Paul McCartney still isn’t dead. Neither is the story

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

It’s been 46 years since Fred LaBour proclaimed that Paul McCartney was dead and became moderately famous by offering some personally fabricated facts to prove it.

Not only does McCartney remain very much alive, he’s coming to Detroit to sing.

So is LaBour — and he’ll get here sooner. He’ll be at the Ark in Ann Arbor at 7:30 p.m. Sunday with Riders in the Sky, harmonizing on songs of the Old West and wondering how the heck a bit of college frivolity could still be taken as gospel.

Even for people who lived through McCartney’s supposed demise, it’s unclear why people were so eager to believe the story. Of course, it’s also unclear why people today believe that government troops are taking over Wal-Marts in Texas, so maybe the answer is that gullibility is timeless.

As for LaBour, 67, “I’m a footnote of a footnote of a footnote in Fab Four history,” he says ... which is more than most of us can claim.

Back in 1969, LaBour was an associate editor at the University of Michigan Daily.

Driving to Jackson one mid-October afternoon, he tuned into WKNR-FM and heard disc jockey Russ Gibb taking calls from listeners about McCartney’s rumored demise.

The clues were both numerous and, to LaBour, preposterous. So in the context of a review of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” he wrote a long story spread across two pages beneath the headline, “McCartney dead; new evidence brought to life.”

The badge on McCartney’s shoulder on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” LaBour wrote, reads “OPD,” for “officially pronounced dead” — the alleged British version of DOA.

The word “walrus,” he noted, used in a Beatles song title and lyric, is Greek for “corpse.”

Never mind that the badge really reads OPP, that “walrus” isn’t Greek for anything, that most of the story is even less credible, and that the first paragraph inelegantly declared McCartney to be “deader than a doornail.”

The multitudes were determined to believe, so that’s what they did. Newspapers began repeating LaBour’s alleged facts, and then so did newscasts and national magazines.

Because anything worth forgetting can be found on the Internet, websites still trumpet them. LaBour just shrugs and plucks his double bass.

A joke takes hold

LaBour grew up in Grand Rapids thinking, “I don’t know what’s for me in the world, but I know it’s not here.”

He went on to major in wildlife management at U-M, where among the things he learned is that he didn’t want to work in wildlife management.

Having played in rock and country bands, he decided to pursue music and moved to Nashville. A devoted Detroit Tigers fan, he spotted his next-door neighbor one day wearing a cap with the Olde English D.

“Do you know who No. 6 was?” LaBour asked.

“Al Kaline,” said Cranbrook and U-M alumnus Douglas Green, and music history was spawned. The real kind.

Across 38 years, two Grammys and 14 used RVs, Fred (Too Slim) LaBour, guitarist Douglas (Ranger Doug) Green, fiddler Paul (Woody Paul) Chrisman and accordionist Joey (The Cowpolka King) Miskulin have helped preserve classic western music, made decent livings and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

Riders in the Sky offers dependably cheery banter, tight harmonies and genuine devotion to its genre. The group’s latest album is a loving tribute called “Riders in the Sky Salute Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys.”

Rogers, unlike McCartney, is dead.

New song...about McCartney

Not long ago, LaBour says, a man from Minnesota called his house on 30 wooded acres outside Nashville.

“Have you seen this new evidence?” the man asked. “Italian scientists figured out it’s not McCartney’s voice.”

As kindly as he could, LaBour told him, “I wrote that story to make fun of people like you.”

There was a pause.

“So you don’t believe it?”

Um, no. But if it’s any consolation, LaBour will debut a song Sunday night about McCartney, who plays Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 21.

The theme, he says, is to always be careful about what you write — because you never know when someone will take it seriously.