Rumors of Paul McCartney’s death began to circulate in 1969, a time when the strained relationships among the Beatles were becoming public knowledge. Written versions of this story first appeared in college newspapers in the fall of 1969, but the precise origin of the rumor is unknown. The story caught fire with the public when it was broadcast by a radio station in Detroit. Russell Gibb, a disc jockey for WKNR-FM, received a strange phone call from someone who identified himself only as Tom. The caller told Gibb that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and was then replaced by a lookalike. The Beatles had subsequently left clues on their albums about this deception. The caller claimed that the cover photo of Abbey Road, the Beatles’ most recent release at the time, represented a funeral procession with John as the minister, Ringo the undertaker, Paul the corpse, and George the gravedigger. Other Beatles album covers also contained clues, the caller claimed, and a few Beatles songs contained clues about Paul’s death-including some that could only be deciphered when the records were played backwards! Gibb related the rumor of Paul’s death on the air, which brought a strong reaction from listeners and the story spread rapidly after that.
The rumor became so widespread that Life magazine sent a crew to Scotland to track Paul down and take a photo of him. Paul had taken refuge from the Beatles’ legal battles at his farm in Scotland and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters. When the crew from Life magazine appeared on his farm, Paul became angry and doused the photographer with a bucket of water as he took pictures. The reporters quickly left and Paul, realizing that the photos would cast him in a negative light, followed after them. In exchange for the film of his outburst, Paul agreed to let the Life crew do an interview. The resulting article, which went into some detail about the supposed clues to Paul’s "death", appeared as the cover story for the November 7, 1969, issue.
About the same time, a fan magazine appeared that reinforced many of the stranger elements of the "Paul is dead" rumor. A sloppy account rushed to newsstands to take advantage of the public fascination with the story, Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax went into some detail in presenting the story of Paul’s "death."
The story was that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident at 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9, 1966. Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax suggested that Paul had picked up a female hitchhiker on his way to visit friends. The woman became so excited when she realized who had picked her up that she threw her arms around Paul and caused him to lose control of the car. Both Paul and his passenger were killed when the car swerved off the road and hit a stone fence. And here’s where the story takes a turn toward the ludicrous-Paul was decapitated in the accident and the trauma to his head was so severe that even his dental records were useless in identifying the victim! Not wanting to lose potential record sales, record company executives suppressed the story of Paul’s death and brought in a lookalike to replace him. For some reason (this is the part where you have to suspend disbelief) the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with this scheme, but they left clues on all of their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the imposter who took his place. Paul’s stand-in was a man named William Campbell, who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. With a little plastic surgery, William Campbell had taken Paul’s place in photos of the group. The surgery had been successful except for a small scar above his lip. And, as luck would have it, William Campbell could also sing and just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies.
Of course, Paul wasn’t really dead, as he explained in a statement accompanying the Life article (and several years later to Chris Farley on "Saturday Night Live"), but that didn’t stop fans from poring over the Beatles’ albums for "clues" to Paul’s untimely demise. Many of the supposed clues to Paul’s death are simply vague references to death. Other clues are pictures of the Beatles that show Paul in a manner that is different from the other Beatles in some way, especially involving the colors red (blood) or black (death). Most of the "Paul is dead" clues are simply the product of an obsessive search for significance, but a few are genuinely chilling. The Beatles all denied that they had perpetrated a hoax and insisted that none of the "clues" about Paul’s supposed death had any significance whatsoever. According to Ringo, "It’s all a load of crap." When asked if he had intentionally placed any of the clues, John denied it in similar terms, "No. That was bullshit, the whole thing was made up."
Yes, the whole "Paul is dead" rumor was absurd, so why did it create such a stir? It may have had something to do with the public’s growing awareness that all was not well with the Beatles. It explained why the Beatles had stopped touring (their final concert had been in San Francisco on August 29, 1966), why their music and appearance had changed so dramatically in the late-1960s, and why the Beatles seemed to be drifting apart. In his statement in Life magazine Paul declared that he wanted "to go on making good music. But the Beatle thing is over. It has been exploded by what we have done and partly by other people." Perhaps the antiestablishment sentiment of the time kept the rumor going. The rumor was initially told through alternative media at a time when mistrust for the "establishment" was high among young people. Deciphering the clues made fans feel as though they were in on the joke with the Beatles and, as a Chicago disk jockey put it,"The kids are enjoying the mysterious flavor of the rumor." According to Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine, who wrote Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay, the Life article only served to reinforce the belief in an elaborate ruse among those who accepted the conspiracy theory. The article created a "boomerang effect" that actually extended the life of the rumor. The Life article even contributed to the rumor by publishing sonagrams of Paul singing "Hey Jude," which would have been recorded after Paul’s death, with Paul’s voice from "Yesterday." The magazine quoted Dr. Henry Truby of the University of Miami, who found them to be "suspiciously different." "Could there have been more than one ’McCartney’?", the Life article asked. After Paul appeared on the cover of Life magazine, coverage of the "Paul is dead" rumor declined rapidly. References to it have popped up occasionally since then, but the rumor had run its course after a few weeks.