Thirty-six years ago Detroit disc jockey Russ Gibb found himself at the center of a burgeoning conspiracy theory. Was Paul McCartney of the Beatles dead?
The human love of a mystery, a fascination with death and Beatlemania all came together to whip U.S. teenagers into a frenzy over what seems today a laughable urban legend. In the past month, Gibb has been interviewed by two crews, one from a Russian TV production company, and one from the Netherlands, about his role in kicking the "Paul is Dead" rumor into overdrive by airing "clues" to his death on his WKNR-FM radio show.
Why the renewed interest decades later? The rumor of McCartney's death, raised and debunked in the fall of 1969, now winds its way across the Internet, where there are scores of "Paul is dead" Web sites.
Perhaps it's because McCartney and the Beatles are still such a big part of the cultural zeitgeist so many years later, with young fans continuing to discover the music.
The durability of the "Paul is dead" legend amazes Gibb. It was several lifetimes ago when he was a disc jockey for underground radio station WKNR-FM on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn.
"I don't know why people are so interested," says a bemused Gibb. "I called Dick Purtan up to ask him, because he was on WKNR-AM at the time of the 'Paul is Dead' thing. Dick said he thinks people are thinking about the Beatles because of those albums they just reissued in the fall."
At Violet Elementary School in St. Clair Shores, there are more than a few Beatles fans, even if they haven't discovered the "Paul is dead" rumor yet.
Six-year-old Jarrett Koral presses the school librarians for books about the Beatles. He doesn't hesitate when asked the name of his favorite Beatles album -- the 'White Album' -- or his favorite songs by them: " 'Hey Jude,' 'Can't Buy Me Love,' and 'Yellow Submarine,' " the first grader answers confidently.
Some kids even have their favorite Beatle, much as youngsters of the '60s did. For Lars Syversen, 10, it's Paul McCartney. "I just like their good music and their lifestyle," Syversen says. "They always sing really good songs."
Rachel Willmer, 9, first remembers hearing "Help" when she was 4 and her brother played it for her. "It was kind of catchy to me," she says. "I like John Lennon the most because he was mostly the leader."
At center of hoax
Gibb, who retired last year as a teacher at Dearborn High School, has his own theories about why young people and children are still intrigued by the Beatles.
"Think of the name," he says. "The Beatles -- that's quite an interesting name. When you're young, insects fascinate you: Butterflies, beetles, ants. Plus some of their songs are just beautiful. We still look at paintings painted 100 years ago, 200 years ago. We look at old architecture and there's beauty in that. Plus they sing about universal themes; love, and the eternal wish for peace."
A Russian TV crew visited Gibb in January, and last week, a group of Dutch film students led by Wouter van Opdorp, 24, of Amsterdam followed Gibb around and quizzed him for a documentary on the "Paul is dead" phenomenon that will air on Dutch public TV.
"I first heard the 'Paul is dead' story when I was 12," says van Opdorp. He was already a Beatles fan, having heard his parents' records.
"Does the Paul McCartney hoax still follow you?" the director quizzed Gibb, on-camera.
"Yes, I'm known as the 'Great Ghoul,' " says the retired teacher. "I had to change my phone number a few years ago. I'd get calls from kids around the country saying, 'Are you the guy who buried Paul McCartney?' And either they were mad about it, or they thought it was cool."
The "Paul is dead" rumor had started in a few college newspapers in September of 1969, but picked up steam when an Eastern Michigan University student, Tom Zarski, called Gibb on his WKNR-FM nighttime show on Oct. 12 and asked if Gibb had heard about it. After that, listeners called in every night to discuss it and mull over messages that came up when Beatles records were played backwards.
Newspaper articles followed, and there was even a November television special taped by RKO Television in Los Angeles and hosted by F. Lee Bailey, on which the famed lawyer quizzed Gibb and others in a mock courtroom setting.
Researching the death rumor
There are a few books on the "Paul is dead" phenomenon, but none as thoroughly researched as "Turn Me On, Dead Man:The Story of the Paul-is-Dead Hoax" (Authorshouse) by Andru J. Reeve, 42.
Reeve was only 7 in 1969 when Gibb started talking about it on WKNR-FM and the rumor flew around the country via old-school media like the telephone, newspapers and word of mouth in high school hallways.
His Beatles fandom hadn't started until the 1970s, after he heard McCartney's James Bond anthem "Live and Let Die." Reeve discovered the rumor of the bassist's demise while researching his favorite band.
"I'm not really sure why it keeps skipping generations," Reeve says of the rumor's potency. "That's amazing to me. You have these kids on the Internet with 'Paul is dead' Web sites. I write about this extensively in my book. I found about 200 Web sites devoted to 'Paul is dead.' "
One reason it's back is the renewed interest in vinyl records among teenagers and young people. You can only listen for Paul-is-dead clues on Beatles records if you have a turntable, and play the vinyl records backwards.
Reeve himself has researched the death rumor for decades, including many months in the Library of Congress, when he wasn't working his day job as a video editor at a television station.
"People love mysteries," says the author. "It's what draws people to religion. Plus it's exciting, it deals with death. Death is the great unknown. Whatever your religion is, the centerpiece is what happens when you die. It's a bigger draw than sex."
In early November 1969, J. Marks wrote an article for the New York Times debunking the "Paul is dead" speculation. Marks had worked with Linda Eastman in 1967 and told Reeve that she expressed interest in meeting Paul. But, Eastman told Marks, she'd heard that he'd died and had been replaced by a double. Later, Eastman moved to London and, of course, met McCartney. When the couple married in March 1969, Marks sent a note saying "Congratulations, whoever you are."
The "Paul is dead" frenzy reached its apex in late October/early November 1969. In early November, Life magazine tracked McCartney to his farm in a remote area of Scotland, and persuaded him to give an interview asserting that yes, he was indeed, alive.
A slower-paced era
It's easy to scoff at the idea of a nation of teenagers becoming obsessed with a rock star's alleged death. And surely, it could only have happened in a pre-Internet time, with less media distractions and when news moved at a slower pace.
But there are oddities and coincidences that still pop up, all these years later. Reeve re-wrote his book last year because of all the new information he's found.
Some believe that the rumor was started by the Beatles themselves.
When Flint native and former Grand Funk Railroad manager Terry Knight was murdered in Texas last November, allegedly by the boyfriend of his daughter, a vital piece of the "Paul is dead" puzzle died with him.
In early 1969, months before the "Paul is dead" rumor, Knight, who was both a disc jockey and recording artist, had a song out called "St. Paul" that seemed to hint at McCartney's demise. The song was a minor hit in Detroit.
Most intriguingly, author Reeve discovered in the Library of Congress that Knight's song was published by Maclen Music, the Beatles' own company.
He never found out why. Reeve tracked the reclusive Knight to Arizona and hammered him with letters and phone calls, but Knight wouldn't talk.
Meanwhile, although he is proudest of his work as a teacher, Russ Gibb's phone continues to ring with people wanting to know, "Is Paul dead?"
All these years later -- why?
"I think there's a universal intelligence, a connection to everything," says Gibb, sounding once again like his 1969, underground DJ self. "Certain things trigger molecular structures to change. I think there's a reason, but I don't know what the reason is."