'Paul is Dead!' (said Fred)

I read the news today, oh boy…

In the fall of 1969 a strange and mysterious rumor was circulating on the fringes of college campuses in the Midwest: Paul McCartney of the Beatles was dead.

According to the rumor,  Paul McCartney had died three years previously in a horrific car crash. His death—so the story went—was covered up, the surviving Beatles found a double to replace him, and ever since had been hiding clues in their songs and album covers that revealed the truth about their ex-bandmate’s grisly fate.

No one knows for certain how the rumor started, or where. But in mid-October it exploded on to the national scene, sweeping the ranks of youth from coast to coast in a matter of days. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone under the age of 30 was either debating the possibility of McCartney’s demise or poring over their Beatles records, searching for clues.

The power of the rumor was such that, four decades later, plenty of Baby Boomers still vividly recall the tingling sensation they felt when they first heard an eerie backwards voice emanating from their turntables, and began to consider that Paul might actually be dead.What many do not know is that the rumor might not have come to their attention at all except for a mischievous young U-M natural resources student named Fred LaBour. Indeed, if the McCartney death rumor can be called a modern myth, then Beatles expert Devin McKinney may be correct to identify LaBour as its Homer.

LaBour then and now

Fred LaBour then (at a 1969 sit-in) and now (as Too Slim, bassist/jokester of the band Riders in the Sky). As a U-M student, he was one of the people most responsible for the spread of the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor. (Photos courtesy Fred LaBour.)

Somebody spoke and I went into a dream

Today, Fred LaBour is best known as “Too Slim,” bassist-cum-jokester for the country and western act Riders in the Sky. Forty years ago he was an equally jocular staff writer for the Michigan Daily who had been assigned to review Abbey Road, the Beatles’ latest album. On Oct. 12, 1969, LaBour was tuned in to radio station WKNR from Detroit when disc jockey Russ Gibb took a call from a listener who wanted to talk about a rumor going around that Paul McCartney was dead. Gibb was skeptical at first, but became intrigued when the caller explained that there were clues pointing to McCartney’s death hidden in the Beatles’ music.

For the next hour thousands of listeners, including LaBour, stayed glued to their radios as Gibb and his callers discussed the supposed evidence and what could be behind it. The following day LaBour got out his Beatles records, lined them up on his desk, and sat down to write one of the oddest and most influential record reviews ever printed.

On the morning of Oct. 14, the university community awoke to the shocking and incredible report that one of the world’s most popular and beloved entertainers was no more. The headline blazoned across the second page of the Michigan Daily proclaimed the awful news: “McCartney dead; new evidence brought to light.”

“Paul McCartney was killed in an automobile accident in early November, 1966,” began Fred LaBour’s accompanying full-page article, “after leaving EMI recording studios tired, sad, and dejected.” McCartney was found four hours later, “pinned under his car in a culvert with the top of his head sheared off. He was deader than a doornail.”

Abbey Road with clues

According to rumors, the Beatles left clues to Paul’s death. Abbey Road’s album cover (above) was supposedly flush with such clues, such as Paul’s bare feet, and a cigarette in his right hand.

What LaBour had written was less record review than conspiracy-age fable. He related in detail how the accident had been covered up and a look-alike found to replace the dead musician—not as a rumor, but as if it were fact. The mysterious clues were held to be part of a strange and disturbing plot orchestrated by John Lennon, who had it in mind to found a new religion with himself as god and the “reborn” McCartney a Christ-like figure at his side.

I’d love to turn you on

LaBour’s story electrified the campus. The Daily sold out its entire run by mid-morning, and a second printing was ordered to meet demand. “I remember walking down Ann Arbor streets hearing Beatles music from every single apartment and house,” LaBour says. He also recalls occasionally hearing someone trying to play a record backwards—listening for clues.

Indeed, the enigmatic clues seemed to draw most people into the rumor’s web—and LaBour’s article contained an abundance of evidence for clue-hungry readers to digest.

Sgt Pepper's back cover

Other clues that supposedly pointed to McCartney’s death included these photos from the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover. McCartney is backward, suggesting that he is dead.

For instance, the inside cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band features a photo in which McCartney is wearing an arm patch that seems to read OPD—according to LaBour, an abbreviation for “Officially Pronounced Dead,” the British equivalent of DOA. On the album’s back cover is a photo in which McCartney is the only one of the Beatles facing away from the camera.

