Bay City Rollers singer Les McKeown, who helped spark the 'invention of boy bands,' dead at 65

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Scottish pop singer Les McKeown, best known as the frontman of the wildly successful 1970s bubblegum-glam band the Bay City Rollers, has died at age 65. “It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of our beloved husband and father Leslie Richard McKeown,” his family posted on Twitter Thursday. “Leslie died suddenly at home on Tuesday.” No further details about the cause of death were disclosed at press time.

McKeown was born on Nov. 12, 1955, in Edinburgh, and was only 18 years old when he replaced the Bay City Rollers’ original singer, Gordon “Nobby” Clark, in 1973. He fronted the classic lineup — featuring Alan Longmuir (who died in 2018), Derek Longmuir, Stuart “Woody” Wood, and Eric Faulkner — during the height of the group’s “Rollermania” teen idol era, when they were being heralded as the next Beatles and even starred in their own U.K. television series. The “tartan teen sensations from Edinburgh” got their plaid-tastic look from McKeown’s father, a tailor, who made their famous trousers.

The Bay City Rollers in 1975. L-R: Alan Longmuir, Les McKeown, Eric Faulkner, Derek Longmuir, Stuart
The Bay City Rollers in 1975. L-R: Alan Longmuir, Les McKeown, Eric Faulkner, Derek Longmuir, Stuart "Woody" Wood. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“They were adorable. Five cute guys at once. That's the story of rock ‘n’ roll. The invention of boy bands became an industry thanks to the Bay City Rollers,” music journalist and executive Danny Fields once told the BBC.

McKeown sang on the Rollers’ biggest hits, including “Remember (Sha-La-La-La),” “Shang-a-Lang,” “Summerlove Sensation,” “Give a Little Love,” “All of Me Loves All of You,” and a cover of the Four Seasons’ “Bye, Bye, Baby,” all of which cracked the top 10 in Britain. Their LPs Rollin’ and Once Upon a Star both went to No. 1 on the U.K. album chart, and the band eventually went on to sell 120 million records worldwide.

Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers in 1975. (Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)
Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers in 1975. (Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

Stateside success came in 1975 thanks to an aggressive push from Clive Davis, then the head of the Rollers’ North American label, Arista Records. The band’s American breakthrough single and arguably their signature song, “Saturday Night” — the original version of which, with Nobby Clark on lead vocals, had failed to chart in Britain in 1973 — went to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The Rollers debuted the song in America during a via-satellite performance on the ABC variety program Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell (not to be confused with the NBC sketch comedy show of the same name). They scored two more U.S. top 10 hits, “Money Honey” and “You Made Me Believe in Magic,” and released five gold-selling U.S. albums between 1975 and 1977.

McKeown’s rise to fame was marred by tragedy in 1975, when he was found guilty of reckless driving after striking and killing a 76-year-old woman, Euphemia Clunie, during a visit to his family in Edinburgh. He was only fined 100 pounds and banned from driving for a year, and he rejoined the Bay City Rollers’ tour the day after the accident. McKeown later confessed in various interviews that the ensuing unshakable guilt played a large role in his drug and alcohol addiction, which began in the late ‘70s. In 2005, he was arrested for driving while drunk and was found to be over twice the legal limit. After several stays in rehab, McKeown became sober for good in 2008.

Rollermania was short-lived, and by 1976 the group was already fracturing and undergoing various personnel changes; in 1978, McKeown departed the Rollers as they decided to go in a more new-wave musical direction. He released nine solo albums during his career, enjoying success in Japan with his 1979 debut, the cheekily titled All Washed Up, but his solo output failed to chart elsewhere. In 2015, he reunited with Stuart Woo and Alan Longmuir for a Bay City Rollers nostalgia tour, which kicked off at the Glasgow Barrowlands venue in the band’s home country.

Looking back on the Rollermania whirlwind while promoting a 2016 Bay City Rollers gig at Scotland’s T in the Park festival, McKeown told the Press and Journal, “I think we were a breath of fresh air in the ‘70s. There was nothing complicated about our music — although it's amazing how many people who used to come to our concerts as teenagers are still coming back with their daughters after all these years and they're singing our songs together. That's pretty special.”

McKeown’s most recent album was 2016’s The Lost Songs, featuring tunes he’d written while touring with the Bay City Rollers in the ‘70s. McKeown is survived by his wife, Peko Keiko, and their son, Jubei.

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