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Rock’s Urban Legends: Fact and Fiction

beatles abbey road

Much has been written and said about the Beatles’ celebrated Abbey Road masterpiece, including comments on its iconic album cover. Michigan Daily once described the famous Brits’ procession over the zebra crossing as: the Preacher (John in white), the Undertaker (Ringo in black), the Corpse (Paul), and the grave-digger (George in denim). Wait. What? Paul a/k/a/ the corpse, and since when did he become a member of the dearly departed club? Why would Michigan Daily say such a thing? It’s only one of several of rock’s most enduring “urban legends.”

Paul Is Dead

Well, according to the story, Paul McCartney died in a car crash on November 9, 1966. This became one of the most popular rumors of the decade, spreading like wildfire that went unextinguished for years. As folklore would have it, the surviving bandmates went as far as replacing Sir Paul with the winner of a McCartney look-alike contest in order to soften the public’s grief.

Fans frantically searched for clues to the truth in Beatle songs. What did John Lennon mean by reportedly saying, “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever”?

Rumors were finally, um, “laid to rest” after Paul McCartney, who had been in seclusion with his family in Scotland, gave an interview for the November 1969 Life magazine cover story. Having a bit of fun, the lad from Liverpool eventually parodied the hoax with his 1993 live album Paul Is Live.

Related: “Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ 25 Years Later”

Cass Elliot Choked to Death

Another story widely circulated is about “Mama” Cass Elliot’s cause of death. Forty-six years later, many still believe the Mamas and the Papas singer choked to death on a ham sandwich. However, an autopsy revealed the 32-year-old died from heart failure likely due to stress brought on by extreme fasting in a dire effort to lose weight. No evidence of drugs was reportedly found in her body.

Former Hollywood Reporter columnist Sue Cameron recently told People magazine that immediately upon learning of Elliot’s death, she dialed her London apartment. A hysterical Allan Carr, Elliot’s manager, answered the phone and asked Cameron to write that a half-eaten ham sandwich was found on Elliot’s nightstand and she died choking on it. Carr later confessed to Cameron he was merely trying to save the singer’s reputation. Over time, revelations of substance abuse and crash diets, which probably weakened her heart, did surface.

Cameron also shared with People that years later when she was a guest at a party, she ran into a well-known fashion model from that era. During the course of the conversation, Cass Elliot’s name popped up and the model said, “I was the one who was there and cleaned out the drugs.”

The “Love Rollercoaster” Murder

Known both for their distinct funk sound and erotic album covers, Dayton’s own Ohio Players were also victims (or willing participants) of an urban myth. In their song “Fire,” one can clearly hear a fire alarm blaring, but of course, there was no fire. It was just a sound effect. And, supposedly, if you listen carefully to their 1975 hit “Love Rollercoaster,” a woman’s blood-curdling scream can be heard in the background. So, what was happening there?

While there were several versions of where the source of the scream came from, most suggested it was the female model featured on the group’s album Honey. The story goes that, upset over a photoshoot mishap, she confronted the band’s manager who ended up stabbing her to death while the group continued to record, looping the scream on the track. Talk about going to the extreme for a sound effect! That’s not only creepy but criminal. The story was made up by an unnamed disc jockey and the scream was made by keyboardist William “Billy” Beck.

Robert Johnson’s Deal With The Devil

There are people who are just born with natural talent. It oozes out of them like warm water from a leaky faucet. Others apparently have to make hand-shaking deals with Old Scratch or at least, that is what they would have you to believe. One of the oldest and weirdest myths centers around Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. Adding fuel to that damnation fire, it didn’t help that Johnson went on to write a song titled “Me and the Devil.”

Some deal though. While Robert Johnson would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony and awarded a posthumous Grammy statue, he died penniless in 1938 at age 27 and under mysterious circumstances.

-Sharon Oliver

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2 comments on “Rock’s Urban Legends: Fact and Fiction

  1. Richard Short

    Sharon, nice article, well done. Keep up the good work.

  2. Steve Napodano

    Brought back many memories. Great work!

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