LaBour also pointed out that on the front cover of Abbey Road McCartney is barefoot, signifying death because that is how corpses are buried. Furthermore, in the photo Paul holds a cigarette in his right hand, whereas the “real” McCartney is left-handed.

Then there were   the now-famous clues to be found by playing certain songs backwards. When reversed, “Revolution 9” reveals something that sounds eerily like “Turn me on, dead man,” while from the outro of “I Am the Walrus” seems to emerge a creepy chorus of “Ha ha! Paul is dead.”

“I cannot tell you how many times I listened to those records backwards,” says actress Christine Lahti (“Chicago Hope”), who in the fall of 1969 was a 19-year-old U-M theater student. Dubious at first, after many repetitions—and the encouragement of friends—she found herself more willing to believe. “After a point you started to hear it,” she explains, “just by the power of suggestion.”

Lahti suspects that this Rorschach-like nature of the clues accounts for much of the rumor’s appeal. “It might also have had something to do with the mind-altering drugs that many people were involved with,” she adds with a laugh.

I’m sorry, but it’s time to go

Filmmaker Ric Burns (New York: A Documentary Film), then a teenaged Beatlemaniac attending Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School, remembers spending hours hunting for clues and debating the rumor with friends. Like Lahti, he believes that a major part of the attraction was the ambiguity of the purported evidence.

LaBour’s review brought the Paul-is-dead rumor to the attention of magazines prestigious (Time and Life both covered it) and not so prestigious. The frenzy lasted a few weeks, but even today, Baby Boomers can remember the haunting, creepy accumulation of clues.

“It was not some ‘x-marks-the-spot’ clue,” Burns explains. “You could sort of hear it, but you couldn’t. It was like you were seeing the tip of the iceberg of a larger reality.”

But most people did not realize that many of the clues were nothing more than a college prank.

Fred LaBour’s article in the Daily presented more than two-dozen clues, most of which he originated himself. Of those, many went on to become an integral part of the rumor.

But LaBour admits—and has always admitted—that he made up his clues on the spot, as a joke. A prime example is his assertion that “walrus”—as in the lyric “the walrus was Paul”—is Greek for “corpse.” (It isn’t.) LaBour also brazenly fabricated many other “facts”: identifying, for instance, McCartney’s replacement as a Scottish orphan named William Campbell. (He had considered calling the impostor “Glen” Campbell, after the country singer, but decided it would be too obvious.)

Paul is dead article from the Michigan Daily.

Beatles experts say this Michigan Daily article by Fred LaBour catapulted the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor from fringe weirdness to mainstream frenzy.

LaBour never expected his article to be taken at face value, and was astonished when the national press picked it up as a serious piece of news. “The story was quoted extensively everywhere,” he recalls. “First the Detroit papers, then Chicago, then, by the weekend, both coasts.” After this the rumor truly seemed to catch fire. Suddenly LaBour’s playful inventions were being soberly discussed on the evening news of all three major television networks, and in prestigious national magazines such as Time and Life.     

Exactly why LaBour’s story was so influential is unclear. It was not the only article on the rumor, nor was it the first. The rumor was also being heavily promoted on alternative radio. But many agree with Beatleologist Andru J. Reeve, who opines that LaBour’s story was “the single most significant factor in the breadth of the rumor’s spread.”

LaBour recalls being worried about his unintentional role in sending the rumor spiraling out of control. “But after a few days,” he says, “the theatrical aspect became clearer to me, and, shy as I was in the face of all the attention, I began to enjoy the ride.”

The culmination of that ride was being invited to Hollywood in early November to participate in an RKO television special that featured celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey conducting a mock trial in which he examined various expert “witnesses” on the subject of McCartney’s alleged death.

“I was a nervous college kid, way out of my league,” LaBour recalls. “I told Bailey during our pre-show meeting that I’d made the whole thing up. He sighed, and said, ‘Well, we have an hour of television to do. You’re going to have to go along with this.’ I said OK.”

By the time the program was scheduled for broadcast, however, public interest in the rumor had cooled. It received only a single airing, on a local television station in New York City on Nov. 30, 1969. The popular mania surrounding the “Paul is dead” rumor was short-lived—but even today, despite the thorough debunking of nearly all the so-called evidence, it continues to circulate, mainly among conspiracy buffs and inquisitive Beatles fans.

