It was 30 years ago this coming October that a strange and unbelievable rumor swept across the world. 1969 had already seen Americans on the moon, Teddy Kennedy's Chappaquidick misadventure, and Woodstock. Tricky Dick Nixon was president. Implausible things had been happening all year, and no one knew what might be next. Then, from out of nowhere, people began believing that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a double. The rumor gained credence on the radio, and for several days there was speculation that Paul was dead. Published accounts of the rumor trace it to an article in the September 23 edition of Northern Star, the student paper at the University of Illinois, then to an anonymous caller to the Russ Gibb radio show on WKNR, Detroit on Sunday, October 12. Also noted is an article by Fred LaBour in the Michigan Daily, school paper of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
I can fill in the week before Gibb or LaBour heard about it. This is the first time I have revealed the story of my accidental participation in the propagation of the Paul McCartney Death Rumor.
I hit the Ann Arbor airwaves at midnight October 1, 1969. Abbey Road by the Beatles was released later that day. By the end of my first week I had been offered the all night show at WABX-FM in Detroit for $125 a week. Billboard magazine had named ABX the nation's best Underground Radio Station, and it was the station I had been listening to since moving to Michigan the previous month. I guess I hoped to work there eventually, though Ann Arbor was a garden and Detroit was a garbage pit similar to Indianapolis, from which I had just barely escaped. I was only making $75 a week at WOIA, but I turned ABX down because I thought my show needed the seasoning it could get only in the lower pressure, smaller market of Ann Arbor. I also felt some measure of loyalty to the WOIA manager, Rich Hill, with whom I had worked in Indianapolis. Rich had been Sales Manager and I was one of the Country Gentlemen at the Big G, WGEE-FM, playing country records from seven 'til midnight, then signing off the station. Rich had become General Manager of WOIA a few months back, and I had pestered him all summer to hire me for the station's all night show to do my own program, not a format. Finally, I broke down his resistance and he took the chance, giving Ann Arbor its first FM freeform program. That was my first real break in radio, and I appreciated it. The ABX offer did help boost my salary up $10 to $85 a week.
I had always been a Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, folk, blues, jazz, and 50s rock and roll fan, being 27 in 1969. My five year younger brother had been the Beatles fan in our family, so when listeners began calling me at the station asking about clues on Beatles album jackets and in Beatles songs that seemed to indicate that Paul McCartney was dead, I was in the dark. I didn't even have all the albums in question, and the station had only a couple, so I went to Discount Records on State Street to buy Abbey Road and some of the other LPs. I met John Petrie, the store manager, and was trying to work out a professional price on the records so I could buy a few new ones until I could secure record service for the station. During our conversation John mentioned that Beatles records were selling briskly, and that people were interested in the jackets, and had asked about the "Paul is dead" rumor that I had been hearing from listeners.
Every time I played a Beatles track on the air I would receive calls about the possibility that Paul was dead, and the callers would cite evidence in the songs and on the album jackets. I met another DJ, Jim Dulzo, who worked at WAAM-AM doing a freeform underground type of show. I purposely drove out to WAAM one night to talk with him about the rumor. He had heard it and conceded that his listeners had built pretty strong cases to support their theories. I don't think either of us had broadcast anything about it yet, but the rumor was running rampant around Ann Arbor. I made tapes of some of the parts of the songs that purportedly held clues to the mystery, played them backward and forward, faster and slower, and tried to figure out what was going on. Whatever it was, it was weird. I was stumped.
In addition to playing records, my program was to include on-air phone calls with listeners, and after a week or so behind the Spartan Sparta five pot control board I felt comfortable enough with the equipment to try a few on-air phone calls. So, at midnight, I announced that I was going to have an open line and would take calls from the listeners. There was plenty to talk about in Ann Arbor. Recently, students had occupied the University of Michigan Administration building, the UM ROTC Annex had been torched, a sadistic serial killer was murdering coeds in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area and the war was raging in Viet Nam, but everybody wanted to talk about the Beatles and the strange rumor that had swept Ann Arbor. The phone traffic was overwhelming and every call was about Paul McCartney. Theories abounded, and callers spilled over into the next night's program.
