Les McKeown, former lead singer for the Bay City Rollers, the group that became a global phenomenon in the 1970s, died Tuesday at age 65. His family announced the death Thursday in a social media post.
“It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of our beloved husband and father Leslie Richard McKeown,” read the message posted on McKeown’s Twitter account. “Leslie died suddenly at home on Tuesday 20 April 2021. We are currently making arrangements for his funeral and ask for privacy after the shock of our profound loss.” The message was signed by Keiko and Jubei McKeown.
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The singer and his current touring version of the group were poised to make a post-pandemic comeback, with shows booked across Europe from July 20201 into May of next year, according to his website.
McKeown had published his memoir, “Shang-a-Lang: My Life With the Bay City Rollers,” in the fall of 2019, documenting the turbulent life of the band behind their image as teen heartthrobs.
Group members famously claimed that they received almost no royalties from their stardom, and a long legal battle against Arista Records finally ended with an out-of-court settlement with Sony Music in 2016.
The Scottish group was seen upon its entrance onto the pop scene in the early ’70s as a successor to the more innocent days of the Beatles in the early and mid-’60s, offering pop stations a smiling counterpoint to the music that was coming out of the post-counterculture. Their influence can be seen and heard both on power-pop and the eventual resurgence of the “boy band” phenomenon.
Different incarnations of the band had existed going back to the late ’60s, but the group took off after McKeown joined in 1973 and recorded “Remember (Sha-La-La-La),” a No. 6 hit in the UK. Several more top 10 British hits followed (including “Shang-a-Lang,” which gave his memoir its title) before the group landed two successive UK No. 1s with “Bye, Bye, Baby” and “Give a Little Love.”
As was typical with many of the Rollers’ hits, those British chart-toppers didn’t even reach the top 100 in America. That changed in 1976 when “Saturday Night” — a song that did not chart in the UK, ironically — went to No. 1 in the U.S. The Rollers had two more top 10 hits in America, “Money Honey” that same year and “You Made Me Believe in Magic” in 1977.
McKeown left the group in 1978, signaling the end of its run of success. Although singles would continue to be released by revised lineups through the mid-’80s, the Rollers disappeared from the charts almost as quickly as they’d come to dominate them in the UK. After 1977, the group never had a single chart again in either England or the U.S.
In 2015, three of the core five from the classic lineup — McKeown, Alan Longmuir and Stuart Wood — announced that they were reuniting. A holiday album, “A Christmas Shang-a-Lang,” was also released that year.
Speaking to the press at that time, McKeown said, “You think we’re doing it for money but we’re doing it for the glory of Scotland and the glory of the tartan. Taking the Scottish name all around the globe. That’s what we’re doing it for — to see our fans again one more time.”
The reunion was short-lived, with tensions reported between McKeown and Wood. Longmuir died in 2018. “Alan and I knew each other before I joined the Rollers,” he said last year. “His passing made me feel very human, very vulnerable. It’s something that is waiting for all of us. He was a very, very nice guy and people did take advantage of his kind nature.”
“With the reunion concerts there was no time to try anything new as I was on tour at the time, we were more or less preparing the gigs by post. So, the idea was to present the show I usually do just with Alan and Woody, two of the most important guys, included in it. But the public didn’t know that, they enjoyed what they were presented with, which is the most important thing,” he told the Edinburgh News in an interview last fall. “It was great to have something called a reunion so we could do something for the fans. I just really wish that Derek and Eric had taken part, that would have been good. But to come back to Edinburgh, my home town, and get that reaction was brilliant.”
McKeown was living in London during quarantine with his wife of 37 years, Peko, and their son Jubei. He told the newspaper he had tried to find ways to help out during quarantine, but his type-two diabetes condition had put a halt to his volunteering.
“I just thought, ‘I’ll help a little, I’ve got a car and I’m pretty fit, I can go out and deliver prescriptions for people, it isn’t very hard, it’s not like walking on the moon’,” he told the paper. “At the beginning they were happy to have me come along and help but then they asked us to fill in a form and declare any preconditions. Because I have some preconditions they said, ‘Well we won’t be asking you to help anymore’.”
Another one-time member of the band died last year — Ian Mitchell, who took over on bass for a matter of months after Longmuir quit in 1976, when the group was still at the height of its popularity.
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