Les McKeown, Bay City Rollers frontman, dies aged 65

Singer died suddenly at home according to family, with no cause of death announced

Les McKeown, the singer who led the Bay City Rollers in their most successful period, has died aged 65.

His family said that he “died suddenly at home”, and asked for privacy following “the shock of our profound loss”. No cause of death has been announced.

McKeown, who was raised in an Edinburgh tenement block, sang the Scottish group’s UK No 1 Bye Bye Baby as well as Top 10 hits such as Shang-a-Lang and Summerlove Sensation, and led them into a phase of US success in the mid-70s.

The Bay City Rollers formed in 1964, originally with singer Gordon Clark, primarily playing covers of US pop and R&B songs. They broke through in 1971 with Keep on Dancing, but their popularity faltered, and Clark left in 1973 to be replaced by McKeown.

The handsome singer quickly amassed a teenage following and took the band back to the Top 10 in 1974 with Remember (Sha-La-La-La), the first in a run of hit singles that cemented the group as one of UK’s most popular – and screamed over – groups. In all, they sold over 120m records.

They had hits with further cover versions such as Bye Bye Baby, but also original material such as Give a Little Love, a UK No 1 in 1975 (written by songwriters John Goodison and Phil Wainman), and band-penned hits such as Money Honey. McKeown and the group proudly displayed their Scottish heritage with tartan clothing, which soon became uniform of sorts for fans. “We were young, working-class guys who wanted to be famous, and wanted to play all over the world and make our music and Scotland and tartan famous, and that was our main goal,” McKeown said in 2013.

At the height of their British fame in 1975, Clive Davis, who founded Arista Records in 1974 and would later nurture Whitney Houston and Bruce Springsteen, successfully launched the group in North America – they reached No 1 in the US with the single Saturday Night and had two further Top 10 hits there.

Les McKeown, top, with the Bay City Rollers in the 1970s.
Les McKeown, top, with the Bay City Rollers in the 1970s. Photograph: Gab Archive/Redferns

Fashions changed, and the band’s popularity waned in the later part of the decade. McKeown left in 1978, aged 22, as the group turned towards an updated new-wave sound, but rejoined them for various reunion tours, most recently in 2015.

He had success in Japan in 1979 with his debut solo release All Washed Up, and released eight further solo albums. The most recent, 2016’s The Lost Songs, comprised songs he had written while on the road with the Bay City Rollers in the 1970s.

In 1975, just as his fame was rising, McKeown was found guilty of reckless driving after he struck and killed an elderly neighbour, Euphemia Clunie. He was fined £100 and given a year’s driving ban. In another case, in 2005, he was found to have been driving while drunk, over twice the legal limit, and had left the scene of an accident. He was banned for 18 months and fined £1,000.

McKeown struggled with periods of drug and alcohol addiction, beginning in the late 1970s. He later said he “got flipped over to the dark side” by the death of his parents within a month of each other, and developed a problem with alcohol in the early 2000s, drinking “one, two, maybe three bottles of whisky a day”. He went sober following a four-month stay in a California rehab centre in 2008.

The group were embroiled in a longstanding legal dispute over royalties they claimed they were owed, with ex-manager Tam Paton and their label Sony. McKeown also claimed Paton, who died in 2009, gave him drugs​ during his time with the group​: “When we got a wee bit tired, he’d give us amphetamines. He’d keep us awake with speed,” he told the Guardian in 2005, describing him elsewhere as “a thug, a predator”.

He is survived by his wife Peko Keiko, who he first met in 1978, and their son Jubei.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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