That next night, October 9, during my program, a whole dorm at Eastern Michigan University in neighboring Ypsilanti was tuned in and making phone calls to the show. At the peak of the program a power failure plunged the dorm into total darkness, spooking the inhabitants and unsettling me somewhat. The number 9 figured prominently in the rumor, and it was the 9th. Our midday DJ, 15 year old Jim Kerr (Jim Curtis on the air), had picked up on the rumor and had talked the station manager into letting him make a transatlantic call to Apple in London. Not figuring in the time difference, Kerr had gotten a night watchman who, in answering the question about whether Paul was dead, had declared it "a load of horseshit." All day long our newscasts carried the Apple night watchman's quote, and I was encouraged by the management to follow up on the rumor because WOIA had gone from zero to the hottest radio station in town in the space of a few days. Indeed, I had only been on the air about 9 days and already I had much of Ann Arbor tuning in at midnight.
On Friday night's show (10/10) I had a panel discussion in the studio with about half a dozen Ann Arbor musicians, including Steve Mackay who later played sax in Commander Cody's band. We talked about the possibility of the rumor being true and whether replacing Paul could really be accomplished. We covered the evidence, played the records that held the clues, and took calls from the audience. The response was really overwhelming. After the show I went home and slept until I was awakened by one of the DJs I knew from the station pounding on my door. Country Dan was one of the daytime DJs and he had introduced me to some of his friends. He told me that one of those friends had come to his apartment to listen to my show with him the previous night. That friend, Russ Updike, had called the show and talked on the air about Paul McCartney. After calling, he tried to get Dan to go out to the radio station with him to be part of the panel, but Dan was nursing a bad cold and had to be at work at the station at 6 A.M. and begged off. Russ left Dan's apartment and headed for the radio station. He never made it. As he was driving to the station, a drunk driver came over a hill on the wrong side of the road doing about 80 and hit him head-on. Russ died instantly, listening to my radio program.
I was devastated. I went to Michael Erlewine's house and sought his advice. He was an astrologer and advisor. He owned the Circle Books occult book store and he thought I should consult the I Ching. Michael counted out the yarrow stalks (I had previously only tossed the coins) and my chapter was Chapter One, The Creative. The first time I had ever done the I Ching, in '67 in San Francisco, I had gotten Chapter One. Michael's counsel comforted me somewhat, but I still couldn't shake the image of Russ topping the hill and meeting death head-on because of my radio program. My misery was compounded by the fact that Paul's rumored death had been in a car crash "...He blew his mind out in a car, He didn't notice that the light had changed."
When I got to work at midnight that Saturday there was a memo from the program director telling me to push the Paul McCartney thing hard. It was increasing our listening audience astronomically and would surely pay off in better commercial sales. I crumpled the memo and threw it across the studio. I started my show with Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing" from the Great White Wonder bootleg and despite numerous calls I didn't play a single Beatles tune and I didn't say a word about Paul McCartney all night. I went home and slept fitfully until late afternoon. My girlfriend, Bambi, and I went to some friends' house for dinner. I was greeted with, "Did you hear Russ Gibb today?" I hadn't. I had been sleeping. It seems that Gibb, who did a weekend rock and roll and call-in show on WKNR (known as Keener) in Detroit, had gotten a call from a listener at Eastern Michigan University about the rumor and had run with it. The next day Russ Gibb was on the front page of the Detroit Free Press saying, "Send me to London." The rumor that had captivated Ann Arbor for the past week was front page news in Detroit. In days the rumor was worldwide. F. Lee Bailey hosted a TV show examining the evidence. Soon Paul was on the cover of Life magazine, declaring that he was still alive. Russ Gibb was famous and I had a dead man on my mind. Ironically, the dead man's name was Russ.
A few years ago Nashville songwriter David Olney told me that Fred LaBour (Too Slim of Riders In The Sky) had told him that he had started the Paul McCartney Death Rumor. I had already written the basic details of this story for my book Bar Trek (still in progress), and called Too Slim to ask if David Olney's information was true. Chet Flippo's biography of McCartney cites the LaBour article as an early source, and I was curious about whether it preceded my radio shows. It did not. The article appeared on Tuesday, October 14. LaBour heard the rumor on Russ Gibb's radio show and wrote a tongue in cheek review of Abbey Road, working in the death rumor and clues. I have never seen the September 23 article from the Illinois student paper. In follow up investigation, the rumor had apparently been circulating since '67, but only as word of mouth speculation. To the best of my recollection that is the sequence of events in the week leading up to one of the biggest hoaxes of the Rock & Roll era.
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