In January 1967, a car belonging to singer/songwriter and Beatles’ band member Paul McCartney, was involved in an accident. He wasn’t driving at the time, but no matter.
The story was told and retold. Before long, not only had McCartney himself been involved in the crash. He’d been killed in it.
Like the child’s game of “telephone”, the story picked up details with each retelling. There had been an argument at a Beatles recording session. McCartney left in anger, and crashed his car. To spare the public from grief, the Beatles replaced him with “William Campbell”, the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest.
The February issue of “The Beatles Book” fanzine tried to put the issue to rest, but some stories die hard. A cottage industry grew up around finding “clues” to McCartney’s “death”. Hundreds were reported by fans and followers of the legend. John Lennon’s final line in the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” sounded like “I buried Paul”. (McCartney later said the words were “cranberry sauce”). When “Revolution 9” from the White Album is played backwards, some said they could hear “turn me on, dead man”.
Photographer Iain MacMillan shot the cover photo for the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road, on this day in 1969. The ten-minute photo shoot produced six images, from which McCartney himself picked the cover photo. It shows the band crossing the street, walking away from the studio.
As soon as the Abby Road album hit the streets, the “Paul Is Dead” enthusiasts were off and running. It was a funeral procession, couldn’t anybody see that? Lennon, dressed in white, symbolizes the preacher. Ringo Starr was dressed in black. He was the mourner. George Harrison was wearing blue jeans and a shirt. Of course he was the gravedigger.
And then there was McCartney, barefoot and out of step with the other members of the band. Clearly, he symbolized the corpse. McCartney later explained that he’d been barefoot that day, because it was hot.
No one ever satisfactorily explained, nor did anyone ask, to my knowledge, how Paul McCartney got to march in his own funeral procession. No matter, the Abby Road cover put the rumor mill over the top.
On October 12, a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR-FM told DJ Russ Gibb about the rumor and its clues. Gibb and his callers then discussed the rumor on the air for the next hour. Roby Yonge did the early AM shift at the powerhouse WABC out of New York. Yonge spent a full hour discussing the rumor, before he was pulled off-air for breaking format. WABC’s signal could be heard in 38 states at that time of night, and at times, other countries. The Beatles’ press office issued a statement denying the rumor, but it had already been reported by national and international media.
The November 7, 1969, Life magazine interview with McCartney and his wife Linda finally put the story to rest. “Perhaps the rumor started because I haven’t been much in the press lately“, he said. “I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days“.
If they’d had Photoshop in those days, we’d probably still be hearing the rumors, today.