then the survivors were left to fend for themselves in a new land, with the government that had forcibly displaced them doing very little to help them survive.
In an America that was only just waking up to its own shitty history, this new version of “Indian Reservation” struck a chord. As a predominantly white man, Lindsay probably didn’t have the power to talk about “although I wear a shirt and tie, I’m still a red man until I die.” But it’s not like he’s doing the cartoonish vocals of Marvin Rainwater’s original. He sang it with conviction, conveying historical injustice in a way that still worked, more or less, as pop music. It’s a clumsy, clueless and well-meaning stab at the defense, along the lines of the famous “Crying Indian” TV commercial, which had started airing the previous year. In this shitty context, that counts as progress. American pop music had still come a long way in the 11 years since “Running Bear” and “Mr. Custer. Chief Bloody Bear Tooth would be proud.
BONUS BEAT: Here is the cover of “Indian Reservation” by London punk band 999 in 1981:
BONUS BEAT: Producer 88-Keys sampled “Indian Reservation” for Hodgy Beats’ “Final Hour” collaboration with Busta Rhymes in 2016. Here it is:
(As a lead artist, Busta Rhymes’ two highest charting singles are the 1999 Janet Jackson collaboration”What’s it gonna be? !and the 2003 Mariah Carey/Flipmode Squad collaborationI know what you want.” Both peaked in 3rd place. “What’s it gonna be?” is a 6, and “I Know What You Want” is a 7. Busta also rapped on the “Pussycat Doll”Do Cha“, which peaked at No. 2 in 2005. That’s a 4.)