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'It was viral before there was viral': Revisiting the 'Paul is dead' hoax

'It was viral before there was viral': Revisiting the 'Paul is dead' hoax
By William Thornton | wthornton@al.com
on April 01, 2014

RAINBOW CITY, Alabama -- It was no April fool's prank – in the autumn of 1969, much of America wondered if Paul McCartney, one fourth of the Beatles, was actually alive.

And this weekend, one of those inadvertently responsible for the story will be performing at Rainbow City's Chocolate Festival this weekend.

Fred LaBour, known by his stage persona Too Slim, is a member of the cowboy comedy group Riders In the Sky. LaBour was a student at the University of Michigan 45 years ago. In October 1969, LaBour was 19 years old and worked for The Michigan Daily in Ann Arbor, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan. He wrote for the sports desk and occasionally submitted music reviews.

On Oct. 12, he was listening as radio disc jockey Russ Gibb in Detroit took a call from someone claiming that, if one played "Revolution 9" from the Beatles' "White Album" backwards, one heard a clear voice saying, "Turn Me On, Dead Man." The same person claimed at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever," John Lennon says, "I buried Paul."

LaBour was scheduled the next day to write a record review of "Abbey Road," the latest album by the Beatles, who were even at the end of the decade the most popular pop group of the era.

"It wasn't that someone was saying he was dead," LaBour remembered about the radio show, which he heard driving home. "It was more, something's wrong here."

That night, instead of writing a straight-forward review, LaBour gathered all his Beatles records together and began scouring them for other clues. Within about two hours, as a gag, LaBour constructed a parody theorizing that Paul McCartney had, in fact, died two years before in a car accident and had been replaced by a look-a-like actor named William Campbell from Scotland. The Beatles had then hidden clues to the truth in their music and on their album art.

LaBour's review pointed out clues, such as a hand behind the supposedly fake McCartney's head on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and his bare feet on the cover of "Abbey Road." This meant Paul was a corpse, and the other Beatles, he wrote, were dressed for a funeral – John, in white, was the minister (or God), George, in jeans, was the gravedigger, while black-suited Ringo was the undertaker.

"I talked it over with my friend and we were making jokes about it," LaBour said. "I made up these ridiculous clues in this made-up scenario and said it was true. They ran it on the arts page, and I thought it was a funny satire."

LaBour, however, had no idea what awaited him.

"It exploded," he said. "That first day, that Tuesday, I walked down the street in Ann Arbor and you could hear Beatle music coming from every window and people trying to play their records backwards. They sold out of Beatles records and beer all over town.

"I thought, 'My God, what have I done?'" he said. "I was really chagrined."

But that was just the beginning. A day later, the rumor had made its way to Detroit. What LaBour didn't know, as revealed in Andru J. Reeve's book "Turn Me On, Dead Man," was that there had previously been a rumor that McCartney had died three years earlier. And at that very moment, the Beatles were in the middle of the business and personal grievances that would eventually result in their breaking up. McCartney, angry and disillusioned, was holed up in his Scotland farm, actually feeding the rumor by his absence from the public.

"It was viral before there was viral," he said. "I just watched it go across the country. First it was Detroit, then Chicago, then New York, then a day later Los Angeles, and eventually London."

LaBour eventually got called to speak on the rumor for a television program featuring noted attorney F. Lee Bailey. On a set resembling a courtroom, Bailey would question witnesses similar to a trial in determining whether McCartney was alive.

LaBour was one of the guests, along with Gibb, the Beatles' new manager Allen Klein, and Peter Asher, a friend of McCartney.

"I was going to be the first witness," LaBour said. "So they flew me out to L.A. I'm 19 years old and I know zip about anything. I go to my hotel and Bailey calls me down before the program. There are Beatles records all over the place, and he's pacing back and forth, and he's asking me to go over some of the clues with him.

"And I said, 'I made all this up.' (Bailey) looks at me, and he says, 'Well, we have an hour of television. You're going to have to play along,'" LaBour said. Bailey coached LaBour through the program, which later aired at Thanksgiving.

Within weeks, McCartney emerged from seclusion and proved – to the satisfaction of most – that he was still alive, with the help of Life Magazine. LaBour, sick of the attention, said for a while he only would answer phone interviews with the words, "I made it all up," before hanging up.

"It just kind of wore me out," he said. "I quit talking about it. I always thought I could have made some money off of it at Beatle conventions, but I didn't. But now it's amusing to my children. "

Though his manager has tried to get them together, LaBour has never actually met Paul McCartney, who spoofed the whole story by recreating the "Abbey Road" cover for his 1993 live album, "Paul Is Live." LaBour said he felt the Beatles at least owed him a fruit basket, considering how many albums were sold as a result.

And as the years have gone by, he looks back with amusement at the story that travelled so far without benefit of Twitter or Facebook and set the template for modern "death hoaxes," like Wayne Knight's erroneous death earlier this year.

"A few years back, when I heard Elvis had been seen at Burger King, I thought, 'Yeah, they're still doing it,'" he said. "A lot of the news is made up stuff like that. The spirit is still there."

Fred LaBour, a member of the group Riders In the Sky, was one of those responsible for launching the "Paul is dead" urban legend dealing with Beatle Paul McCartney in 1969. (Life Magazine)

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