Fred LaBour doesn’t think his adoptive brainchild will ever completely disappear. “Like it or not,” he says, “the rumor will be with us as long as the Beatles are with us.”

Which will be a very long time indeed.


  1. Dale Jones - 1976

    I can remember an episode of the Mike Douglas show airing an interview on this. I can’t remember the person being interviewed, but the “surviving” Beatles were in the audiance and when asked about the last time they had scene Paul, they laughed and joked “at his funeral.” Mike Douglas seemed to treat it as a true mystery to be solved, along with the “expert” he was talking to. The other Beatles however, were having a jolly time with the story.


  2. Dennis Mitchell - 2010

    I am 17 and I grew up trying to figure out if this was a hoax or paul is REALLY dead. My dad played Revolution 9 backwards so many times, just to show me that it wasn’t real and Paul is alive. I dont agree with him however, i think that Paul is in fact dead and replaced with Billy Shears (William Campbell)or a number of look-alikes. I stand firmly and will defend my case on this one. The Beatles left us way to many clues for it to be a “coincidence” or even a joke for that matter. I’ll leave this up to you, but i still believe.


  3. Tina Foster - 1990

    Paul McCartney is dead and was replaced. It has been proven by forensic science.


    • gee none of ur business - 18

      dude i saw Paul Mcartney last summer m8. He’s alive and well 🙂


  4. Anonymous

    I was a 15 year old high school student when this myth first started getting a lot of attention. I didn’t really think it was true, and didn’t want to believe it was true, but found it quite interesting, as well as creepy!
    I enjoyed this article and am more convinced than ever that the whole thing was only an urban legend.
    To those who find the supposed “evidence” from the Beatles’ music and photos compelling, I say that their work was so varied, and so filled with new and interesting ideas, that one could probably find something in it that could be used as “evidence” to support about any kind of story they could come up with!
    Paul McCartney is still alive, and looking great, for a man pushing 70! He doesn’t look like the Paul of the 1960s, but no one else who can remember back that far looks like they did then, either!


  5. Rodger Collins - 1969

    “By the time the program was scheduled for broadcast, however, public interest in the rumor had cooled. It received only a single airing, on a local television station in New York City on November 30, 1969.” — actually that’s not true. I lived in the Philadelphia area at the time and saw the broadcast there, and (audio) taped it. And there was still considerable interest at the time.


  6. Anonymous Anonymous - 1987

    I wrote the same article back in 1987 for the Daily, when Riders in the Sky were playing at the Ark. Nice job — I like yours better!


  7. Enr Mng - 88

    Whether it is a rumor or not, something really happened to Paul because his physical appeareance changed a lot … are those changes produced by using LSD or did he smoked crack ?


  8. Joy Stinson - 17

    Because of Fred’s labor, McCartney is trolled and slandered all over the internet today after PID was renewed online at the beginning of the internet availability becoming more common, and McCartney is trolled all over his YouTubes and other social media as an imposter, demonized on many PID sites and constantly called Billy a name made up or william. Fred has expressed regret for his role in the PID hoax creation but he has greatly tarnished McCartney’s legacy. Fred should contact every PID site host at the very least to express his role in this fan fiction that spiraled out of control. When I retired, I reviewed again and tried to catch up on McCartney’s solo career which I always liked but was appalled at all the PID trolling and what all they accused him of.


  9. Kevin S - 1981,87,89

    Oh Cynthia
    There is no “forensic evidence “ without an actual corpse. U sell anti Jewish right wing conspiracy theories but, in fact, u r just another deluded right wing dreamer. I’m sorry U will live the rest of ur life on plastic macca’s garbage theories. Everyone’s dead and is a reptilian shapeshifter 👋


  10. Chuck Hender - 1970

    Paul is Dead for real. Not a debunked rumor. If you are interested and want to learn what happened and how it was pulled off There is a book. It is called the Memoirs of Billy Shears. It can be purchased at Amazon. It changed my outlook on the Beatles and this world we inhabit. Fred’s article was closer to the truth then even he knew. I am not any part of the book. I get nothing out of sales. I am just pointing people in the right direction if they wish to learn more about what really happened.


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