The Paul McCartney Death Rumor

On October 12, 1969, a Detroit Radio Station killed Paul McCartney.

Russ Gibb, working on WKNR-FM, heard from an Eastern Michigan University student about a series of clues that seemed to point to Paul McCartney’s death. The story took on a life of its own, both on Keener and WKNR-FM and Russ received credit for making the story of McCartney’s supposed demise a national story.

It was a Sunday afternoon in Detroit when Uncle Russ took the call. He had just played some tracks from the Abby Road album and turned to the phone lines for his customary “rap” with his listeners. Eastern Michigan University student Tom Zarski was on the line. “I was going to rap with you about McCartney being dead and what is this all about?”

Gibb told us that his mind immediately went back to the Dylan is Dead rumor that circulated after the poet’s serious motorcycle crash in 1967. He began to review the litany of rumors floating around about the current crop of rock celebrities. Tom was insistent, claiming that there were clues on the Beatle’s records. “ Revolution Number Nine backwards,” he said.

WKNR-FM’s audience heard “Turn me on, dead man” for the first time.  Russ Gibb with UM Student John Miller

The origin of the rumor is a bit more complicated. It may have had its genesis in a 1966 auto accident where Paul suffered minor injuries. Rolling Stone magazine heard the story as early as 1968 and by 1969 clues were circulating around college campuses. In the days leading up to the WKNR revelations, there were several published accounts. Tim Harper wrote an article on the subject on September 17th in the Drake University student newspaper. A similar article appeared in the University of Illinois campus daily six days later. University of Michigan undergrad Fred LaBour heard Russ Gibb’s October 12 broadcast. His article, published in the October 14 edition of the Michigan Daily as a record review parody, is often cited as providing the key exposure that helped propel the story beyond the local market. He admitted to Uncle Russ that much of his article was pure fabrication.  Russ Gibb interviews Fred LaBour

I had just signed up at our all-volunteer campus station, WCBN AM 650 (at the University of Michigan) about that time and unbeknownst to our campus station manager, I called Apple Records live on the air. The fun in it was all the switching around, talking to
operators, etc. (The station got the bill for the long distance call later and I caught hell for it, but it was worth it.)Anyway, one overseas operator stayed on the phone with me for the whole ordeal. We finally got through to the press office at Apple Records and I asked this woman is Paul was indeed, dead. She said in her lovely accent that, no he was quite alive and had been in the office that very afternoon.After this press lady hung up, I said to my associate, Al Hendry, “Well, I guess he’s still alive.”I didn’t know it but the overseas operator was still on the phone, live on the air and she said “I could have told you that!” There was exactly two seconds of silence, then everyone in the studio started laughing.

Ken R. Deutsch
Author – “The Jingle Book“

By November 2nd, J. Marks had written an article for the New York Times disputing the allegations. He remembered finishing a project with Linda Eastman two years earlier. The future Mrs. McCartney expressed interest in meeting Paul but told Marks that she heard that he had died and had been replaced by a double. When the couple were married in March of 1969, Marks sent a note saying “Congratulations, whoever you are.”Ann Arbor DJ Larry Monroe first heard the rumor from his younger brother and was talking about it on air with WOIA listeners as early as October 9th. Fellow WOIA jock Jim Curtis, the Ann Arbor air name of New York radio legend Jim Kerr — who was “Robin Stone” on Keener in 1971, called Apple in London for reaction. With the time difference, Jim got the night watchman who characterized the tale as, “.. a load of horseshit.”

RKO invited Paul Cannon, Russ Gibb and Fred LeBour to Hollywood to participate in a television show hosted by attorney F. Lee Bailey. The mock courtroom was the setting for a discussion of evidence surrounding the rumor. The program was broadcast in several RKO markets, including New York. All copies of the tape then mysteriously disappeared, adding an additional twist to the proceedings.

The Paul is Dead story peaked in America with the November 7 edition of Life magazine. The Life crew found the Beatle at his farm in Scotland and after some initial reticence, McCartney gave a detailed interview, debunking the myth that continues to interest Beatle fans to this day.

There are several versions of the Paul is Dead story. Here are a couple of the most popular iterations.

In one account, Paul was was decapitated in an automobile accident occurring in November of 1966 after an argument with the other Beatles at Abby Road studios (“He blew his mind out in a car” – A Day in the Life – Sgt. Pepper). Another version depicted a despondent Paul picking up a female hitchhiker who accidentally caused the wreck when she tried to get too close to the driving Beatle. The woman’s name was said to be Rita (“I took her home. I nearly made it.” – Lovely Rita, Meter Maid – Sgt. Pepper).

There’s an interesting postscript to the story. Chris Morton, who was in studio with Russ Gibb when during his fateful WKNR-FM broadcast visited London in the summer of 2001. He wrote to to say, “We went on the walking Magical Mystery Tour in St. John’s Woods, ending up in front of Abbey Road Studios. I was delighted when the tour guide told a brief history of the affair, attributing its genesis to Detroit disk jockey Russ Gibb.”

Whatever its true origin, WKNR played a pivotal role in amplifying one of the more intriguing and macabre chapters of the history of the Beatles.

Here’s the definitive Dutch documentary about the story, starring Russ Gibb, Fred Labour and Tom Zarski.